Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's Time to Bone the Duck

It was just a year ago I posted thoughts on my travels in the "saner precincts of New England" having escaped the inaugural festivities and general craziness back home in Washington, DC. I felt I needed a different landscape where I might sort out and come to terms with events in my life. These reflections produced not only some specific reactions to my travels across western Maine and northern New Hampshire, during which I was caught up in a short-lived yet rather intense snow storm, but also recollections of another inauguration, that of John F. Kennedy, in January 1961, and the participation of the great New England bard, Robert Frost. I discovered that northern New England is definitely a good place to clear one’s head and get a clearer perspective on things. Now I have just returned from several days back up in these very same saner precincts having gone there once again to bring my life into focus.

So where does "boning the duck" figure into all of this? Stick with me here. Last year I read the intensely popular book, Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell (later made into an equally entertaining motion picture staring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams), in which she describes how she came to cook all 524 recipes found in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year. The book and film document the trials and tribulations, victories and failures both small and large, encountered during the endeavor. Some days Ms. Powell cooked more than one recipe, getting the easy stuff out of the way and leaving the more demanding recipes until the end. Throughout her quest, Ms. Powell dreaded the thought that one day she would have to bone a duck if she were to successfully prepare the final recipe, pâte de canard en croûte [boned stuffed duck in a pastry crust]. Without giving away the denouement of either the book or the film, I will tell you that she does eventually bone the duck and all was well with the world. Perhaps if she had sought out the snowy woods of northern New England like I did, she would have been able to accomplish her goal without all this unnecessary dread.

With me so far? So last year I headed into the Great North Woods to get away from the politics and rhetoric that had overtaken my and other lives during those long months leading up to the elections and the inauguration of a new president. We were entering a new era and it was time to rethink who we are and what we hope to accomplish in the coming days, months, and years. A good road trip, especially one up north, helps me clear my head. So when the end game of the 2008 elections arrived in Washington, DC last January, old Steve literally headed for the hills . . . in this case, the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was not that I necessarily dreaded what the future might bring; I simply wanted to think about my options.

This year, however, I returned to the Great White North for another reason. I needed the solitude and quiet of a snowy woods, the wind blowing across an ice-locked lake, to ponder a different kind of future, and an essentially new way of life. To come face-to-face with this decision, and it was a decision I faced with a certain degree of dread simply because of the unknown factors coming into play, I had to put aside all distractions and misgivings . . . to step up to the table once and for all, to grab the knife firmly in hand, and bone the damn duck.

The dreaded duck, in this instance, was the decision whether or not to retire. Without going into all the specific details, I will tell you that I have been at the same job for almost 32 years, since I left graduate school and stepped out into the real world in search of a career. It was not the career I originally planned for, but it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. How could it not be seeing that I have spent over half of my life at it? I have had only one real job in my life, only one employer, and most of the people with whom I have worked with have been my colleagues for many, many years. Beyond the important work we do, we have been there together for weddings, the birth of children, christenings and Bris Milahs, and, sadly, far too many funerals. We have shared victories and defeats, we have popped bottles of champagne and cried on each others' shoulders. I knew it would be a difficult umbilical to sever once the time came. And then there are the uncertainties of an unknown future. So I had to get away and walk the snowy trails and let the silence and the solitude bolster my courage to make the right decision.

Once home, I came to realize that the decision was not all that difficult. I had done what I had set out to do with my career, and there is still so much out there to see and do. I returned to my office, drank a strong cup of coffee, and then met with my bosses and told them that, after much soul searching, I had decided the time had come to move on and to entertain and explore a new and different destiny. It turns out it was really not that hard to bone the duck, as it were. The first cut is the most important, the hardest. Once completed, however, everything falls away from the bones as it should.

NEXT: A Less Ambitious Guest


  1. Thanks for sharing this honest moment in your life, Steve. I wonder what the next chapter will be for you? Or, to stay with your image, what dish will you prepare now that you've boned the duck?