Picture a full rack of raw baby back ribs. The pink of nearly parallel bones curves away from you. There’s a luminous white layer of fat under the bones that cushioned the pig when he still wore them. The meat between the bones is tender, slightly marbled with more fat that will provide flavor and moisture during cooking. In a small bowl, you mix up brown sugar, salt, chili powder, black pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, and thyme. You scoop the dry rub up with your hand and pat it gently – don’t rub it – into the surface of the meat. When all the ribs are equally coated, front and back, you put them in the smoker. Smoke them low and slow over apple or hickory wood for at least 6 hours – overnight is better. When morning comes, you mix ketchup, whiskey, brown sugar, lemon juice, worcestershire, garlic and dry mustard in a small pot. Simmer this mixture until it is thickened and glossy. The ribs get bathed on both sides with this thick, sticky glaze and an intense heat is applied. As a crust develops from the caramelizing sugar, a tantalizing aroma fills the air. You KNOW that this is going to taste good. These ribs are going to be incredible! The anticipation is almost unbearable. Finally they are removed from the heat, and, still sizzling, you slice them apart, noticing the pink ring that indicates they were penetrated by the smoke. You bring a moist, tender, falling-off-the-bone rib to your mouth, the scent of smoke and chiles and whiskey flooding your head. You take a bite. The combined flavor of the sweet glaze, the spicy rub, the aromatic smoke and the melted fat explodes in your mouth and you are transfixed, sticky and blissfully unaware of anything, incapable of moving until your brain catches up to your senses.
This orgasmic experience is one that everyone should have at least once, as it is a beautiful metaphor for Life. Life as a seductive baby back rib. Life as it could be. Consider this…
Imagine that your life is a rack of ribs. You are born pink, new, fat, with huge potential. Your future stretches in front of you with different “bones” of experience waiting to happen. These bones are common to most every life: toilet training, learning to read, finding faith, driving, graduating from high school, finding a partner, getting a job, losing a job, retiring, and that beautiful little meaty end of the rack is your death. The bones are the structure of your life.
The rub that is applied is your youth, the time before you are released into the world to discover yourself and live your life. It is those sweet and spicy years before you are held in the smoke to cook and solidify. They are your first kiss, your discovery of punk rock, speaking in front of your class. They are infatuation, getting dumped, being bullied, breaking a bone, choosing a college. They are the things you do and the things that happen to you that affect you forever.
When you get your first job, when you are working to buy a house, setting up your retirement accounts, you are in the smoke. These are the years that Life swirls around you. Sometimes it feels like you are going in a circle or standing still, and everything passes you by. It is tedious, it may be dull. But when you come out of the smoke, you know who you are and what you need to be complete. Your identity is obvious now.
The fire is the moment when you begin to live. Really live. You build a glaze for your life. A glaze of sweet and sour, of spice and bitter with a hint of salt. You fall in love for real, experience the death of a loved one, you travel to faraway places, you get a divorce, you rediscover faith. You take the job you’ve always wanted, or you leave the job that no longer serves your purpose. Your experiences are vivid and bold. Their flavors are vibrant. There is the unspoken knowledge that there isn’t a lot of time left; you’re getting to the meaty end.
Thinking about this metaphor, it occurs to me that most of the flavor is a thin layer on the outside of the meat, that the rub and the glaze are the moments in our lives when we are caught between the comfortable and the unknown, between smoke and fire. These are the moments when we are most alive, the times when we are living “in the edge”. We are caught up in a place that is at once exciting and terrifying. The Buddha said that impermanence is the nature of the human condition. We want what is familiar and comfortable, but we are truly alive when we don’t know what comes next. When we are about to be thrown out of the nest, and are creating and experiencing and loving fully and with all that we are, without regard for what comes next, those are the times when we are living in the edge. We should strive to stay there, because that’s where all the flavor is.
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“If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” – Emile Zola
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