Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Agony and Ecstasy

We have been in the depths of Sophomore College.....the Stanford kids.

It is a class that I sort of teach with Stuart Thompson from Hopkins Marine Station....a real Stanford professor.

The class is 18 days of......life lessons. The goal is to turn incoming Stanford sophomores into humans, and to knock them around enough to get their brains running in new ways.
700 incoming Stanford sophomores apply. Stuart takes 12, with two student advisors.
My part is breakfast and dinner every day.....even camping in Big Sur. I try to get them to love Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers, and Mimi and Richard Farina, and Ansel and the Westons. We drag them all over: Big Creek for five days, Tassajara for five days, Hastings Reserve, Heller Estate, organic farms...speakers every night.

This is in the middle of the height of wedding season. My crew, and Amanda and Brendan, have to cover me....and they hate it.

I get up at 5am every day, and usually crash around midnight or 1am....then back at it.
People always talk about working 16 or 18 or 20 hour days.....but it is mostly bullshit. The difference between a 16 and an 18 hour day is huge. The missing two hours are for sleep, or checking emails or voice mail.....god forbid there should be non-work related activity.
Now try stringing fifteen or twenty of those in a row.

Anyway......in the midst of this kind of work environment the ability to absorb any kind of bullshit drops to near zero. The 16 hour worker knows that he or she is among the few; the 18 hour worker is convinced; the 20 hour worker feels anointed by the God of Work.


There is no God of Work.

Maybe Upton Sinclair?

And then people give you shit on top of the work?


The menu for Monday Night Dinner at The Store was titled: "The People in the Aprons are Not Your Bitches" Roadhouse."

So, this is some of the stuff that makes me want to sell my house and move to Spain:

1) It was not possible to renew pain medication prescriptions for a kid with 80 percent of the skin stripped from his body below the waist. (Yes...that part, too). This was three days after the accident. The doctors gave him oxycontin 20's and pretended that they last 12 hours.
The half-life of the drug is 2.5 hours at that dosage, but federal guidelines.....fueled by Jesus and fear of hillbilly heroin junkies swarming the hills.... forbid actually letting doctors give people in pain medication to relieve pain.

Thank you again, George Bush.....War President. War on Drugs. War on Terror.
Let's talk Terror: stripping raw flesh with the bandages every morning from your son's body.....without pain medication.

No worries. We made some phone calls and met a guy in Marina who hooked us up with real oxy's, not generic, for eight bucks a pop. These were 80's....and they lasted for almost six hours.

2) The father of the bride. Guy shows up at the end of the wedding to take care of the balance on his beautiful daughter's wedding. Eleven grand total, six outstanding. He decides to leave two hundred bucks in tips for the 16 workers to split (twelve bucks each....yahoo!) but is certain that I will not pass on the dough to the kids.

"How can I be certain if I give you the money....you will pass it on to the workers?"

After we have been working for a year on this gig you can't trust me to give a shitty tip to my most valued people?

I let it go. He was drunk, and he was the well-deserved-to-be EX husband of the mom of the bride.

The guy followed me and badgered me for some kind of document that would prove that I wouldn't steal twelve bucks from each of 16 of my best friends. Four times he asked me for proof.

This was a 20 hour day.

"You are an offensive little turd, sir. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on....and no wonder you are the EX-husband. I can only hope that the biological father is really the UPS guy and not a miserable sawed-off little prick like you. I tip my crew $50 each and lie to them that you had the tiny amount of class necessary to recognize their hard work."

3) The Florist and Photographer from Hell. Wedding in 100 degree heat. The florist bosses around my crew about protecting her flowers from the sun. Then decides to stay for the party. She postitions herself outside the door to the kitchen and intercepts every tray of hors d'oeuvres. She takes two or three from each tray of ten items, before the guests get a chance.
Alex forgot to pack an oyster knife, so I am opening oysters with a can opener. My palm actually starts to bleed after a while. The groom is a diver from San Diego, and his only request in the whole of the wedding is for our oysters with porcini cream. The photographer delays the entire wedding an hour and a half while she takes staged photos of......who knows? The bride and groom miss all the hors d'oeuvres. I save back a tray of oysters, but the florist knows I have them. When the photographer finally releases the couple to join their friends I send Jacque out the back door of the house and around the pool and bar with the last tray of oysters. We wiped off the blood stains from the tray.

The florist is ready for us, though. She spots Jacque heading across the lawn, and hits her like Lawrence Taylor hit Joe Theisman. As the groom reaches for the last oyster spoon, the florist shoves Jacque out of the way and snatches the spoon from his hand and mows it.

We get the bored, starving guests to the buffet that has been ready for an hour. In the middle of serving the photographer comes up to me and says: "We need to cut the cake. I have to go."
This was also a 20 hour day.....and I did not cut her.


4) The Disc Jockey from Hell. A nice wedding at a winery. It will come as no shock to anyone that has organized a wedding, or ever been to one for that matter......that things do not go according to plan. "In war, the best plans do not survive first contact with the enemy." Napoleon or Tacitus or whoever.

The disc jockey stuck to her printed schedule: she announced the wedding before the bride and groom had arrived; she announced dinner before anyone had had hors d'oeuvres, and announced the cake cutting while people were still eating dinner.

And she played Paul McCartney songs into my ear at the cheese station. In the words of my friend AJ Houston: "The wrong Beatle died!" One thing I remember from electrical engineering....connecting expensive speakers directly to the 110 volt outlet makes for a very satisfying explosion and lots of nice smoke.

5) The Restaurant Guest From Hell. Upon being told that we have two seatings, 6:30 and 8:30....still insists on 7:30. We refuse. She agrees to 6:30. We are sold out and turn people away for both seatings. The woman shows up at 7:30 anyway.....and proceeds to change chairs because she doesn't like the ones at her table. She complains about the live music, which is a major feature of the dinner every week. She insists on butter, which we don't serve in lieu of organic extra virgin olive oil, rosemary and Murray River salt. She refuses to order her entrée until she has had her appetizers.....and then complains that we are serving everyone else their entrées in chronological order and she is now last. She interrupts the waitress while taking an order at a nearby table to demand more water.

6) The Worst Kid in the World. Stanford kid. I arrive each morning at 7:30 and cook a breakfast to order. Pancakes with organic maple syrup. Quesadillas with Manchego cheese and hand cut salsa. Scrambles and omelettes to order. Fresh cut local organic strawberries and melons in huge quantities. We contact the kids months in advance to find out their dietary needs and desires. Did I mention that I am working in a field next to a creek in Big Sur?

The kid comes up to me on Day 13: "Could you do a traditional breakfast from another culture? Say Indian?"

"Woo woo Indian or Om Om Indian?"


"American Indian or Asian Indian"

"Well, either would be cool...for a change."

Quesadillas, pancakes, omelettes and fresh organic fruit gets boring after two weeks. What the fuck is an American Indian breakfast.....and how do you do it at a campsite in Big Sur? Hindu breakfast? Build a tandoori?

"Well, I guess just give me an omelette....but I want a plain omelette, and put all the ingredients on the side, so I can mix them myself."

One guy, working on a folding table in the woods with one burner.


"Well, I guess....eggs over easy."

Minutes later I overhear this monologue:

"Yeah....so I go to First Awakenings and ask for eggs over easy and toast. The plate comes, and there are fucking sliced heirloom tomatoes on the plate. When did I ask for tomatoes? What....is the plate too big and you feel some need to fill the empty space with any old thing? When I ask for eggs and toast....I want eggs and toast. You are not paid to think....just give me my fucking eggs and toast..... or what?"

The other Stanford kids all laughed.

This was only and 18 hour day.....so I did not slice the prick like a tomato on the spot.

But I might yet.

I finally packed the kids off to Tassajara on Sunday. I don't have to cook. I was supposed to go up there today to join them and continue my life lessons.

Brendan was in the ER yesterday with a suspected aneurism.....dropped down in the middle of prep for Monday dinner. When the Urgent Care doctor saw him, she rushed him to the ER. It was another 20 hour day.

I didn't go to Tassajara. We got Brendan out of the hospital and settled and I took an hour nap. I got up at 6:30pm to take the dogs for a walk up the mountain....wondering why the fuck we do this.

We have been working so much that I haven't been up the hill in six weeks. I have not been in the garden in eight, and I have not been in the office in a month. I have not had food I didn't cook myself or microwave in five weeks.

Why do we do this?

The dogs were thrilled to go for a hike, and charged up Buck Mountain Road.
Immediately I was struck by how out of shape I am. I was huffing and puffing like old Morgana, the arthritic wolf dog. She and I did the sweep. It is a steep climb, though.

A few hundred yards up the climb, Morgana and I stopped for breath. I looked back towards Rancho Chupinos and Mount Toro......and was struck dumb.

The view was literally stunning. The land unfolded under me in a golden carpet that climbed up towards The Pastures of Heaven. The gold of the hills was dazzling, but the fog was creeping in all around....flowing up over Toro Peak from Salinas and closing down Carmel Valley from the sea.

My brain jumped to Georgia O'Keefe, who would have painted this as a glorious Navajo blanket. The fog slowly shut down the color machine. When we worked for Georgia she was already blind....her color machine shut down as well. Thanks, God.

My brain jumped to the Ansel photo of Georgia in the peak of her New Mexico prime, with her sun weathered and lined face....and to Ansel himself with his Santa eye-twinkle...and my brain immediately jumped to Tom and Laurie Coke, my farmer friends. Tom has the same twinkle....and Laurie has the same madonna glow and weathering as Georgia...Tom and Laurie just work in a different medium. Our work is evanescent and transitory.....it lives possibly in the memory of the folks that enjoy our food....

I have this weird idea that the work itself lives on, just like Georgia and Ansel's....only normal folks can't see it. Brendan's Beet Salad with Chevre/Coconut and Balsamic Reduction is right there with "Moonrise Hernandez".

Jerry Jeff Walker came into my brain, "Night Rider's Lament":

"Why do they ride for their money?
Why do they rope for short pay?
They ain't gettin' nowhere....
And they're losing their share....
Son, they all must be crazy out there.

"But they ain't never seen the northern lights...
Ain't never heard the hawk on the wing...
Ain't never seen the sun hit the Great Divide....
Andthey ain't never heard old Camp Cookie sing......"


The dogs and I kept climbing. We went through the gates of Dru Hammond's ranch and on to the hill beyond that looks over the San Clemente.

Fucking stunned again.

The sun was setting over the farthest ridge. The fog had pushed tendrils up over the peaks towards the coast and the entire sky was blasted with another flavor of the same gold that lay over Rancho Chupinos. Hammered copper. Beaten gold. Whatever....something metallic....and fire of the forge was still all around us. The sky glowed, it radiated....and all the ridges were part of it.

I counted seven mountain ridges I had never noticed in twenty years of hiking Buck Mountain.....ridges climbing on west towards Big Sur. This time I was not just stunned....I teared up. The dogs gave me weird looks as I stopped and stared.

Robert Frost entered my brain: "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening".

"Whose woods these are I think I know.....
His house is in the Village though...
He will not see me stopping here...."

Well, I hope. I am actually trespassing. Frost's horse "must think it queer to stop without a village near...."

My dogs think it queer that I am stopped in the middle of a field, staring at the sunset and crying like a baby.

The sun is actually setting, but you would never know it. The sky is alive with flame and fire, and the fog is pushing light into valleys and canyons and ridges that I have never noticed before. It is more like a sun rise than a sun set.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep....
And miles to go before I sleep......"



Break over.

Back at it.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

Arbeit macht frei.

Tomorrow is only an 18.

Piece of cake.....


Blogger Sequoiagrapeboy said...

I had high hope that this group of Sophs were human enough to understand the commitment and unique character of our Mikie and I am deeply troubled that after 13 days of what could surely be defined as Hercularian dedication the stupdity of these bags-of-shit and their underlying superiority complex and disregard for those who serve them is absolutely stunning...

Let me know which one was the "all I wanted was eggs and toast" and I will drop my newly aquired title as nicest man and introduce him to some working-class, Cachagua, 18 hour work day justice...

10:23 AM  
Blogger kathy said...

Crying? Blubbering? Not to worry. It's just a tiny case of PTSD from all the 16-20 hour days. Drugs will help

2:39 PM  
Blogger semi-savant said...

Once, madly driving from Big Sur work to frenetic San Francisco for work (just in time to hit the morning commute) i was passing Sobranes, said fuck it, parked and ran the rocky ridge loop -- why slow down indeed! However, i did miss a part my professional life on that fair day (and seemingly still manage). I like to think that slowing matters and ultimately restores.
Good on ya for cruising up the mountain and chiseling words for mortals to peruse...

3:10 PM  
Blogger Tana Butler said...

I would be buying pain medication off the internet so fast your head would spin.

Good luck. God.

8:48 PM  
Blogger ¨El Guero¨ said...

I like your writing; you seem like a great person, sensitive, lots of integrity, generous. ¿eres felíz así como estas viviendo? si tu comentario inicial era pregunta abierta, y eso crees que te va a hacer felíz, vete a España a vivir. la vida es muy corta.

un gran saludo, JT

8:48 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

I'm sorry about whoever said that shit. Cocksucker Motherfucker. haha. i just miss all the cheese. mmmm. manchego. we missed you at Tassajara. I hope that New York went well and that Brenden is well. say hi to mica and amanda and grant for me. i hope to visit soon.!!!!
ps. thanks for everything!!1

5:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I second Chris's comment. You're writing is amazing, by the way...

I am sitting on my bed in my dorm room, listening to Cameron's Suicide Mix, and almost crying because I miss soco and I miss you!

Hope everything is well at the store and with Brenden. I had an heirloom tomato-mozzarella-other stuff salad at lunch today and it was terrible. They aren't creative enough to try watermellon, although there might have been some unripe pineapple...I'm not sure what it was. The omlettes here also pale in comparison to yours. I'm sure you knew that already, but it can't hurt to thank you again.


1:27 PM  

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