Michael Ruhlman is the author of Boys Themselves, a year in the life of the private boys’ day school; Wooden Boats; The Making of a Chef; The Soul of a Chef; and The French Laundry Cookbook. His book on pediatric heart surgery - Walk on Water - will be published by Viking in April. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio with his wife and children. Read more about his work at his website: www.ruhlman.com













"For my work I have chosen to write about others at their work, mostly men who labor with their hands . . . The builders of wooden boats rely each day on the knowledge, passed down over millennia, of how to put pioeces of wood together in a way that is both beautiful and watertight."


















"That work in my old house, that daily run, stakes me to my history, to all my former selves, holds me down in chaotic, confusing winds."






















"A love of home is a connection with the life circle, no different than the seasons. My father will work and die here. And I will work and die here."


Summer/Fall 2002

A Man's Life

An ongoing conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Gathering Home

by Michael Ruhlman

I returned to live with my father in the house I grew up in shortly before my 24th birthday, toxic from 18 months in Manhattan where I'd been a copyboy in the newsroom of The New York Times. A few of the ground floor windows of my father's house didn't lock, so in order to sleep, I lined the tops of these windows with delicate glassware.

That I would need to do such a thing was less a reflection of our upper-middle-class neighborhood in Shaker Heights, Ohio, than the lingering impact of the place I’d left—a city where you might, say, find a man with beady eyes and a moustache hiding in your closet. (He’d been ripping off my apartment when I surprised him; after I got him out, he knocked to ask if we could talk—I declined the request, then found his trousers on my bedroom floor.)

That my paranoia carried over from where it was useful (Manhattan) to where it was pathologic (leafy old suburbia) tells me how powerfully home is built into our psyche. I wasn’t actually preventing a burglar with those perched wine glasses; rather, those wine glasses secured the home in my mind, the idea of home, which had been violated by urban life.

I came and went from my boyhood home during the next four years but ultimately sought to return, with my New York-born wife, to live in the city where I grew up. I found that when I lived elsewhere, I yearned for home, and now, surprisingly, though I’ve been back a dozen years, that longing continues. I yearn for the home I have. And it is this yearning, I’ve realized, that has shaped my life: my family, my work as a writer and the compulsion to write about specific people at their work—teachers, chefs, boat builders, surgeons.

Mine is work that necessitates long stretches away from home followed by similar stretches of having returned home. It’s become clear to me only through the writing and editing and rewriting of these words that there may exist a prehistoric homing instinct in men, different from but no less powerful than women’s so-called “nesting instinct.” The mythology of Odysseus, his place in our culture as an archetypal figure, should not focus solely on his being a journeyer, soldier, quester, but truly as the ultimate homebody—a seeker of home, the embodiment of the yearning for home that is a fundamental aspect of male humanity.

I cherish home on even the most superficial level. I love simply being at home, all day long, day after day. I have created a job for myself that demands it. Here I set my own schedule, manage my own time. As it doesn’t require a daily commute, unnecessary banter with colleagues, or a single meeting, work is streamlined and efficient. I can get more done at home. Also, when I’m writing, I can go days without wearing anything more than pajama pants and a bath-robe, which is a pleasure all its own.

That I’ve become such a homebody would have appalled my 21-year-old self, a man at last, heading recklessly into the world full of promise and eager for adventure, determined to avoid falling into the routine I’d seen in the life of my father—a Cleveland ad-man who today boards the same train at the same stop where he first boarded it in 1965, age 27.

When I was a boy, I’d loved his daily ritual. I’d wait for him at the busy intersection at the end of our street, where he would step off the train, home from work. If I was lucky, he’d have brought me Necco wafers or a mini six-pack of candy-colored liquid in tiny wax bottles. He loved coming home—always arrived with a bright smile and a big hug for me, his only child. We walked home together. It was home when he was there.

But by the time I was 20 and off to college, I resented his acceptance of this lifelong routine. How could he stand it, let alone choose it?

It is the irony of fate that routine—something I once resented in my father’s life—is what I have chosen and most cherish in my own.

I covet routine, and I resent anyone who takes it from me. I am not spontaneous; I hate a surprise. When I hear a phone ringing out in the middle of silent morning work or see the mail carrier striding toward our porch, I dangle a cross and rope of garlic in my mind to ward off the surprise bill we can’t pay, the call from the school nurse about a serious accident. Or actual bad news, as happened this summer, catastrophes within families we know and love—the death of a toddler within the home, a potentially terminal illness in a seven-year-old girl as beautiful and bright as my own seven-year-old.

The lives of entire families, entire family histories, pivot on a single day, on a single moment. Routine within the home, to one who expects disaster at every turn, feels like a barrier against it. So for reasons big and small, imagined and real, I hoard routine like a miser.

For my work I have chosen to write about others at their work, mostly men who labor with their hands, all of whom are guided by the work of their predecessors. Nothing the heart surgeon in my latest book does today would be possible without the maverick work of the heart surgeons who came before him. The builders of wooden boats about whom I wrote rely each day on the knowledge, passed down over millennia, of how to put pieces of wood together in a way that is both beautiful and watertight.

The fundamental techniques used by the chefs I’ve chronicled—stock making, sauce making, braising tough meats or sautéing tender ones—rely on principles of heat and cold that have existed since humankind first realized, many thousands of years ago, that heat changed the texture and flavor of food; their work is daily informed by the work of French chefs of several centuries before them, from La Varenne to Careme to Escoffier.

I was fortunate to meet a chef named Thomas Keller, as watchful a craftsman as I have known. He liked to say that if you are a really good cook, you could travel back in time and be at home in any kitchen, because food and cooking works today as it always has. A cook in the 17th century who braised oxtail was feeling and smelling and seeing the same things as I did when I braised oxtail. So if I paid attention to the process, enjoyed the sizzle and aroma of floured meat hitting the fat as I kept watch over the cooking of a deepening stew, I connected in a way with that 17th century cook, to all those people who had done exactly what I was doing. I affirmed my own humanity—this was part of the great pleasure and deep satisfaction of cooking, this connection.

Keller and I have begun work on another cookbook. It explores utilitarian French cooking—French comfort food—the sort of food you want to return to again and again and again—roast chicken, steak frites. Part of the pleasure of eating a good bowl of onion soup, I’ve recently discovered, is that you connect to all the onion soups you have ever eaten. The idea of onion soup is a reference point against which you measure each actual one, and all your experiences with onion soup—from the ’70s sludge in a crock to the one you watched your wife eat in the hotel on your honeymoon to the ethereal one you found in a country inn, by chance, on a cold fall day—those onion soup experiences accumulate and become a part of a time line of onion soup experiences that grows richer with each successive one—a great big to some foods over and over again.

My point in bringing up this onion soup business is to suggest that to be in a house itself is not what’s so important to me; it is to be in a house in the city where I was born (and will likely die, in demented incontinent bliss, I hope). This deliberate act—to live where I grew, an increasingly uncommon choice in vagabond America—allows the ultimate connection to the life force. I tread daily the same paths I had as a child—to school and then home, to friends’ homes, then back to mine.

WE ARE RENOVATING an old house here, including my office, and so I wrote my last book at my father’s house, in my childhood bedroom (generic now—no camp pennants or baseball trophies) at the desk my parents bought for me before my entry into the sixth grade—a desk still scarred by incense I accidentally left burning as a wannabe hippie teen-ager. I wrote a novel at that desk when I returned home at 24 from New York City. Ten years later, between moves, I wrote a book about learning to cook, and all last winter, I sat at that desk finishing my book about a surgeon-craftsman and the high-stakes work of a pediatric heart unit.

When I took my daily midday breaks for exercise last winter, I jogged past my elementary school. Midway there, I crossed a bit of sidewalk, a big cracked sandstone slab that still collects water on wet days as it always did throughout my school days—the slab where my classmate Debbie Shaw kissed my second-grader cheek for no reason. That kiss would mark a moment of private glory I could not help but recall each day on that run. It was as if the sidewalk slab was actually charged with some kind of memory electricity that buzzes me when I hit it.

Each step of that seven-tenths-of-a-mile route I have made thousands of times, in hundreds of versions of myself, and each step of that daily jog last winter connected me with all those versions, good and bad: returning home with a shameful report card; returning home after midnight, a drunken teenager burning with love for a girl named Kathy who lived a ways beyond the school; the apprentice writer returning home to work on a novel that would never be published but that would secure an agent; and still again to carry on with the cooking book, then again with the surgeon book.

That work in my old house, that daily run, stakes me to my history, to all my former selves, holds me down in chaotic, confusing winds, in a world where the toddler child of dear friends can die, where girls my daughter’s age are snatched from their home forever, gone.

The same connective, onion-soup powers rise out the routines of home. Mowing the lawn, the route to the grocery store, the smell of the kitchen when no one is cooking, the senses of every day, experienced without thought or reflection but powerfully absorbed. It will be the same routine my children absorb (and they may need to resent me for it just as I needed to resent my father). My daughter and son might even play baseball on the same fields I played on. Just the thought of it recalls the passion with which I lived for those games—my passion for a baseball game then exceeded in intensity most passions I feel now, in flabby middle age, for anything, not to mention the completely new and raw sensations of anguish and joy over girls, who are now moms I still know. My children will know such passions as well in the city where my father grew up and where their father grew up.

A LOVE OF HOME is ultimately a connection with the life circle, no different from the seasons. My father will work and die here. And I will work and die here. My children may or may not choose to do the same, but knowing that they may, having sensed the continuum of my father’s life, leading to mine, leading to my children’s, obviates what might otherwise be my biggest fear—fear of death. A recognition of this continuum and a deliberate effort to observe it makes any such regret or worry about death or the apparent lack of meaning in life inappropriate, gives a sense of life-integrity to each day, and to each day’s routines.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO when I began to write about boats built of wood—planks on frames that kept the water out—I lived among the people who did the work. I met a gifted sailor and boat builder named Andy Lyon, who had just returned from cruising Amazonian tributaries in Harmony, his 35-foot Crocker sloop. Andy lived year-round on Harmony, and he articulated the most appealing fact about boats when they are your home.

“I live on it because it takes me places,” he told me, as we clipped through the Vineyard Sound. “It’s always an adventure. And every night I come home.”

No matter where he is on earth, every night he comes home. Andy, 34 years old at the time, a quiet solitary soul and continual world traveler, was the ultimate homebody, a true Odysseus.

“I don’t like being called a ‘live-aboard,’” he said. “I don’t live aboard. This is my life. I live on something I am.”

This was a kind of integrity of being, of existence, that I had never encountered. His house was him, and he was his home.

Today my house is the same (now equipped with motion detectors—I think of them as electronic wine glasses)—an actual structure that gives not only shelter and warmth but salutary shape to a whole family’s life, and more: a metaphorical structure I long for even as I live in it, to make it what it has always been.


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