Monthly Archives: January 2011

Food, REAL Food

I get several newsletters (as I’m sure you all do) and usually they contain interesting articles and information I can use. In  the past 2 days I have received two different newsletters that contain food articles. I’m not going to name the newsletters because after doing a little research, they aren’t saying anything really new.

Well, I’m about to say something that is new.  Buy FOOD, real FOOD.

The first article brags that the writer can help you SLASH your food bill. The tips include clipping coupons, and checking community bulletin boards for local festivals, openings, etc., that offer free food.

OK, clipping coupons is OK if you’re getting coupons for (1) food you normally buy, and (2) it’s REAL FOOD, not prepackaged instant processed crap.

Showing up at community festivals just for the free food, which is usually made-from-boxes crap or high fat, high salt recipes because everyone always loves those, is not a good idea nutritionally or morally. Go to the festival in your community because you want to be part of the community.

If you buy lots of prepackaged, processed items saving money on your grocery bill is not that difficult. Stop buying them. I say terrible things about these products because they are terrible products. You save money by not buying them anymore.

WAIT! Before you start typing about how much time these items save you, hear me out. The only prepackaged items I buy are things I can’t make from scratch like: flour, pasta noodles, some bread, grits, some cereals, soymilk, 100% juice (in the winter), soda water and rice. I’m not talking about the occasional treat like a candy bar or popcorn. I’m talking about the stuff I buy regularly.

What I buy is actual food. The snappy current term is “whole food.” I think that’s misleading and I don’t use it. I buy FOOD because crap in boxes is not, for the most part, food. Just because you can eat it doesn’t make it food. Just because it tastes good doesn’t make it food. Ask any small child with crayons in her mouth, happily chewing away.

Eating healthy is so much more expensive! people tell me, clutching their boxes of .25 macaroni, and it takes so much more time to cook from scratch!

 Really? I don’t make much money, but I am fortunate enough to live near people with vegetable gardens and I shamelessly hold out my hands for whatever they can’t fit into their freezers. I trade chores or pay them-I don’t beg. Most of the time they are happy to give their hard-earned harvests to someone who really appreciates it. Look around, ask around, check the community boards for co-op farmers. There are lots of them, and you’re supporting local farmers-not huge corporations that are only interested in making a buck by producing boxes with cheap fillers, chemicals and other crap. These are some good online resources to check out.:

http://www.carolinaorganicgrowers.com/club.html

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/chatham/ag/SustAg/csafarms.html

And check out the farmer’s markets. They can give you all the info you need.

http://www.exploreasheville.com/what-to-do/seasonal-fun/springtime-in-asheville/farmers-market-opening-dates/index.aspx

I am also vegan, which I know will raise eyebrows and snorts but hear me out, again. Because I don’t buy meat I save even more money. Meat IS expensive. My reason for not buying and eating meat is simple: I won’t support an industry of cruelty. Check out  PETA before you toss my ideas out the window

http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/default.aspx

It takes so long to cook from scratch, you say? Depends on what you’re cooking. Many people will have to get a cookbook -you can find them at the library for free-because they haven’t cooked in a while. But the basics aren’t that difficult or time-consuming. Think about the last time you stopped at your favorite fast food place (ugh) and be honest about how long it took to get there in traffic, how long you stood in line. And think about this: If you have a family, what more loving thing can you do for them than feed them a healthy, nutritious meal? They are your family. Get them involved!

Back to the main issue: food. Say you still want bacon in the morning and steak at night. There are farmers who do it the old way, letting the cows and chickens actually roam naturally and they slaughter as humanely as possible. They cost more, but you can eat without as much guilt. Eat smaller portions. Really. You can make portions that are 25% smaller and save that much on your meat bill. Trimming in lots of places can save a lot your food bill. And think about this-  you’re helping local farmers, your own community, not large corporations whose CEO’s make million dollar bonuses.

You need very little meat to get your daily requirement for protein (about 3 ounces a day, a portion can fit in the palm of your hand) so eating LESS meat saves you money. You will fill your plate with potatoes and veggies instead of a huge portion of meat. I didn’t say this wasn’t going to require any adjustment! Also, you’re going to be taking in less fat so you’ll probably find yourself a little lighter, without going on an official “diet”, (which I’ll address in another article.)

http://www.hickorynutgapfarm.com/natural-meats-grassfed-beef-pork.php

http://www.romanticasheville.com/farms.htm

Now that I have given you some suggestions about simply buying real food instead of boxed crap, let’s address the actual cost. I live alone, so I know I don’t have to spend as much as a family of four. But the concept behind how I manage my food budget is the same for everyone.

First, because I’m buying real food, every penny counts. If you’re buying junk that doesn’t contribute to your nutritional needs, the money is wasted. If you are unsure about nutrition, get a book from the library. It’s not that complicated, although a lot of processed food companies want you to think that. Basically, you need to make sure you have a varied diet to ensure you get what you need.

The second newsletter article I mentioned tells you about this great APP that you can use to tell you what is in a food product by scanning the bar code into your phone….for goodness’ sake, just READ the ingredients list! The rest of my article is about food that doesn’t come in a box, unless it’s something I can’t make myself, and I list those things. Those items have a very, very short ingredients list. I love technology, too, but when it comes to food, the closer to the real thing, the better. You don’t need an APP for that.

There also lots of articles and websites about nutrition, including this government site:

http://www.nutrition.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=11&tax_level=1

Another good one is:

http://nutritiondata.self.com/

You can teach yourself what you should be eating. One of the best things I ever heard (from a nutritionist) was “The closer you can get to its original state, the healthier it is (with the exception of meat, of course.) Raw veggies are best, if you cook them, steam them.” See? You’re already saving time!

Back to cost. I spent $40 last week on my groceries. That included several bags of dried beans, which will last several months. Fresh vegetables, soymilk, vegetable juice, bread and soda water. I use the soda water with something like apple juice to make myself a healthy soda. It’s good, tastes like punch and even kids like it. You don’t have to tell them how healthy and cheap it is. Just serve it.

I made my dinner-cut up raw veggies (which used a fraction of the fresh veggies) hummus, (which I make myself from beans,) tea and half a toasted pita.

I was completely satisfied and got all my nutritional requirements. I didn’t even start on most of what I bought, but let’s say I had to feed 4 people this meal. Before you start guffawing, I want to tell you about my nieces. They stayed with me some time back and we made up a large platter of veggies, hummus, pita bread and apple-soda. They loved it, told me it was a party platter! We chopped everything together, they had a great time arranging the platter to be especially pretty while we talked about the different veggies. They had no idea broccoli was full of calcium. They were also teenagers. They ate until they were stuffed and we had some left over. No problem, I said, that will go into the next hummus batch. They were so excited that we had to make hummus the next day.

In other words, it may not be as hard as you think to wean your kids off McDonald’s. Food can be a family project.

Anyway, let’s say I used half the veggies for one meal for 4.  I use the rest to make a HUGE pot of vegetable soup that I put into 2 and 4 size serving bags and put in the freezer. Yes, those veggies will make more than one pot, believe me. I also don’t use potatoes in the soup I’m going to freeze because potatoes don’t taste as good after they are frozen. When I go to make the next pot of soup I start by cutting up and cooking a potato or two, then I add the frozen soup to the pot after the potatoes are tender. potatoes aren’t something I have to  buy every week and a 10 pound bag is less than $5.

Recently, I was stuck in my little mountain home for several days without being able to get out and my freezer full of soup was especially delicious.

Back to cost. The veggies cost $25. The first meal of cut-up veggies uses half of them- $12.50. That’s not much for a family of four. OK, say you made only one large pot of soup with the rest. That will make up  eight 2-portion servings (I know this is true because I make up 2-portion servings all the time. I have it for lunch and dinner on the days I thaw it out) that’s the rest of the veggies-$12.50 for 2 meals.  That’s for all 4 people.You’re also serving bread with these meals, and a beverage so everyone is satisfied. Let’s add $2 for bread and beverage to each meal. That’s $14.50. So far, you’re spending less than going to a fast food restaurant. And it’s FOOD.

OK, I think you get the idea. Now, about all that time you have to spend making food for your family. Hhmm, that doesn’t actually sound so awful, does it? Food for the family? What better way to let them know how important they are? Also, remember my little side about my nieces and our veggie meal? They worked with me to make that meal. Stop making yourself crazy thinking you have to do everything by yourself. Let this be a family activity. Your children, and your husband, can be involved. Along with saving money, you’re helping your family become acquainted with values that will stand the test of time.

I had a friend who, after several years back out on his own, told me “What I miss the most are the times we all made dinner. We all worked in the kitchen, talking about school, work,  and we didn’t care about time. We weren’t trying to get it finished so we wouldn’t miss our shows or whatever. The kids set the table, poured the tea, my wife and I  stirred the pots, cut up vegetables (until the kids were old enough to be trusted with the knives!) and, oh, we just taught them by working with them. Now, they do the same things with their kids and feel sorry for newlyweds who don’t know how to feed themselves! It was such a good time, such a close time every day.”  How can you put a figure on that?

Now, about time. While the soup is cooking, you can do something else! Spring for a $5 kitchen timer if you’re worried about boil-overs or burning.  It’s a good investment. Time is another article altogether and as my friend said, “We were all in there together. Sure, we could have done it faster without the kids, but that wasn’t the point.”

My point is this: feed yourself real food. You’ll save money, you’ll be healthier, your children will be learning real life lessons…and you’ll get to feel really, really noble.

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Riding The Bus

My best friend was dying. There is no gentle way to say it, and I want to be clear about why my trip was so urgent. As a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), I work with dying people all the time. I know what it looks like and how it sounds. His soft voice over the phone said simply “I’ve got stage 4 lung cancer, Troutman.”

“Ahh, Holbrook, I’m so sorry. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

My car sat at the garage awaiting a fan assembly. I’d spent $1500 in the past few months on oil leak repairs, new tires, new radiator, and this last made me groan. No matter how much was right with your car, if there’s no fan to cool the engine, you can’t drive. I could do nothing but wait. Snow and ice storms in my part of the mountains had made travel hazardous.

Frustrated, feeling trapped, I considered renting a car. The expense quickly brought me back to reality. The bus, I thought, and went online in search of schedules and ticket prices. I could buy a round trip ticket for less than the cost of gas if I drove myself. The idea of spending several hours on the bus actually appealed to me. I could read. Think.  Compose something for my friend.

My bus left Friday night at 9:15 pm. The other options were nine and 9:30 am, neither of which was possible for Richard, my landlord. I quickly realized that while the bus might be less costly it was definitely not convenient, and public transportation meant you had to rely on someone else to take you there and pick you up.

My landlord agreed to take me to the bus station and pick me up when I got back. I appreciated his generosity-the bus was 20 miles away in Asheville. I gave him $20 for gas and his time, acknowledging one of the reasons more people don’t take the bus. You’re dependent on other people’s schedules, not just the bus schedule. Still, even with the extra $20 I gave him, it was less than driving and less than renting. I printed my tickets at home, one tiny bit of convenience, and packed a small carry-on bag so I wouldn’t have to haul around a suitcase or pay a baggage fee.

Richard dropped me at the station early-several hours early- to avoid being caught in bad weather after dark. In the mountains, winding roads with severe curves can be treacherous once the sun, and the temperature, goes down.

I walked into the station at 5 pm. There were many businesses on Tunnel Road and I thought I’d have a leisurely dinner, walk around a bit, and settle in with a book once it got cold and dark. I checked in with the station manager, tucked my canvas bag into a locker (4 quarters), and walked the 2 blocks to an inviting Mexican restaurant where I  enjoyed a quiet meal.

When I got back to the station, a young black girl was stuffing her own bag in a nearby locker. I sat down and pulled my book out.

“You know they close up at 4:30?” she asked me after she closed her locker.

“What?” I asked, looking up form my book, thinking I had misunderstood.

“They close at 4:30 and open back up at 8,” she said, nodding at the man behind the counter, who was beginning to jingle keys.

“We can’t stay in here?” I said, feeling stupid. She shook her head. The manager, a balding, round fellow with kind eyes shook his head before he said, “She’s right, we don’t have any buses between 4 and 8, so they don’t pay us to oepn when there aren’t any buses coming or going.”

Maybe if more people rode the bus, I thought and sighed. I walked out and spent the next 3 hours walking and visiting shops I would never had visited any other time.

First, I stopped in at Anna’s Linens and marveled at what people will pay for a dish to put their soap. I looked at towels, bathroom accessories, curtains, and placemats. I felt no urge at all to buy anything, but there was a couple at the cash register insisting that the husband get a veteran’s discount an a sale item. It put me in mind of all the ‘dealing with the public’ jobs I’d had and wanted to pat the patient salesgirl on the head. The wife was incensed that they couldn’t get a discount on top of the sale price (a 30% mark-down) and the sales girl explained, repeatedly, that sale items did not qualify for any other discounts. I left before the manager showed up to give the woman the extra 10% just to get them out of the store.

My next stop was the Dollar General where I walked down aisles badly in need of attention, but not likely to get it, since I only spotted 2 employees in the store, both working cash registers. Clothes and toys lay on the floor, Christmas ornaments spilled from packaging and boxes of snacks had been torn open. Who had a party back here? I thought, and once again felt sorry for the employees who would have to clean this mess up after closing. For $7 an hour.

I found a pair of  gloves for $1 and a velour lounge set on sale for $10 ( My gloves and a sweater were in my bag in the station locker.) I put them in my basket along with a travel size toothpaste and toothbrush combo for $1.

My next stop was the grocery store. Ingles had a cafe and I thought I could get away with reading and sipping something hot without buying anything else. This Ingles boasted a Starbucks right next to the little cafe-a few tables next to windows near the produce section-where I bought a regular coffee and a slice of pumpkin bread.

I sat down next to a window, sipped my overpriced coffee, and read my paperback. My feet warmed up, my hands warmed up and the coffee eventually made me want to visit the bathroom. Ingles also has a very nice bathroom. I didn’t feel bad about hanging out in Ingles because I shop there every week.

After my refreshing stop at Ingles, I realized I still had over an hour to go. I walked, carefully, carefully, through the parking lot mined with ice patches and brick hard snow clumps, to the street where I waited for the light so I could cross. I assumed cars wouldn’t see me so I took care to cross at the intersection, watching my feet so I didn’t slip, while still keeping an eye on cars. I breathed a lot easier when I made it to the other side of the street without incident.

From there, I walked to the Cracker Barrel. I mingled with many people desperate for a table, obviously hungry people, and I was glad I’d already had dinner. I walked through the store and marveled at the things people will buy. There was a set of wind chimes made of wire and glittery metal butterflies in unlikely colors. The usual table tucked away with Christmas items on sale. Candy in all colors. Pictures of pink-bottomed children to hang in the bathroom. More pictures, some lighted, of Bible verses.

I didn’t buy anything. I stopped at the Dairy Queen next door and got a soda to get the taste of coffee out of my mouth. Jeopardy was on and I eventually got into a conversation with a couple of women, about my age, about some of the questions. We were thrilled when we got one right that the smartly dressed contestants missed.

I got back to the station just after they opened back up, glad to have  place to read my book without feeling guilty.

A Mexican family came in shortly after I started my book. A mother and father (I assumed) were sending off a teenage daughter. Two brothers carried in the luggage, one large black suitcase, and one large leopard print bag. The counter man weighed everything and told them the leopard suitcase was way over, the black bag way underweight and if they switched items from one to the other, they could save $100. I thought that was very kind, he didn’t have to do that. The few people in the station spent the next 30 minutes being entertained by the unexpected amount of underwear that came out of the leopard print bag and was tucked into the black bag. The brothers and father retired to the sitting area and let the women handle all that. A younger sister was charged with the care of the three children with them. All three were under 8 years old, so she had her hands full, especially since she was still learning to walk on the stiletto boots she was wearing. My Lord, I thought, she can’t be more than 13, what on earth is she doing…I stopped myself, suddenly remembering the first pair of heels I’d been allowed to wear-to church-and smiled at the young woman. So they were too tall for her age, I thought. So? She’s taking care of her little brothers and sisters, let  her have too-tall heels.

The bus pulled in at exactly the scheduled time. The seats were in twos, with the aisle between. Each of got our set and during the ride I noticed a lot of people taking advantage of the quiet and the extra seat to grab a nap.

I watched the countryside roll by, the streetlights shining on flat snow, like cake icing.

We had one stop in Spartanburg. Three people got off, including a blind man with his guide dog. No one got on.

When I recognized the skyline of my old hometown, I called my friend to pick me up. Downtown Charlotte after midnight is still active. My friend was concerned that a “weirdo” might spirit me away. I looked around, of course, I’m not naive, but I saw people like me, people traveling from one place to another. We were mostly tired.

The bus terminal in Charlotte was much larger than Asheville, but it was pretty much the same. Heavy wire benches, vending machine, a loud roof mounted TV, bank of telephones near the restroom. The Charlotte facility also offered a coffeeshop/gift shop that was still open. My friend got there before I succumbed to the urge to buy a $2 soda.

My return trip started Monday morning. Cold, but nothing like Asheville, the snow on the hillsides was beginning to melt. My bus went first to Winston-Salem, where I had to change to get on a bus for Ashville. The countryside rolled by in shades of gray. Gray sky, gray pavement, gray trees, gray snow by the road. I closed my eyes and listened to the low thunder of tires.

There was no loud cell-phone conversation, no children shouting or crying. There were more people, but once again, mostly people like me, traveling. Alone.

In Winston, I had about an hour so I walked up the street past several restaurants that were obviously closed until I reached a submarine shop. I had a full size sub and tea. It felt nice, being on my own, watching people, knowing my schedule was the bus schedule. I didn’t feel any of the stress I usually did traveling, needing to leave, wanting to get on the road before rush hour, get home before dark. I was a rider, not a driver. It was wonderfully relaxing.

The bus made a couple of stops in small towns. We didn’t get off, just picked up another rider.

Richard was waiting for me when we pulled into Asheville. We talked about my cats, which I had missed, and the weather predictions. I was glad to be home, and even though I’d been on the road longer than I would have I been driving, I wasn‘t nearly as tired. We laughed about my journey through the shops of Tunnel Road and I said I knew where to buy my next set of shower curtains. Mainly, I was glad to be back, the way I always feel when I get home from a trip and not nearly as tired.

The extra time had given me a chance to think about the reason I was making the trip. I thought through some of the things I wanted to tell my friend, and thought about what I could do for him in the little time we both had left. Riding the bus gave me a quiet, soothing place  to reflect. I”m glad I chose to travel that way, and I’ll definitely do it again.

What I learned from this trip is that:
One: the bus is very safe, reliable means of transportation. You can get mugged anywhere, the bus station is no more likely than anywhere. I didn’t see any weirdos (not unusually weird, anyway). I didn’t see any teenage runaways, though I looked and wondered where they had all gone. Maybe we just don’t have as many during the winter-at least not coming to Asheville.

Two: The bus is cheaper. I spent $64 on a round trip ticket (a little less because I paid for it online) gave Richard $20 so my total travel cost was $84. My van costs $35-40 to fill up in Asheville, a little less somewhere else. It takes a full tank to get to Charlotte, I have to fill it up when I get there, and I have to fill it up when I get home-that last isn’t something you can’t count. I have to fill it up to go anywhere the next day. So I spend a minimum of $100 when I drive to Charlotte. We aren’t even taking into consideration oil and wear and tear. The savings are worth the inconvenience.

Three: The time. Yeah, it takes me longer, but I’m more relaxed, less tired. I’m willing to give up the time, which I can use reading, writing, or simply observing. And relaxing.

Four: Safety. The people riding the bus are just people. They are going somewhere they need to go. Yes, most of them are doing it because they don’t have a car but I hope gradually more and more people will be doing it because it’s smart.

The Greyhound website guides you through most questions:

http://www.greyhound.com/

There are also some interesting online discussions about bus travel and experiences.

http://www.43things.com/things/view/156673/take-a-greyhound-bus-somewhere

Next time, try something different. Take the bus.

Hard Beauty

Winter is beautiful in the way only Winter can be. It stands in defiance of what we expect beauty to be. It is not warm, welcoming, or enticing. It is not tactile in the way other season are. It does not invite us to touch, and when we do, we are met with cold, brittle sensations.

Not like Spring with joy bursting from every branch, shooting right out of the ground.

Not Summer, with juicy fruit, rich carpets of grass, cool shade from nurturing trees.

Not like Autumn, with wild parties of color, and leaves that dance across our path, inviting us to share in one last festival before the silence of the coming season.

Winter  is severe, stark, and breathtaking. Beauty few can grasp, the few who do not sleep through the season in front of TV’s and computers, burrowed in their homes and offices.

It is there for those who dare to reach out and touch the fiery ice, who will allow themselves to be clothed in snow, who will hear the crunch of ice and snow, dead leaves and twigs as they walk in the woods, who hear sounds beyond the silence.

It is a hard beauty, and one that does not care if you join in or not. It is proud and unrelenting. Its beauty lies in the very force of life. Winter holds the seed for all the seasons to come and needs nothing to embellish its power.

FOR HOLBROOK

My friend, David Holbrook, died yesterday of lung cancer. I don’t think he had celebrated his 70th birthday yet.

We’ve been friends since 1992. I met him shortly after I moved into Hamilton House, in Charlotte, NC. One of the residents, Maude, was trying to coax her cat out of the tree next to her garden apartment. She lived right in front of the pool and since I’d started swimming after work every day we’d become friends as well. I offered to climb up after the cat simply because Maude was so upset about him.

“He doesn’t know how to get down, Kathy. He’s done this before. He gets confused and can’t back down.”

I had a cat and I knew it usually made more sense to let them figure things out on their own. Maude stood under the tree, wringing her hands and shifting her feet. She was 78 years old and well known to everyone in the complex, I knew she wasn’t  neurotic. Obviously her cat had a problem.

“I’ll climb up and get him, Maude, it’s OK.” I smiled and grabbed onto the lower branches of the Maple. The branches were sturdy enough to hold me, and I was wearing overalls and tennis shoes, perfect climbing gear. Tomas, her cat, mewed mournfully as I came closer. He was crouched on a branch further out than I could comfortably reach.

“Come on, Tomas, don’t you want to come down and get some nice supper?” I crooned and inched my way out onto the branch, which sagged under my 93 pounds.

“Hell, I’ll get him down,” a laughing voice boomed underneath me. I looked down and there was a mature man holding a plastic glass filled with ice and amber liquid.

“Kathy, David’s trying to piss me off. Don’t listen to him,” Maude snapped, her hands clenched in front of her.

Holbrook reached down and picked up some pebbles.

“Here, just let me toss some of these…” he pulled his hand back, grinning.

“You better knock that shit off!” I barked, outraged that someone would throw rocks at a cat already in distress.

I reached out, slid my hand around Tomas, and gently tugged him away from the branch. Once he was close enough, I lay on the branch for balance and gathered him into my arms. I stroked him for moment, crooning to help him calm down. I managed to back down the branches, one arm curled around Tomas, the other hand holding on as I made my way down. I handed Tomas off to Maude and dropped the last couple of feet. Maude took him and kissed him, then snapped, “Tomas, you’re not worth this much trouble!”

“Never met a cat that was, “Holbrook said gaily, taking a sip of his drink.

“Nobody asked you, did they?” I said nastily. He looked at me steadily then and said quietly, “I’m David Holbrook, and you sure are a cute little thing. Is rescuing cats your specialty?” He held out the hand not holding the drink and I shook it, “Kathy Troutman. I just moved in. Would you really have thrown rocks at that cat?”

“Hell no, Maude would cut my balls off!” We all laughed and I immediately liked him. We spent the evening sitting out at the pool, eventually being joined by a dozen or so other residents. David and Maude entertained everyone with hilarious stories of Hamilton House over the 20 or so years they bad lived there. Maude and David were both retired, but there was nothing retiring in the way they laughed and told stories.

After that, anytime I was down at the pool, David, or Holbrook as I learned to call him, would keep me company. He knew everyone, as did Maude, and before long I did too. I felt comfortable for the first time in a long time and Holbrook became my friend. He complimented me all the time, but never in a way that made me uncomfortable. He was honest, honest in a way that I could never find fault with, and I think that’s why his compliments were something I valued. When Holbrook said, “Troutman, you are the cutest thing!” I felt pretty, simple as that. He never made advances, never said anything inappropriate, never said, or did, anything to make me distrust him. I felt competely at ease with him.

Once, a friend and I came back from shopping one Saturday afternoon. She lived by the pool, on the other side from Maude. We were walking with shopping bags-most of which were hers-when Holbrook, along with several other guys called out loudly, holding up plastic cups and beer cans.

“Hey, Troutman, where you been? Come keep us company!”
My friend and I walked into the pool area and chatted for a minute before one of the men with Holbrook, a golfing buddy who usually showed up on Saturday, asked ,”So what’s in the bag?”

My friend said coolly, “New underwear. We spent the morning at Victoria’s Secret.” They all gasped and elbowed each other, one asking,”So, do we get to see?” She opened the bag and pulled out a scrap of red silk before dropping it quickly back in the bag, grinning. Most of the guys were groaning, grabbing their chests, pretending to have heart attacks. I brushed her arm and said, “Let’s go, I’m ready to change and hit the pool. See you guys in a bit.” I smiled and turned away. Holbrook called, “Hey, Troutman, you got new underwear in your bag?”

I turned and said quietly, “I don’t wear any.”

We walked away to complete silence. Just as we walked in her door, I heard a soft “Goddamn.”

My friend shut the door and burst out laughing. After that, they watched me a lot, but none of them ever brought that up again- except Holbrook, who liked to say, “Troutman has got a way of shutting down guys who get too nosy.”

Over the years, we talked about everything. Holbrook told me stories about his inglorious past-his words-and more than once I said: You’re kidding! Weren’t you scared of being caught?” I’m not going to give out details, just know that Holbrook lived his life the way he wanted and never apologized. He also never intentionally hurt anyone; never lied, never manipulated…he told me he was the best boyfriend a girl could have, and the worst husband. He married, had two beautiful children. When his marriage ended-and he took complete blame for it-he swore he’d never marry again. He didn’t. His children, on the other hand, he never tired of talking about.

“I don’t know how I did it, Troutman,” he told me more than once, “I have two of the best children a man could ask for. They love me. I don’t know why, I can’t have been the best father, but they do and I think my life has been changed. I am a better man than I would have been without them.”

Then we’d go off on his conviction that marriage was not something he could ever do again.I’d shake my head and laugh “Holbrook, you’ve lived with several women. That’s the same thing, just without paperwork!”
“ You can say that if you want. I know it was different for me. I didn’t cheat on them because I loved them, not because I had a piece of paper that said I couldn’t.”

I realized then that was the big thing for Holbrook; his freedom. He did the things he did because he wanted to, not because he felt he had no choice. If he loved someone, and Holbrook had loved many women, then he wasn’t interested in anyone else. He knew when the relationship had run its course, and he thought to himself every time, “Thank goodness we’re not married.”

You can argue the marriage question all day long and it doesn’t matter whom, if anyone, is right. Holbrook felt as strongly about never getting married again as some people feel about marriage being the only moral lifestyle. To me, it didn’t matter. I did not intend to ever remarry, but I didn’t realize that I still had the ability to love the wrong person.

And I did. Love the wrong person, anyway. Holbrook stayed my friend through a 7-year relationship that ended in me being completely  insane. He listened to my late night calls, crying over what I thought I’d had, what I knew would never be. He listened and he said the man in question was an idiot. It was the balm I needed. It only helped a little, but it helped. We even tried to be couple for a while, but I realized that I was still too damaged. I told him our friendship meant more to me than anything. We went back to being best friends. He is the only man I have ever been able to remain friends with after we stepped over the intimacy line. And that’s because Holbrook was Holbrook. He was honest, as I’ve said. His honesty made it possible for both of us to talk about everything and anything, without fear of reprisal. He didn’t hold grudges, he didn’t add up slights, expecting to be repaid later. He took life day to day and expected what I could give, no more. The only real regret I have is that I couldn’t have been sane, couldn’t have appreciated what he offered. I did appreciate the friendship, which I had little enough of in my life. And I knew even if he pissed me off about something, he’d be OK the next time I called.

We spoke every week. Sometimes, he fussed when I hadn’t called him. He worried that living in the mountains had resulted in me becoming bear food. I loved to hike in the woods and he always told me to take care, carry a gun, when I went into the woods. He enjoyed my stories about my art, my hikes, but he always reminded that I was alone and should take extra care. I didn’t, of course, and he’d shake his head, expecting nothing less from me. He worried about me, and accepted that I, like he, would do what I wanted. We accepted that about each other.

When he told me about the cancer, I knew there was little time. I rode the bus from Asheville because my car was still in the shop. It made for an interesting trip, actually, and gave me lots of time to think. He cried when he saw me, the only time I’ve ever seen my friend Holbrook cry. He didn’t want me to see him that way, he said. I’ve heard that from patients who realize their time is near. They are afraid their family and friends will remember them as helpless and sick. I assured Holbrook that I would always remember him as a pistol, sitting by the pool with a drink in his hand and a smile on his face. He told me I was his best friend. I told him he was mine. He said he was afraid he’d never see me again.

I held him and thought of the very, very few people who could have said that to me. In the years I’ve known him, we’ve shared every thought, evey fear, every frustration and every hope. My only regret is that I couldn’t love him the way he deserved. And he told me that, in fact, I had. My friendship had been important to him and it had been something he could always count on.

The last time I visited him, I bathed his feet, cut his toenails, and massaged warm baby oil into his skin. He laughed with his son about how good it felt. I massaged his feet until he asked for his medication and was dropping off to sleep. I didn’t want him to be awake when I left, and I wanted his last memory of me to be something filled with pleasure. He died two days later.

I loved him in a way I find difficult to describe. His girlfriend had nothing to fear; I wasn’t interested in taking him from her. I realized our friendship meant more to me than having the security of a boyfriend, someone to take me places and buy me dinner. Holbrook reminded me that I was a woman, that I had been special once, that I was smart, and that he valued everything about me. He gave me something none of the men in my life ever had. Honesty and acceptance. He accepted me the way I was and thought more of me for insisting on remaining who I was. I accepted him the same way. I don’t know any other way to put it. I loved him, and he loved me. I will miss him terribly.

2011

2011. Sounds like science fiction. I remember when “In The Year 2929” was in the Top 10 and it sounded so cheesy. We aren’t literally connected to our computers yet, we still have the use of our legs…but now the damn song doesn’t sound nearly so cheesy.

Every year we think back on the past 12 months and wonder where they went, what did we accomplish and usually feel like we wasted so much time. I used to do that, used to mark my years with flags of one failure after another. I used to say “This year will be different! This year I’m going to succeed.”

This year I look back at the last 12 months and still wonder how they flew by so quickly. I still remember one failure after another. I also look at my work and feel some measure of progress. Success is something I define differently than I did in other years. Now success is someone complimenting my work, someone buying it. Success is having a long conversation with a friend in pain, encouraging a family member when they are frustrated and frightened. Success is going to sleep knowing my rent is paid, my vehicle is running and I have a job to get up for.

Success is understanding life is lived one day at a time. Success is knowing in my heart I’m doing the best I can.