bookcoverNotes on My Sister, the Fox

Around Maple Shade, people still refer to me as “Meri Nester’s brother.” Meredith Ann Nester’s look perfectly suited the early-1980s: long, blonde hair (enhanced by Sun-In), Bongo jeans from Merry-Go-Round, cut sweat shirts, and jelly pumps. I wore husky Wranglers, tube socks, and glasses that remained tinted indoors. Meri made varsity cheerleading by eighth grade. I played trombone and sent away for free pamphlets from the Consumer Information Catalog. Meri was the barefoot girl in Bruce Springteen’s “Jungleland” who sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank warm beer in the soft summer rain. I’m the misfit who listened to Rush’s “Subdivisions,” and wondered how a Canadian band knew that the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth.

If Meri Nester reacted to Maple Shade like I did, I might not have gone crazy. But she didn’t react to Maple Shade like I did. And so I did go crazy.

Rock of Ages

By Gloria Harrison

Notes

I’m three years old. My parents call me outside one day and point at the sky, from which water is falling onto the hard, dirt-packed floor of the Mojave. I can’t imagine where this water is coming from, but it’s everywhere, making the air smell like wet earth. I’m amazed. Later, I’m playing outside, digging earthworms out of the dirt with a spoon, when I spot the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen. I’m thunderstruck with joy, but as I try to approach, my dog and my best friend, a cockapoo named Gnome, jumps in front of the worm, barking like he’s crazy. I keep approaching when, suddenly, the giant worm lashes out and bites Gnome, who yelps and falls to the ground. The worm rattles off. I run inside to get my mom, to tell her that a worm just bit the dog. She gets to him just in time to take him to the vet and save his life, as he has just done mine. My mom holds me on her lap and we sing my favorite song. “Say, say little playmate – come out and play with me. We’ll climb up my apple tree.” I think about how I wish I had an apple tree with rainbow slides and branches brimming with playmates.

Dear Mr Bon Jovi,

I’ve been listening to your popular song ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ and I just wanted to tell you that it’s okay— everything is going to be okay. I’m not like the other fans; I know a thinly veiled autobiographical cry for help when I hear one. A once successful face rocker reduced to playing for scraps as a result of an out of control drinking problem? You don’t have to pretend anymore Jon— is it okay if I call you Jon? You don’t have to pretend, because I’m here now and I’m going to help you.

You might not think that your fans care whether you’re dead or alive Jon, but this fan does. And he wants you alive. Together I’m confident we can get you back to those heady and successful days when your face rocking success rate was an impressive one hundred per cent. Don’t you miss those days Jon? Those glory days where you could see a million faces and rock every single one of them? You’ve never seen my face, but there’s no doubt in my mind that you could still rock it, even now.  The stats speak for themselves.

It’s not too late. Those days can come again, but first we have to take care of some of your issues. Your alcoholism for instance— yes Jonathon, you have a drinking problem. And it’s a dangerous one, because it’s not just your own health you’re risking anymore. If it sounds like I’m being harsh, remember it’s only because I care.

There are more efficient and less harmful ways of telling what day it is than by the bottle of whatever alcoholic beverage it is you’re drinking. Your third album was the number one album for twelve weeks Jon, surely that alone earned you enough in royalties to buy a digital watch that displays both the time and date. I understand that wearing a watch can sometimes be a little uncomfortable, especially when it’s hot but is your current method really a viable alternative?

Because I imagine, Jonathon, that when you ride your motorcycle all night just to get back home that you’re doing so under the influence of alcohol. In fact I know you’re drunk when you ride it, because you seem to under the impression that it’s a horse made of steel. What the fuck are you drinking? This is an incredibly serious issue, which is compounded by the prolonged periods of driving which you undertake, often without sleeping for days.

Do you have any idea how dangerous this is? Not just for you, but other road users who shouldn’t have to share the road with a sleep deprived, intoxicated, self-proclaimed ‘cowboy.’ I’m just living on a prayer that you don’t drive in the rain— on top of all the other dangers the roads become slippery when wet.

Clearly you’re harbouring some sort of death wish, and the misguided view that like Jimi, Janis and Vincent Van Gogh your work will be more appreciated when you’re gone. But you’re not dying young Jon, not on my watch. I’m not just going to sit back and watch yet another successful face rocker have his life cut short by reckless behaviour.

I mean, who’s going to rock our faces with you gone? Have you heard Richie’s solo stuff?!

I don’t want to hear anymore of this nonsense about how you might not make it back. You are Jon, you’re going to make it back with my help. We’ve got each other, and that’s enough. We’ll get you to a dry county and, instead of sleeping when you’re dead, you can rest up there. We’ll make it, I swear. I’ll be there for you.

You might ask yourself why I’m willing to go to so far out of my way to help you. And it’s very simple Jon. It’s because I’m a Bon Jovi fan, and lord I’m going to keep the faith.

Have a nice day,

James D. Irwin 

Joe Daly opened his “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All” piece by noting there is no accounting for taste.

Steve Almond responded by recommending five uber-obscure bands for listening pleasure, which might have worked without the additional discussion of Daly and his piece, but I think there’s a more important corollary.

Notably: if there are, as Joe suggests, bands we should like a lot—by dint of reputation or acclaim—but don’t, there are probably, conversely, bands we shouldn’t like but do.

Taste seems to have a lot to do with it. The idea that taste and quality are subjective seems to be a popular argument.

I’m not saying that’s not true, but I will say this: like Joe, I don’t like the Beatles, but it has turned out I like their songs and music on the condition they be performed by other musicians. Between The Wonder Years and Across the Universe, I think Joe Cocker may be the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles.

For dinner we have masa harina corn cakes with herb sauce and a dilled potato salad. Johanna, though dejected at another day of meatlessness, eats voraciously. We all do really. She and I sit at a rust-painted picnic table with Lance, Crazy Jeff and Gloria, Hector, and Charlie the Mechanic. The field crew eats with hunched shoulders, cramped forearms, aching lower backs. Johanna sits abnormally straight, exhibiting her self-described “perfect body mechanics.” We all swat at the flies and mosquitoes as we eat with the exception of Charlie the Mechanic who seems oblivious to them. He is oblivious also to the mayonnaise in his beard.

Hector hates the insects the most. A short stocky man in his forties, he waves wildly at the bugs with both hands, dropping his plastic fork to the ground, retrieving it, and wiping it on his pants, only to begin the process again a moment later.

“These fuckin’ bugs eat more than we do,” he shouts, frustrated.

“It’s the truth, man,” Lance says. He speaks in a voice that forever sounds as if it’s about to drop off to a decades-long sleep; a voice that sounds at home. Or rather: at hoooooome…

“I’m serious,” Hector stresses, “When these fuckers bite us, think about the equivalent. I mean the food they eat compared to the size of their bodies, and the food we eat compared to the size of ours. It’s ridiculous.”

Hector’s hair, jet black and tightly curled wobbles as one contained unit as he speaks, swats at his ears, drops his fork, and picks it up again. I have previously encountered such a head of hair only on my late grandmother. I wonder if Hector spends his Saturdays in the beauty parlor, his hair liberally doused with hairspray and pulled at with a fuchsia teasing comb. If he, like she, will argue with his offspring for hours about the thermostat setting, will leave bed in the middle of the night in house-slippers and house-frock and, with hunchback catching the moonlight, raise the temperature a couple degrees while everyone, but the grandson, is sleeping.

“Yeah,” Lance snores, “The equivalent. It’s totally unfair.”

They both pronounce the word, equivalent, as if they had invented it, just moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they’re probably high. Of course, I may be too. Who remembers? When a brain cells falls into to the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?

We make up one table of about twenty. The conversation for such a crowd, and such a crowd of societal rebels, is surprisingly hushed. To generalize: much of the crew involves the type of folks who call their uncles, Unky, (as in: Unky Paul touched me), but not in some po-dunk toothless sort of way; more in some postmodern ironic self-aware hick-as-hipster sensibility, like the Rolling Stones in “Dead Flowers” and “Far Away Eyes,” et al.

During our meals, we are not making any large statements, not changing the world or subverting any governments. We are farm laborers, famished and tired, chewing more than we speak. At least at the meal’s beginning…

Charlie the Mechanic burps demurely, Crazy Jeff laughs to himself, Gloria rotates her head in a circle with an audible crack, and Johanna touches my leg under the table. We can’t see the stars beyond the white ceiling of the canvas tent, but, out here, tonight, I’d bet they’d be huge.

“Piece of shit bugs,” Hector says more calmly, “and they’re better than us, too.” He shoves another wedge of corn cake deep into his mouth.

Hector was born in Chiapas, Mexico and became an American citizen through, according to him, “some deal with the U.S. Army.” His military tattoos cover his thick arms with a sickly vein-green, as if he had some adverse and irreparable reaction to an intravenous medication. I remember, in our first few days here, he told us stories about how, as a child, he would stalk leopards through the Chiapas jungle, not far from the Guatemala border. I believe him. His military training, and perhaps his résumé as leopard stalker, earned him a place in the treetops. As a Treetop Sniper at Weckman Farm, he serves as an armed guard, keeping watch for trespassers, marijuana-poachers, and law enforcement.

Trust me: This whole sniper thing made Johanna and I, at the beginning of our stay, incredibly uneasy. Johanna, particularly has an aversion to guns. One of the reasons she fled her home country was the second attempted carjacking she faced, during which, like the first, she had a semi-automatic held to her temple at a stoplight. And, as during the first, she floored the gas pedal, narrowly averting cross-traffic, and ran over the guy’s foot. She told me this on our first real date, a breakfast in Key West (where we were both working in restaurants at the time), detailing the image that still plagues her at night of the perpetrator falling over into the street and she watched in the rear view mirror. And I have never, as Paul Hamby, Juneau, Alaska fireman, said as I served him his blueberry-pecan pancakes in the Channel Bowl Cafe (where I worked prior to meeting Johanna)discharged a weapon. But after having dined with Hector a few times, we soon grew accustomed to the notion of “sniper-as-sweetheart,” and other such anomalies unique to Weckman Farm, and this particular line of work.

Hector has an eight-person tent set up at the Residents’ Camp, though he rarely stays the night, and when he does, he sleeps in the large tent alone. Sometimes, the picking crew can become indignant regarding Hector’s clearance to leave the property, while we are bound to it. On his tent’s door, he has attached with a staple, a laminated postcard of the Virgen de Guadalupe, garlanded with pink carnations. I’m so glad that’s true. I’d feel like a stereotyping asshole if I made it up.

One night in our tent, before we went to sleep, Johanna asked me, “Do you think he comes from a family of eight? Do you think he gets to sleep imagining the seven other people? Or that the space reminds him of his family?”

Johanna has enough heart for the two of us, though, for the sake of tone here, I’m trying to keep mine at bay. (As my editor keeps telling me: brash sons-of-bitches sell, invoking, whenever possible, the spirit of Anthony Bourdain).

“We don’t even know if he has a family,” I said. (Hector, not Bourdain).

“We should ask him,” she said, fatigue pouring itself into her voice like motor oil.

I love it when her voice sounds like this—it’s so tired-sexy, but I’m too sore-hungover to do anything about it.

“If I catch him without his rifle, I’ll ask him,” I said.

Johanna said nothing. I paused, listening to the night-sounds—wind, frogs, insects, the breathing of the crew in their tents.

“I just wonder where he goes at night,” I said.

Johanna let out a dull, elongated violin snore.

Now, as Charlie the Mechanic burps at the dinner table again, this time flamboyantly, turning his head to the side and pursing his lips as if sipping from an imaginary, mid-air water fountain, Johanna touches my leg all the more mightily.

“Shiiiiiit,” Lance moans as if the word were four syllables.

“That’s it, brother,” Charlie rasps.

Lance taps me on the shoulder. When I look up from my paper plate, he says nothing, just sits there nodding with both his hands flat on the table.

Lance is only twenty-four, but this is his fifth season working at Weckman Farm. This makes him a Field Manager or Head Trimmer, both titles referring to the same set of duties: he tells, in his cat-before-a-nap sort of way, the Virgin Pickers (as they’re called) how to carefully trim the plants so as not to lose any of the “medicine. This is very, very important.” He takes his time with the “verys,” his shoulder-length blond hair swaying with his voice, calling to the oceanic Southern California rhythms that reportedly encompassed his formative years. This is Lance: slow tide in, slow tide out.

Like any good-looking young guy in a position of authority, Lance is a combination of annoying and enviable. As with at lot of the surfer interviews I’ve watched, I struggle between these two positions: wanting to be that surfer; wanting to punch him in the face. Lance probably never knew what is was like to be a nerd, favoring classic rock when all his cool classmates were listening to Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” In the junior high school gym class locker rooms, he probably never had to pretend to be familiar with lyrics that he had never heard (pleading: Shot through the heart! Shot through the heart!), just so Ricky Meyer wouldn’t throw wet wads of toilet paper at him and, potentially, bodyslam him onto the changing-bench. I heard that Ricky Meyer is now a millionaire. I hate it when bullies become successful. It’s so uncinematic. Except in Back to the Future II, I guess.

Lance belongs to one of two factions of the crew who choose to be paid in marijuana. The first is a group who tend not to spend the night at the Residents’ Camp, known at the farm as The Patients. The Patients, many of whom work as Pickers, use the marijuana to alleviate the effects of illness. (Despite her agony, I couldn’t have possibly convinced my mom to go this route, because “it’s illeeegal”).

In the Residents’ Camp, adjacent to the shower sheds, Lady Wanda supplies her crew with a sizable A-frame cabin known as the Sofa Room. Television-less, but stuffed with board games and lined with windows, the Sofa Room has become, either out of respect or necessity, the solarium lounge for many of the tired Patients in need of a cushioned respite at day’s end.

Into the Sofa Room, Pickers both past and present have placed various “healing” artifacts. The shelves are lined with miniaturized busts of the Venus of Willendorf, Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh; tin chickens and earthenware piggy banks, brass candle-less candlesticks and polished water-less river rocks; a salt-and-pepper shaker depicting a morose Roman-nosed planet Earth reclining in a celestial armchair; Kokopelli charcoal-drawn on a sliver of sandstone; rusty horseshoes and red sequined burlesque garters; coconut shells painted to look like fish, ceramic fish painted to look like gods. It’s a silver-haired new-age guru’s wet dream and a Midwestern cynic’s excuse to perfect his eye-roll, and then, because he feels guilty for being intolerant and judgmental (maybe this is where the Jewishness comes in), nods and smiles, and, overcompensating, accepts the fact that he has a lot to learn. Just as an aside: according to my computer, Jewishness is not a word. Some suggested alternatives for this “misspelling”: Jadishness, Juiciness, Jewfishes. (I’m thinking gefilte). Thank you, Jewish readers, for your token giggle there.

I first met Crazy Jeff and Gloria in the Sofa Room one night while searching for Pictionary. Johanna and I had long been fostering an addiction to the game, and it was in our characters to throw, on occasion, one of the drawing pencils across a room in a fit of excitement or frustration. We had convinced Lance to be the all-time drawer so Johanna and I could play one another.

Gloria was sleeping on an orange loveseat next to the board game closet, her head teetering between her own shoulder and Crazy Jeff’s. Crazy Jeff sat next to her staring at the exposed wood ceiling as if the beams were tea leaves.

At this point, somewhere into my first week at Weckman Farm, rumor had it that Crazy Jeff was a former cocaine addict who still had the occasional lapse and Gloria was a paranoid schizophrenic. The rumor went on to speculate, in nervous-excited whisper, that, although Crazy Jeff preferred men, he took Gloria as his lover in order to live off her social security checks.

Many of Weckman Farm’s crewmembers thrive on perpetuating and adding to the fictions of their co-workers. Perhaps the temptation to create legends of themselves to a pair of newbies is too much to resist. Perhaps the realities of farm work, when taken hour-by-hour, are just too mundane. Anyhow, I am their digestive system here, processing what they have to offer, adding some enzymes for flavor, and shitting it out, hoping the stench is, if nothing else, memorable. (You can’t imagine the restraint it took not to substitute nucleotidal for memorable there).

Crazy Jeff, we came to discover, was never a coke addict, though he did cop to a few dabblings. Gloria, while eccentric, does not have paranoid schizophrenia. They have become wonderful friends, but they are not lovers. Crazy Jeff and Gloria are both Patients, living with HIV, and numerous unnamed afflictions, for fifteen and ten years, respectively.

Without breaking his gaze from the ceiling, Crazy Jeff cleared his throat and said, “Only Scrabble’s left, ha, ha, ha, ha ha!”

Soon, while Gloria slept—her black hair stiff and straight, her nose wailing like a pennywhistle—Crazy Jeff and I began talking about how Lady Wanda paid him for his work.

Crazy Jeff (called Crazy, due to his frequent bouts of often-unprovoked maniacal laughter) had told me, “I get a little over three grams of the good stuff an hour. Like an ounce a day. For this stuff, that’s like five-hundred bucks! A day!”

Approximately, eighty-five to ninety-five percent of Lady Wanda’s seasonal yield will be sent on to medical marijuana hospices and dispensaries, sold at “retail prices” (about five-hundred dollars an ounce). The remaining five to fifteen percent goes to pay workers like Crazy Jeff on a collective basis. The rest of us, of course, are invited to toke from their joints.

“Can you believe that?!” Crazy Jeff cried, “There’s nothing more physical than physics!”

Of course, he descended into a disturbing bout of giggles which he staunched, as if hiccups, by meditatively rubbing the cysts that plague the undersides of his ears. Each cyst is about the size of a halved wine cork, and Crazy Jeff often keeps them covered with circular Band-Aids. For this reason, some of the less kind of the Pickers refer to him as Frankenstein, an insult Crazy Jeff is prone to dismiss with a wave of his hand and a sharp, singular, “Ha!” He’s in his upper forties and, though balding and unwell, he looks young for his age. I never amassed the courage to ask him about his laughing, the reasons behind it, but Johanna theorized that he took the “laughter is the best medicine” advice far too literally. He aggravated her far more than he did me.

He shifted in the orange loveseat as his laughter subsided. Gloria woke up, disheveled, blinking like Olive Oyl after unusually good sex with Popeye. She looked at me, then Crazy Jeff.

“Whaaaaat?” she demanded.

Lance is part of the second group who chooses to be paid in pot, a group Charlie the Mechanic affectionately dubs, “The Bud-Fuckers.”

“That’s all they do. They fuck bud. The sons a-bitches love their weed more than I do,” Charlie would say, his voice struggling through an electronic-sounding rasp. Lance would often counter by accusing Charlie, being a mechanic, of reconstructing his own throat with a series of screws. Charlie would counter back.

“You got it, little man. And fuck yourself.”

Lance and his fellow marijuana enthusiasts, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy, choose to be paid solely in pot for the sheer enjoyment of smoking some “really exotic stuff. Connoisseur stuff, man. Real delicacies.”

So as I said, in not so many words, Lance is a beautiful man, blessed with feminine features, a jaw-line so sharp it could double as a letter opener. I think most of us on Weckman Farm were drawn to him in one way or another. His draw, for me, was one of the lustily platonic, if I can get away with that. Ogled by crewmembers male and female, gay and straight, Lance is the fun-loving target of equally fun-loving harassment. He is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed demigod of countless teen idol pin-up magazines, his lazy pot-fueled speech easily mistaken for a confident drawl. Like a photo, his face is glossy and permanent. Like the often-photographed, he’s come to depend on the attention.

Lance claims to have grown up in Southern California, near Pasadena, but these claims are often mumbled and unspecific, and Charlie the Mechanic routinely dismisses them as bullshit.

“The boy’s a surfer wannabe,” Charlie would say, “but he ain’t never lived in Southern California. He’s always been here.”

Lance would counter this with a stunning silence, during which he swayed all listeners to his side.

It was by means of Charlie the Mechanic’s ridiculing (ridiculing that I’d like to believe was good-natured) that Lance earned his third title, one which he wore like a badge and bragged about. Lance the Field Manager. Lance the Head Trimmer. And Lance, King of the Bud-Fuckers. This was how he introduced himself to Johanna and me—yet another crewmember stoking his legendary status, earned or unearned, I couldn’t yet tell.

At the dinner table, Crazy Jeff is holding up a baggie that must contain twenty freshly rolled joints.

“Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo!” he cackles to no one in particular, “funny cigarettes!”

Charlie the Mechanic is in the middle of telling Johanna, “Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Antichrist.”

Sadly, I didn’t hear how this conversation got started. As a matter of fact, most of this dialogue is half-remembered by a half-stoned guy who wrote many of his notes in the Coleman Cimarron tent after dark, without turning on the lantern and risking disturbing his slumbering wife (pardon all theing words there—I promise I won’t mention ping-pong, maybe for the remainder of this manuscript).

“Uh-huh,” Johanna musters.

“And I am the Sun-God!” Charlie follows, to the delight of Lance.

In my notebook, in crooked blue Papermate, after-dark handwriting, my note of Charlie’s strange claim borders on the illegible. I am the Sun-God could easily be I am So Good, but why would I have made it a point to write that down? Plus: Charlie would say things like that all the time, situating himself in the realm of mythology. According to my notebook, he also once said, unprovoked, “I got lightnin’ in me!” but I’m not certain how to work that into the story.

Lance high-fives Charlie and I finally chime in, “I don’t know what the fuck any of you are talking about.”

If I had to guess, I was a little stoned, and Johanna was too. Maybe that’s the reason behind our attraction. We both saw, early on, the potential in the other to one day become an unreliable narrator.

Hector smashes a mosquito against the side of his face with an audible slap. He laughs at me, “Dude, it’s the end of the day. Who does?”

“Well…” Gloria says.

“So. So,” Crazy Jeff interrupts, trying to get my and Johanna’s attention, “I’m sitting in Trax [a Haight-Ashbury bar] and the bartender puts down three drinks in front of me. And I look around…”

Here, Crazy Jeff looks around Lady Wanda’s carnival dinner tent with eyes and mouth agape. The twenty tables surrounding ours are holding their own courts, filled with their own din, and the soothing sound of plastic silverware clicking against a chorus of teeth. At one table, an unseen male voice, with a slightly Germanic accent, bellows to his giggling audience “I am a doctor!”

“…and I say to the bartender,” Crazy Jeff continues, staring wide-eyed at the center of our rust-painted picnic table, surely envisioning those three glorious drinks, his voice growing louder, “I say, ‘I didn’t order these.’ And the bartender points to three different guys in the bar and I think: This is the curse! This is what my father was telling me about!”

As if on cue, Crazy Jeff falls into laughter and begins rubbing his cysts. Then, he points with one hand to three different tables under the tent, mimicking the bartender’s long-ago indication of Crazy Jeff’s triple appeal. He’s smiling like a boy. We all laugh with him. I feel shell-shocked and look to Johanna to see if she feels the same. She shrugs with her eyes, but she is laughing. I feel the urge to hold her hand with my right and Crazy Jeff’s with my left. Instead, I use my hands to slap my legs, hoping that this gesture will allow me to laugh harder than I am. I think it actually works.

Hector shakes his head, a tiny explosion of blood holding to his cheek where he smashed the mosquito. I wonder if Hector is thinking about “the equivalent.”

When Crazy Jeff ends his crazy laughter with an exasperated, “hoooooo,” the table goes quiet for a moment. In this time, the night temperature seems to drop ten degrees. Johanna kisses my ear in a way that’s pleasurable in its wetness, and painful in its loudness.

“Well,” Gloria says.

I would say: At dusk, the crops’ silhouettes held to the sky like herons cemented into the earth, leaves flapping feebly in the Northern California wind, unable to lift themselves from the forthcoming hands of the Morning Pickers, and the watchful green eyes of Lady Wanda—I would say that, but I was likely stoned.It’s just as likely, the crops didn’t look like herons at all, there was no wind, and it may not have even been dusk.It could have been morning.It could have been afternoon.Having worked on a medical marijuana farm, filling six notebooks with scrbblings of varying degrees of sense, and engaging in the attendant and standard subcultural vices, I have made of myself an unreliable narrator.

Growing up in my family, food was the thing that emerged from the microwave, steaming and soggy. A rubbery omelette. A desiccated matzo ball in watery broth. But my mother treated our crap with ceremony. It was with bad food that we dealt with tragedy or comedy or mediocrity. For my birthday, microwaved hamburgers with iceberg lettuce; for my father’s, microwaved lamb shanks. It was always something that once had a bone or an entire skeleton. We loved meat. In my family, to die young and full was expected. We gracefully upheld the pillars of heart disease and diabetes. Saturated fat and clogged arteries kept us warm through the winter. In my family, enjoying food meant overeating. I became a fat teenager.

The winter of 1986, I tried so hard to be cool. This was my first year in high school, Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” had just come out, and the December temperatures in suburban Chicago were way above average. You could see the sidewalks through the ice. Girls would come to class in shorts or skirts and teachers would scold them for their weatherly indiscretion. I tried so hard, but Bon Jovi was this foreign thing—this upsweep of mislabeled heavy metal, rooted in AquaNet hairspray.

My father had brought me up on classic rock—Chicago’s 105.9 WCKG and the rough sexy DJ voices of Patty Hays and Kitty Lowie. The way they talked about Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, their voices gruff and throaty, carrying the mysteries of age and cigarette, was enough to make a male high school freshman dismiss Bon Jovi, and, in turn, his coolness, as sonically trivial.

When driving together, my father and I would pick up McDonalds (he would remove the buns from his two Big Macs and press the four patties into his mouth, one hand twisting the steering wheel), and listen to Simon and Garfunkel and the Eagles. We dissected “I am a Rock” for its metaphor and contexts, and “Witchy Woman,” tying the allure of the invisible Patty and Kitty to the windblown black of Stevie Nicks.

But this wasn’t cool. Not in 1986. I knew damned well that if I couldn’t quote Bon Jovi with some study-hall regularity, I’d never make it to the upper echelon of Adlai E. Stevenson High. The song that year was “You Give Love a Bad Name,”—Shot through the heart! and I soon would be, by a rosemary sprig. But I hadn’t yet found food, my hopeful catalyst into coolness and, at the time, I had to rest with Zeppelin, my thirteen-year-old feelings uncontrived and implacable, hidden in the folds of those short winter skirts.

As I grew older, I began to wonder: what was the matter with fruits and vegetables? Somehow, I didn’t anymore want to be part of a familial food culture that made of the tomato the devil’s candy. If I couldn’t get into Bon Jovi, perhaps I could get into the four food groups and a little exercise.

I began running, slowly, around the block twice a week. I read cookbooks, revising my approach to edibles. In the bathroom, I would thumb through the back of Chicago magazine’s dining guide, circling the interesting places in red pen—the ethnic haunts, the then-nebulous four-star establishments granted the clandestine designation of fine dining. I began to check them off.

When the Food Network was launched, I watched it voraciously, taking notes. When I left for college, I left my most expensive graduation gift behind—the microwave. I began cooking—fucking up, almost succeeding, fucking up. I got serious, reading Chef Thomas Keller’s treatise on trussing a chicken, Charlie Trotter’s manifesto on the potato. I waited for Ferran Adriá’s “El Bulli” cookbook to drop below a hundred bucks on Amazon.com. When it never did, I read all the free articles about it.

My friends got into cooking. My male friends grew their hair long, my female friends shaved their heads. We told ourselves we were these rebel chefs, self-important culinary militants who were mediocre line cooks at best. At worst, we were over-seasoners. A handful of salt. A liter of cumin. We made up jailhouse stories for each other, though none of us had seen the interior of a cell. We drew prison tattoos on each other’s forearms with Papermate pens.

I took restaurant jobs—dishwasher, prep cook, server, garde manger, grill, stockboy for the wine. Watching the other chefs work the line, I realized my militancy was an illusion. These people were for real. In the restaurant kitchen, the hierarchy trumped the collegial. I was tired of being yelled at. I would never really be a chef—didn’t have the calloused tear ducts for it—and began to wonder: Could tasting be a talent?