For the Better

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|This is the 157th story of Our Life Logs |


I have always been an easy-going person. Most of my life, I had basically had one mood: happy, more than able to roll with the punches. Though sometimes, the punches are pretty rough.

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I grew up in Brick Town, New Jersey near the legendary pine barrens. My parents were the epitome of the 1960s American working class. Mom stayed home and raised the kids, while dad installed floors. He was good at his trade, but it was back-breaking work, and he wanted more for me. He told me, more than once, to graduate from high school, and find any other trade but floor work.

I started working in restaurants at the age of 16. I walked into my first professional kitchen and saw the men and women hunkered over their knives and burners, cracking jokes, laughing at everything—even each other’s burn marks. The air was thick with camaraderie. It felt like home. I developed love affair with the culinary world, so I balanced working full time with finishing high school.

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Next stop was the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) where I was a year behind Anthony Bourdain. It was a great program to help me build a career as a chef, although it was mostly a good place to party. I spent quite a bit of my time high on weed or buzzed on good vodka, of which there was never any shortage because it was an ingredient in several gourmet dishes. We could always justify having it on hand, even if most of the time we drank it instead of using it for food.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

What, you might ask, did I actually learn at the Culinary Institute of America? I did learn some important knife skills, and I really excelled in making sauces. I graduated from the CIA as an official “saucier,” someone in a restaurant who specializes in making sauces, whether it’s for a barbecue, pasta, or to season a meat or fish dish. I can make any white sauce, but I’m told that my cheese sauce is to die for.

When it came time to break into the world of high cuisine, I didn’t try to oversell my CIA degree. During my interview with a posh Atlantic City casino, I said, “I don’t know a lot about cooking, but I’m eager to learn.” That got me the job. And what a job it was. If you’ve seen “Blow,” you have some idea what life in a 1980s casino looked like. I’m not saying it was always that glamorous, but the ice sculptures, diamond martinis, and fine cocaine were definitely prominent. I didn’t snort my entire pay check, but a good percentage of it went up my nose. There were days I went straight from the bar to the casino without even a minute’s sleep. You can get away with that in your 20s.

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I started seeing a girl in the early 80s, and with her, had mind-blowing sex. I got married in 1985, when I was 26. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re with someone you have mind-blowing sex with. Lock it down, right? Get married, have children, be like your parents.

Three years later, circumstances changed. She was diagnosed with Sarcodocis, a skin disease, and I pulled a muscle in the gym. We both gained weight. The sex tapered, then died. Then we realized we had nothing in common. I wanted to smoke pot and go to concerts, and she wanted me to come home and do home improvement projects. I’m about as interested in building a book shelf as I am in watching paint dry. Our split was entirely amicable. That, of course, is the silver lining to any passionless union.

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After my divorce, I moved to Tybee Island, Georgia to help out a fellow CIA graduate who had just started up a restaurant called “The Breakfast Club.”  There, I became locally celebrated for my eggs Florentine, fried green tomatoes, orange brandy cake, and a few other signature dishes.

sunrise at Tybee Island
Sunrise at Tybee Island.

Tybee is a small Georgia beach town where all the year-round residents know each other. It was a comfortable, at times even beautiful, place to put down some roots. It’s the kind of town where people want to get to know you, and once they do, they can’t stand to see you single, of course. Friends and co-workers kept telling me about this woman, Lynn. They talked her up so hard, it scared me. And, let’s face it, she really wasn’t my type. Petite, tanned, chatty blondes who like to throw back a margarita and squeeze your arm muscles were, at that time, more my style. Lynn was tall, bizarrely fair-skinned for a beach dweller, brunette, quiet, and bookish. Too much vocabulary. And there were conflicting stories about how many cats she had.

I realized that I had been judging her too hard after she confidently asked me out. Despite my fears, she turned out to be surprisingly easy to be with. She didn’t care how much money I made. She didn’t ask me what I really wanted to be. I made her laugh. And her laughter warmed me like a good scotch. Turns out my type is a tall, pale, intellectual brunette.

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We had a lot of fun living together with our six cats in a big tumble-down house that was built around 1900. We got around to tying the knot in 2006. Being legal made a few things easier, especially health insurance and taking phone calls from our mothers.

When I floated the idea of going back to school, my wife was completely supportive. I was a proud, silver-haired college graduate, marching down the aisle to get my diploma from Armstrong Atlantic State University at forty. Okay, I took a little longer to grow up than some people. Drugs, booze, and parties got in the way of adulthood for me. And I still like a beer, I won’t lie about that. But I never really wanted to get high as much as I wanted to be a homeowner, a good husband, a good friend, a good cook, a good teacher.

I can’t point to any Saul on the road to Damascus moment in my life. Over time, the good things in my life—a good marriage, fine companion animals, a job I liked—crowded out the bad influences.

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But things can’t remain good forever. Off hand, I can’t think of anything that changes your life faster than a fire wiping out your house in a matter of two hours.

July 7, 2007. It was just another day, and I had been out to lunch with my wife. We turned the corner onto our street, and the world I knew was gone forever. Fire trucks and smoke surrounded my beautiful, 100-year-old house, a former post office, and a Tybee Island landmark. Our home was utterly destroyed. My books, pictures, artifacts of my history, and our four beloved cats died in that fire. I lost my Kudra, a cat who had been my companion for ten years. And, yes, I hear some of you out there thinking, “It’s just a cat.”

So, let me explain something. Your cat is the one being who loves you unconditionally for just being you. Your cat doesn’t care if your shirt matches your pants, or if you haven’t showered for five days. Nothing could console me for the loss of Kudra.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

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Ask anyone who has been through a terrible loss, they’ll tell you that you never really “recover.” Instead, you reinvent yourself. In the year following that fire, I did what I was supposed to do. I kept busy. I kept my marriage together, got a Master’s degree, became a third-grade teacher, and rescued five cats from animal control.

But during that time, I forgot how to be happy. My wife and I spent the next year in a series of uncomfortable rentals. Our insurance low-balled us on a settlement and threw us out of our rental house with no notice when our new house was only half built. Somehow, though, Lynn and I got through this rough patch. We cashed up some retirement savings, accepted some charity, and it was just barely enough to build a smaller house on the footprint of the older one.

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Image courtesy of Pexels

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Things changed for us after the fire. We no longer felt the strong emotional connection to Tybee that we had felt before. We followed our careers to Louisville, Kentucky where I became a nutrition educator. It’s the perfect job for me because it combines my love of food with my desire to teach.  This year, July 7 came and went, and, for the first time, I didn’t remember to mourn.

I met Lynn at the perfect time when I needed direction and to stop the destructive lifestyle I was headed down. I never realized I wanted to settle down. Who knew that meeting Lynn would change my life?

There will always be rough patches in life, but it’s worth it, and it’s for the better.

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 This is the story of Joel Parker Worth

Joel is a trained chef who became a third-grade teacher and then a nutrition educator. Joel lived a messy life where he found himself going down a bad, drug-induced path that partly ruined his first marriage. When he met his current wife, Lynn, he felt inclined to change, settle down, and become a better man. Born in Bricktown, New Jersey, he has lived in a number of different places and traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe. He currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and their two dogs and three cats. He teaches nutrition to SNAP recipients for the University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension service.

Joel Worth on the coast of Positano, Italy on vacation
Joel Worth vacationing on the coast of Positano, Italy.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on July 31, 2018.

| Writer: Lynn Hamilton | Editors: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

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