Friday, June 25, 2010

Headlands Near and Far

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined." - Henry David Thoreau

On the island of Maui, way up north past the tony resort area of Kapalua and the end of the state sanctioned Kahekili Highway, is the small Hawaiian hamlet of Kahakuloa. It's out there - "over the top" of West Maui on a sometimes one-lane road, light years away from the glitz of Ka'anapali and the old whaling town/now popular cruise ship port of Lahaina - and the 100 residents no doubt prefer it that way. Besides a small key-lime green hut selling what some people tout as the best banana bread on the planet, the locals probably have little use for us white folk, us haoles.

Rising above the secluded settlement and the captivatingly blue, windswept ocean is a 636-foot tall, plant-covered stone monolith called Kahakuloa Head. During his reign in the 18th Century, legend says, Maui's King Kahekili would often reside at the summit in search of self-imposed isolation, peace and reflection. In his memory a ledge 200 feet above the surf is known as Kahekili's Leap, for it was there that the king would dive from Kahakuloa into the sea, climb back up and eat breakfast. Kind of a quiet, relaxing way to start your day, eh?

I am standing one third of the way up Kahakuloa Head, my toes clutching the very edge of Kahekili's Leap. The spirit of the fabled king is with me. Hopefully his strength, bravery and wisdom are there as well. I am about to jump.

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Just a number, you think?

50 years old
Utter chaos, I say!
At least for me. At least for now.

If I were someone else - the usual male stereotype from best-selling books and Hollywood films, perhaps - I would probably be shacking up with a mistress in her 20's, sporting hair recently dyed free of "salt and pepper", and driving around town in a black, or god forbid red, expensive new Porsche. Well, the young female mistress ain't for me (tho someone else probably isn't a bad idea). Plus, I'm simply happy I have hair at my age, no matter the color, and I love not owning a car. Still love living in San Francisco, to boot, taking the bus and walking and riding my bike, renting when I need.

So why this, then?

I'm quitting my job as Wine Director at Farallon - a high profile joint on Union Square, a fantastic job that I proudly held for thirteen years - with no replacement employment in sight. The day after I officially gave notice I accepted, then immediately reneged on and turned down, a sure-fire gig at a new restaurant opening in the fall because the timing wasn't right. (Upon celebrating my 50th in February I had promised myself I was gonna take some time off, and accepting it would have interfered.) Emotionally ravaged, sobbing on and off as the impact of what I had set in motion hit home, I spent that day doing laundry, shopping for supplies, watering the plants and closing up my apartment. Twenty-four hours after the one-two punch I flew to Australia for a two-week, whirlwind wine junket, returned to San Francisco for two weeks, and then flew to Hawai'i for ten days with my sister Molly. I am growing the beginnings of a goatee (started on the islands, we'll see if it lasts). And come hell or high water I'm still determined to take the month of August off, maybe September as well. I'm actively researching more travel to Alaska, Palau and Tonga, and wondering if I can squeeze in a visit to Yellowstone when some friends are gonna be camping in the park. On top of everything a part of me wants to cancel all the plans, hightail it down to the Gulf of Mexico and dig in with the hundreds of other people trying to make a dent in the unfolding catastrophe, trying to make a difference.

What the hell is up?

"It's a mid-life crisis," my mother laughed!

"I realize that," I replied. Didn't help any, though.

A buddy of mine laments the fact that people don't often "dress" anymore. They dine at what San Francisco considers fancy restaurants in jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps, attend the theater and opera in pretty much the same garb. Part of me agrees with him, and I often find myself doing a double-take when I watch someone schlep through the dining room at Farallon wearing shorts, or flip-flops, or both. But lately, when it comes to my work, to my day to day job right now, I gottta admit that I'm over the whole jacket and tie and long pants and hard shoes thing. It's so wearing thin, is so over-rated, as are my sore left knee and achy back. Ten glorious days on the islands of Maui and Kaua'i - swimming with green sea turtles (honu in Hawaiian), hiking, and snorkeling everyday - made me realize my love of that lifestyle all over again. Left me with a pleasing tan, feeling slimmed down a few pounds. My body refreshingly saltwater purged, my restaurant-weary feet renewed by a sandy beach pedicure. My bones complaint free.

Two days after my return to the dining room floor, hawking wine to tourists and locals, conventioneers and theatre-goers, my knee started barking and my spine tightened up again.

Will I listen? Will I somehow figure out how to combine my love of Northern California and my love of the tropics? Combine the coast, the forests, the mountains and the wide open spaces surrounding San Francisco and a place with a beach where you can swim and snorkel without a wet suit? Combine more often, I mean. Regularly? Only time will tell, I guess.

I've up and left before: hightailed it from Cleveland to Cincinnati for college, pulled up the roots again to work the tourist circuit on Saint Thomas and Cape Cod for a year, moved to San Francisco with a duffel bag full of clothes and $200 to my name. And I've switched jobs of my own accord; hell, I've was fired once (maybe more, I can't remember). But those choices, no matter how angst ridden they were at the time, no matter how scary, led to years of growth and excitement and memories that I wouldn't trade for the world. Led me to where I am today.

So I know change is good, can be good. I've just forgotten what it feels like. For the past 17 years I've had things pretty much laid out for me. In September of 1993 I helped open Boulevard Restaurant with Pat Kuleto, Nancy Oakes, Richard Miyashiro and Lori Theis, rising from bartender to bar manager to sommelier during my tenure there. In 1997 I jumped ship, but not very far; moved within the mother company, Pat Kuleto Restaurants, to open Farallon from the start as Wine Director. It was the next logical step in my career path, and I happily joined Mark Franz, Emily Luchetti, and Pat, Richard and Lori again for the exciting new venture. I was scared, sure; had never before created a wine program from scratch, let alone one for a restaurant that was so anticipated, so in the spotlight. Walking around the dining room floor during one of the opening test dinners I was obviously petrified because my friend Holly took one look at me, recognized the terror in my eyes and said: "Jesus,!"

I'm a lucky man, been blessed with a loving family, true friends and some great opportunities. I'm a hard working man, as well, and have inched my way up in the only profession I've really ever known, proven myself when those opportunities have come my way. And I don't regret the decisions I have made throughout my 50+ years on Earth. Not in the least.

When they heard the news my father, and my sister Susan, asked about my plans, where I was gonna land next. When I responded "I have no idea" they both paused, then inquired, "When you quit one job, aren't you supposed to already have another lined up?"

I didn't, and still don't, have a surefire, black or white answer for them. "Yes? Maybe? Sometimes?" I try to remember if I had the answer when I was 26, when I left The Diner on Sycamore in Cincinnati for the unknown of Saint Thomas; when I turned 28 and, jobless, moved to San Francisco; when, at 33, I quit a great bar-tending gig at Julie's Supper Club to decompressed in Mexico for a month and a half. Part of me finds it amusing that at my age there remains doubt, uncertainty, yearning, questions, and plain old not knowing. Had someone told me in my 20's that I'd be going though this in my 50's I would not have believed them.

So yeah, I'm still not entirely sure why I'm leaving Farallon. The only thing I know is that I'm ready for the next adventure, the next something, the next chapter in the Gospel According to Peter.

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Based on the above you might assume that lately I have not been spending much time in Marin County, in the Headlands, on Mount Tam. Well, you'd be correct. But luckily, Australia has headlands. Hawai'i does, too. Beyond that the two trips could not have been more different.

Australia was absolutely incredible - a true gift, a real treat, an eye-opening experience - but it was work. Up early, travel, seminar, taste, big lunch, travel, seminar, taste, big dinner, (insert more drinking if you want), sleep. Repeat. Given the amount of land we covered it had to be that way, I guess. In 12 short days on the ground we hit Sydney and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales; the Clare, Barossa and Eden Valleys, plus Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia; Tasmania in Tasmania; Sunbury, the Macedon Ranges and Melbourne in Victoria. Two fantastic nights in Melbourne, which I freakin' adored! I had been to Sydney before, on a trip in '04 after Mike Bonaccorsi died. I travelled with Andrea then, a friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday: a week in Sydney by ourselves and a week hanging with SF transplants Karen and Rob Gough in the Margaret River, a 5-hour plane ride to the other side of the country, to Western Australia and the Indian Ocean.

Sydney has a serpentine bay and hills like San Francisco, but the water is blue, blue, blue, and the feel of the place seems like a bigger, more cosmopolitan but still surf-driven San Diego. I could live there. Melbourne, on the other hand, has weather like San Francisco and the street smarts to match. People dress killer hip. For the fog, for the chill in the air, for the city. The feel is electric and urban; the architecture both century-old stone and brick next to modern glass and steel. Entire buildings are painted in bright colors or adorned with intricate patterns, crisscrossed with form follows function support beams on the outside, their tops topped with futuristic, one of a kind spires. For the residents of Melbourne the norm is scarfs, layers, wicked shoes, hats and leather. I could live there.

Okay, so I lied. I woke with the sunrise on Maui and Kaua'i as well, and I ate lunch and dinner like in Australia. But that's about it. Hawai'i was all about my other inner Pisces being: living the beach life; swimming every day, in waters a crystal clear turquoise and every other shade of blue under the sun; running around in flip-flops and shorts and T-shirts; snorkeling at whim; fish, both the amazing diversity underwater and the deliciousness on my plate; a tropical afternoon rain burst; so many rainbows; tons of sand and that lovely, sweaty, sexy humidity; stopping everything to watch the sunset. Yeah, I could live there.

I swear our bodies recognize a return to the sea. To salt water, to the place where we supposedly all sprung to life a billion or two years ago. For my sister Molly the trip to Hawai'i was a first time experience, and she went bonkers. She enjoyed Maui until we got to the north shore of Kaua'i, then she went totally, uber bonkers. For me it was a return, a coming home of sorts; I've been to the islands several times, and I love them. Loved showing her around, too. Gets kind of a bad rap, Hawai'i does, for being too Americanized, too built up, too DisneyLand, but I have no problem avoiding the areas I don't like and finding those that I do. Away from the crowds a bit. Instead, in the midst of the unique natural beauty formed by the millennia-old collision of fire, earth and water. The unique beauty that will hopefully be preserved now that we all have plenty of places to stay, to eat, to shop on the islands. Yes, I am aware of  Hawai'i's woes; I've seen them, seen the changes over the years. I wish I were in charge, because if I were nothing more would be bulldozed, nothing else built except the infrastructure to support the responsible enjoyment of the open space (both above ground and underwater) that remains.

As for Australia, well, if you haven't read Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburnt Country" I highly recommend you do. Come to think of it if you've never read any of Bill Bryson's books you should...immediately. As he so eloquently, knowledgeably and humorously makes his case, we don't hear much about that sprawling, ancient, arid, poisonous island-continent Down Under, but shit is happening, has happened. It's a good life in Oz. A fine life, blessed with a sunny clime, a cheery population, an extremely diverse landscape and some downright unique and improbable animals. Mr. Bryson doesn't much get into the wine scene, but based on my recent visit exciting shit is happening there, too. Between the cheap, innocuous Red Tail brand and the overpriced, over-extracted, over-oaked Robert Parker collector wines there's a bevy of balanced, honest, food-friendly wines that reflect their origins. Their history. If you think you know Australian wine, think again.

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Dang, this has been one major big post! For those of you who made to the end, well, I'd like to say "Hope you enjoyed the ramble", but I think "Sheesh...congratulations!" is probably more appropriate.

As you can tell I got some thinking to do, I do. Figure it out, for the time being. Find what's gonna sustain me for the next thirteen years. Enjoy the six weeks left at Farallon and the time off with family. Plus I gotta get back over to Marin, take a nice long stroll. Oh, and Yosemite. There, too.

G'day mate, and aloha.
Peter J. Palmer