Category: Marks Notes

A symphony of simplicity

I stood over the cast iron skillet flushed with enthusiasm. The chopping, dicing, slicing and arranging were all done. My favorite part was about to ensue–there’s something scintillating about cooking, particularly the final moment of preparation. Ingredients together, whether in a melange, as I was doing then, or in parts–start to come together and there is a rush of joy not unmixed with challenge and even wonder.

“Buffoons!” I shouted to no one in particular. “Imbeciles and pimply-faced 20 and 30-somethings who want effects and explosions with their cliches and comic books. They don’t want entertainment, they want dissolution on demand!”

“What are you talking about?” my wife said, annoyance clear in her voice.

“Huh? Oh. Critics. Movie critics.” I had just read two reviews of Kenneth Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. They didn’t like it (though did, which makes me happy). They said Brannagh was too full of himself and that they were “bored.” I fumed. I’d seen it earlier in the afternoon and I loved it. I was entertained entirely. I found the acting wonderful and engaging, light-hearted, but meaningful, too and I’ve always thought the story was an homage to humanity’s brightest–and darkest gifts.

“You liked the movie?”

“Liked it? I loved it! Oh…It wasn’t brilliant in the…. cinematique way, that these pre-pubescent hacks want,” I said lobbing pads of butter on the vegetables in the skillet. I sprinkled a pinch of salt and rather efficiently dusted the whole with several grinds of fresh black pepper. “But it was much like Brannagh’s Hamlet,” I said. “I can see their point about self-indulgence, but that has been Mr. B’s style for some time. It’s actually quite engaging and he never really takes himself too seriously. I don’t get the whining about it. Brannagh is a fine actor–and Michelle Pfeifer was fun to watch–her elegance and charm were perfect in this movie. She was….she was just…gorgeous!” I turned on my heels to the sizzling skillet and put my nose over the whole, inhaling deeply of the onions and garlic, sweet potatoes and carrots as they caramelized to a kind of bronze perfection. I squeezed just a hint of balsamic vinaigrette reduction over them, smiling at the deed, confident in its eventual reward of dark, sweet and tangy-inflected sumptuousness.

“This wasn’t about special effects,” I said as I picked up the hot pads and delicately lifted the skillet off the heat. I unwrapped the grass-fed filets and simply stared at them for a moment before I ground a few more specks of pepper and a light dusting of salt, most of which missed the meat altogether. “It was the performances… and they were so delightful,” I said. “They were engaging and funny and at times, perhaps, stereotypical–but that was the point. That is the point,” I said, holding a filet with the tongs. I turned to the skillet and gently seared the meat on all sides and placed it, with care, atop the vegetables. “This isn’t Shakespeare! It’s a murder-mystery with flare,” I said. “Dullards! Every one of them!”

“Who?” said my wife reading with no particular relish, an article in the local paper.

“Critics! Bottom-feeding, gutless film-school dropouts, every last one!” I shouted.

“When will dinner be ready?” she asked.

“You can’t rush these things, you know?” I said quietly, and turned to the other filets, searing them as lovingly and carefully as I did the first. The vegetables were still crisp, but warm and caramelizing slowly on top as the balsamic reduction dripped down amid the the sizzling spots of orange, yellow and amber. I placed the whole skillet, meat, seasonings and vegetables, into the oven. “About 10 minutes, I suppose.”

“Good,” she said.

I stood with the heavenly aromas of savory-sweet vegetables hanging in the air and drank another swig of Buffalo Trace, one rock. God, it was good. When the meat is sizzling and the smoke hangs delicately over the oven, the bourbon seems to take the essence of it all with it. I drank as a prelude to the meal to come and I savored it for every second it lay on my tongue. “Heaven,” I said. My wife flipped the page, following the antics of some marble-headed galoot who’d robbed a liquor store in town.

“What? Did you say something?” she asked.

“No. Nothing important.” My head down, nose in my tumbler, I swallowed the last of the bourbon and moved to pour myself another. “Hm,” I remarked, a bit flush with the last taste. “Not yet. Clear head, oven, heat, burning things. Yes. One moment.” The timer sounded and I removed the skillet and aroma came out with it.  Sweet, savory and meaty–flesh aglow with glistening pools of clarified butter atop and slowly draping juices down over the vegetables.

“Oh, it smells so good!” my wife said. 

“Yes, doesn’t it? I can’t wait!” I served up the meal on the plates. “The writing was tight, the story was fun, the setting was beautiful–I loved watching the train,” I said.  “The cars were the most brilliant shade of blue, a kind of dark royal blue that I love so much. It reminded me of train sets I had when I was young. Snow falling over the mountains and the train climbing up. I just….it was enchanting,” I said. “I just thought it was so much fun to watch. I was so removed from the world and inside the one on the screen,” I said. “Johnny Depp. Captain Jack himself….he was tremendous, almost the cliche of a New York mobster from the 30’s. He nailed it. So much fun,” I said and poured another glass of bourbon after serving the plates.

“I’m glad you liked it, honey,” my wife said. “These steaks are amazing and the vegetables are perfect!” she added, looking at me with a smile.

“Yes,” I said. “I too am glad…that you like them.” I tucked into a bite myself and chewed effortlessly.

It was good. Simple, but good. Most of life’s better things are so, after all.


Don’t postpone joy…


I have had the sad honor too often in the past couple of years to title my posts with the names of dear loved ones who have passed too early. If I were to keep that motif, I would write the name Linda Lavanne for the title of this post. She passed away early this morning after a four-year bout with cancer, a disease over which she beat the odds and it yielded to her for a time–and she didn’t let it steal her joy.

Sue’s and my friendship with the Lavanne family goes to our first church home at New Hope Lutheran in Agoura, Calif. As fellow members, we know Tom and Linda and only recently did we get to know them well enough to enjoy several evenings together sharing wine and pizza–Tom’s and my favorite meal. If you know Tom and Linda, reading this will only confirm what you know and that is that two more loving, kind, smart, engaging and funny people you could not hope to meet.

Linda’s battle with pancreatic cancer brought us together because our mutual friend, Jarvis Streeter, lost his fight to that disease back in 2013. When I joined Team Jarvis for the pancreatic cancer run/walk held each February in Westlake Village, it was to honor Jarvis’s memory and Linda’s fight–now it will serve to honor them both in loving friendship.

Her path was marked by this fight with disease. But her path was also marked by her ability to set it aside, to focus on the positive and for a while, she had beaten the odds and learned the value of the monster time and lovingly, joyously without sentimentality or even without urgency, shared it with everyone.  I love the relationship that she and Tom have and I watched it with all the joy one can muster for friends. There was an ethereal kind of happiness even in the midst of dour world events and absurdities of every kind–it never stole their smiles.

During her fight against the disease, Linda hashtagged all of her social media with “#don’tpostponejoy,” and she and Tom never did. They reveled in each other, in their wonderful children and their friends and family, traveling more often, going on wine-tasting weekends when Linda was up for it and she managed to see her son graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and then go on a family trip to Mexico. Her will, her refusal to give up or in, her sheer grit in the face of devastation was a marvel to behold–it was at once peaceful and ferocious and through it all, she smiled. It wasn’t perseverance, it was hope in something gold, something wonderful and eternal far removed from cancer and the plodding days of that fight. It was joyous rebounding into each moment and sharing it with the people she knew mattered most. 

In a movie called, The Village, William Hurt has an aching and poignant line of which I am reminded: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” Such was Linda Lavanne’s extraordinary gift of life–and today, we all kneel in awe before that gift.