Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” —J.R.R. Tolkien
There was a time when I, too, lived in the Shire. It was my own creation, of course—a mountain-capped panorama brimming with stories and intrigue. For me, it was all things wonderfully imagined, an escape made real in the heaviness of description and the weight of complicated characters. I had my Marys and Pippins, my ambling Gandalfs and fastidious Bilbos. There was something both rewarding and invigorating in it; quests uncharted in my boring teenage life were dramatized with trumpets and fire, heros were bright and their champions brighter, castles soared and wars were hideously epic. Even the enemies—the solid black face of evil—carried hideous scars and brutalizing schemes. In my fictional world, I could play out what reality could not; I could, and would, end the day a conquering hero.
But as my life has stumbled through growth and maturity, I have come to find less comfort in those fictional worlds. I still love to read about them—mostly, I think, because they stand for a time of unadulterated imagination and impossible escape. But today, I relish the real story far more—real people, real histories, and all the truths I sought to escape as a teen.
Rarely, however, do I enjoy writing about myself. I might conjure reasons why those kind of self-indulgent projects are simply unappetizing, or I can just tell you flat out that it makes me uncomfortable. But the truth is, I value finding value in others before self. I want to know the serpentine stories of everyone’s past, and how they land in the moment that we meet. There’s always a story there, whether we think so or not.
Because of this rejection of self as subject, my professional work has dabbled mostly in light-hearted renderings of food, gays, and gays eating food. It’s sometimes a plastic engagement—making life seem fluffy when, in fact, it’s harder than stone. And while I am deeply in love with food, it is not so much food itself that keeps me excited. Rather, it is the capacity for food to bring community together, to set the stage for storytelling, to make lives momentarily happy that are otherwise burdened with pain.
To write about food, then, seems a step removed from what I truly want to do. But if it takes a saucy steak and steaming pie to make that happen, who am I to cut the bait? As life has told me in its happier moments, there is no greater time to tell one’s story than when settled into a meal with loving company.
But the games that I play to eke out history—warm meals and roaring fires among them—are sometimes questionable, aren’t they? They seem cheap tricks at best and dishonest at worst. All I want is the truth—the ugly, compromising, off-colored, depressing truth. Is that so much to ask?
As I volley that very question in my mind—sometimes in the company of those I’d love to know much better than I do—I turn it around on myself. I imagine a young, 30-something idealist, wide-eyed and ravenous for story, pounding me with invasive questions. And I have to concede that I’d rather go hungry and be safely alone than indulge such a violent hunt for the truth. To hell with meals and company.
So what do I do? If I could somehow invite Tolkien and Woodward to join me for pasta and wine, would they tell me which was better, which path more fulfilling? Which is it, gents? By all means, finish your wine, but then tell me: truth or fiction?
That, of course, is ridiculous. At times, in my mellowing 30s, I’m tempted to revert to escapism. At least then, I can play the game out like chess. I know the pieces. I know my moves. But at the end of the day, at the end of life’s road, imaginary battles don’t win you much treasure. For that matter, they cut you out from real life and stunt your growth along the way.
But if reality were kind enough to sit these two gentleman in front of me, attention rapt and appetites pitched, I would most certainly ask: Is it possible to escape into reality? And then, the question lingering in the air with its latent answer, I would indulge in good food and perhaps, too, a glass of wine.