I’ve reached the point in life when I’m no longer likely to climb a mountain or win a marathon, and even riding fast motorcycles starts to seem like a bad idea. But I can still order a pizza named The Leviathan, made with ghost peppers, jalapenos, harissa, pepper jack and siracha mayo. And so, on a recent night out, I did.
This was on the way to the annual Thanksgiving concert put on in Minneapolis by guitar divinity Leo Kottke. A friend got the tickets, so in the way of fairness I volunteered to buy the pre-show pizza and beer at a brewpub a couple of blocks from the theater.
In our youth this friend and I played guitar all the time. On a good day either of us could make a decent attempt at Mr. Kottke’s finger-busting compositions. Seeing the Thanksgiving show has become an occasional tradition spanning decades.
I used to think of him as my spicy-food friend. He was born in Tucson and when he moved to Minnesota he had the only mom in the neighborhood that cooked using non-Scandinavian levels of heat. Dinner over at his house was a trip to some place exotic. Ordering the pizza seemed like the thing to do.
The Leviathan is the title of the philosophical work penned in the 17th century by Thomas Hobbes. He describes the nature of things as “the war of all against all” and that’s how it feels to bite into so many hot peppers stacked onto the same slice of pizza. I should have read the ingredient list more carefully. Maybe Googled ghost peppers.
Hobbes also wrote life is “nasty, brutish and short.” So after the first bite we proceeded with caution. It took some time and too much beer, but The Leviathan was finally reduced to one single remaining slice. We split the last piece down the middle. Et vincere nemo dividat. Divide and conquer. The pizza was beat.
There are places on Earth where eating food loaded with enough heat to roast the tongue right out of your mouth is an everyday thing, but Minnesota isn’t one of them. The more sensible among us would ask why we need anything more exotic than meatballs and lingonberries. Food scientists say a chemical reaction happens when extremely spicy food attacks the nerve endings in the tongue, and this tricks the brain into releasing endorphins which in turn leave the owner of the tongue strangely happy.
I think it’s simpler than all that. Hobbes assessment was grim, but he had a point. Mortality’s a bitch. So we find our own small ways to push it back a bit. Hitting the town with your oldest friend and making the sort of dumb menu choices you might have made in middle school is a fine way to accomplish this.
Besides, I had a whole evening of listening to the exquisite acoustic guitar work of Leo Kottke to let the nerve endings in my mouth cool. When I first heard his country blues based fingerpicking style back in the 1970s the songs had an old soul. Now it feels like he’s aged into his music. At 72 years old, Kottke still leaves the audience mesmerized for a breathless heartbeat or two when he finishes a song, before everyone breaks into applause.
At a time when the whole world seems to be mimicking Hobbs’s foreboding calculus, it was a much needed balm. I have a low tolerance for cruelty and ignorance and getting older hasn’t improved it. The times we’re living in have worn me to a nub. But ageless music and old friendships remain, and maybe in the end that’s enough.
Leo Kottke is mostly known as an instrumentalist, and makes fun of his singing voice in interviews. But the rare songs where he adds lyrics to his fingerpicking are some of my favorites. Late in the show he sang Tiny Island for us, and I still can’t get it out of my head.
Sometimes I feel like a tiny island floating in the sea.
Palm trees sway, don’t get in the way, it’s a tropical ease.
And everywhere that I keep my silence, no sound returns to me.
Just endless waves at the end of our days, the sighing of the seas.
But yesterday’s gone, I don’t know where I come from, hmmm,
Wonder where I’m going.