Please … Let Me Explain

I glanced across the line of shelves filled with eye-catching boxes and broad-shouldered bottles, occasionally pulling one from the line-up to scrutinize with envious enthusiasm.

“I can’t confidently say that I’m an expert at this time, as it’s only been six months, but I figure another year and a half and most customers who walk through that shop door will find me to be a connoisseur of the craft—a malt maven, if you will.”

I glanced up at the twenty-four-year old soon-to-be scotch scholar and gave him an encouraging smile.

“I hadn’t envisioned finding myself in this position years ago when in school in Finland—working as Mr. Worrall’s apprentice—but”—he ran his hands through his buzz-cropped, fair-colored hair—“it seems the puzzle pieces just fell into place.”

“I see,” I murmured, pivoting from one tight space in the tiny London whisky shop to move past the long and lanky Finn toward another shelf filled with other amber liquids I’d yet to see or taste.

I picked up a bright canary colored box. “Huh,” I breathed out, twisting the carton in my hand to view all sides. A whisky made in New Zealand. I’d traveled to the country maybe a decade ago and had been disappointed to discover that the only distillation I came across was the furtive kind—with kerosene cans and rubber tubing. Nothing I could find on the shelves of duty free at the airport to take home. The box in my hand provided scant details.

“Where is this?” I twisted to glance up at The Lad McFinnland.

His eyebrows rose, and then quick understanding flooded his face. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”

I stood silent. Then I looked around for something that would cost less than one hundred pounds to throw at his head, as this was a rare malt whisky shop that carried nothing one wouldn’t have to consider auctioning off a kidney in order to buy.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at the American distiller sitting in the corner, wrapping up business with the shop owner. We had developed a few signals during this trip to subtly communicate.

I was tagging along on his travels across the UK, helping him navigate his unpretentious and ballsy bourbon around a country filled with its exclusive, gentry-filled single malt scotch drinkers.

He’s a Virginian, whose teeth were cut on grits and grand plantations. I’m currently a Virginian—by way of a million little detours—who’s spent twenty-five years soaking up the Scottish, the Irish, and everything English.

“Your whisky tastes of marmite and ribena,” one distributer had said.

I’d leaned over to translate. “Yeast paste and black currents.”

“I’m getting a touch of candy floss.”

“That would be cotton candy,” I whispered.

“This one tastes of a water closet’s urinal cake.”

I looked at the distiller. His furrowed eyebrows halted my words. “Yeah, I got that one.”

I’m also here, immersing myself in a side of the whisky world I’m usually not swimming in—all for the sake of research. My newest novel in progress—a book about a suffering distillery on the verge of falling apart—has me seeking more than just the drinking of a dram. The more I know about the inside industry, the better the believability factor.

So, once again I’ve entered the world of spirits where the main players erroneously assume I have as much understanding and interest about the subject as I do about prostate cancer.

“We’re talking about brown spirits, darling,” one Englishman pointed out to me at a tasting event. “An utterly foul habit to the gentler sex.”

“Mansplaining is something we find even fouler,” I looked up innocently.

“Surely not,” he put a hand on my shoulder. “Perhaps we should get you a white wine?”

“A single malt, please.”

“That’s the spirit,” he said with another wry, all-knowing pat. “I’ll order you my favorite lest you find it distasteful. Then I’ll drink it myself.”

This industry has been slow to change. Like the pivoting of a large ship, the whisky world protects its stability. Women can make things tipsy—both literally and figuratively. And parts of the world I travel to are reticent to allow the hand of time to tick as quickly as it wishes to. But there is a growing number of “that gentler sex” that persevere, and for that I’m wholly grateful. As I believe it’s an alcoholic arena that many find too intimidating to enter, and we need a few to boldly clear the path in front of us.

I crave standing in the intersection of the two things I love most: writing and whisky. My aim for the last two decades has been to make it into an explosive crossroads, adding food and nature, folklore and peat smoke. To me, this is the best definition of scotch—purely Scotland in liquid form. It finds me weak in the knees and often at a loss for language.

Despite the heavy hand of doubt I’m usually greeted with on this male-dominated turf, I’d be remiss if I neglected to point out the bright moments where I’m caught by surprise and filled with delight.

“So,” a tall, Welsh actor beside me starts, “have you been dragged here by a companion you’re unfortunately in debt to, or are you as besotted with this juice as much as the rest of the poor SOBs at this whisky tasting?”

I turned and glanced up. I wanted to hug him. “Definitely not dragged. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“Ah,” he nodded grimly. “Then I feel doubly sorry for you, as I’m sure like us, you’re continually searching for and finding the next Holy Grail, only to discover after a taste from that chalice, that it’s usually just a few too many precious pennies out of our budgets.”

I laughed and took a sip of the pricey elixir in my hand. Finally, a true compatriot.

He continued. “So what have you been dying to try that seems a little out of reach?”

I thought back to yesterday, in the rare malt shop. “Oh,” I breathed out dreamily. “A new single malt from New Zealand.”

His eyes lit with interest. “Really? Where’s that?”

I couldn’t help myself, and I snorted with laughter as the words tumbled out. “Ah yes, New Zealand is a small chain of islands—two mainly—off the south eastern coast of Australia. Known for its mountains and glaciers generally.”

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Good to Hear Your Voice

Image result for be good and you will be lonesome mark twain free image

I’m smack dab in the middle of reading Mark Twain’s autobiography this month.

Okay, that’s not exactly true.

It feels like I should be smack dab in the middle, but in truth, I’m only stuck inside the introduction. Which, unbelievably, is nearly as long as the book part itself.

I’d say about one quarter acre’s worth of trees was sacrificed for the beginning of this book. And I’m gathering that the beginning of this book was deemed worthy of that slaughter.

Except I’m craving Twain’s words. Not some editor’s. Not some scholar’s. Not some newfound margin scribble from the guy who sat and took dictation. His words.

Mark’s. Or Sam’s. Or maybe he went by Phil on Tuesday’s and every other Sunday. It doesn’t matter. I want to hear what’s inside that man’s brain.

I want to hear his voice.

As an author, and I’ve checked with a couple of others on this bit so you can trust me, we collectively agree that the most important thing we can do for our careers is to develop a unique voice.

A voice that not only spins a good yarn, but does so with a color most folks don’t typically see in their everyday multi-hued spectrum.

Brown? Too drab. Purple? Too flamboyant.

Brurple.

That’s me.

If you’ve got something to say one must next find a way to tickle the auditory hair cells within the cochlea of the people you’re directing your words toward—or if like me and your musings are absorbed in the form of at least one effortful eyeball scanning words across a page, you need to create text that just leaps off that paper and literally spanks the reader across the forehead.

In a really loving spanking kind of a way.

But getting to the meat of your message is important. Dressing it up? Not so much.

In fact, I cannot count the number of times an agent or editor or beta reader of mine has said, “Yuck. Your writing is just dripping with purple prose.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s like taking a beautiful roast ham, packing it in a great wad of brown sugar, plastering canned pineapple all over it, wrapping it three times with maple bacon, and then pouring a large liter of Coco Cola over the top of it. Ala Paula Dean.

One ends up with something sticky, sweet, syrupy, and inedible. One also ends up searching for a large bucket of bleach and a wire brush with which to scrub one’s teeth. You’ve ruined what could have been something quite toothsome and savory.

Hiding behind unnecessary words results in confusion. I’ve been lectured repeatedly that it’s best, when trying to cultivate your true and authentic voice, to use your own. Don’t be snatching catchy phrases or snippets of impressive sounding opinions from clever pundits, worldly academics, or The Onion.

Okay, well, yes, I’ll take back that last one. The world could use a little bit more of The Onion.

The problem with this—the using others’ words in place of your own—(that I’ve most certainly discovered first hand) is that when people raise their eyebrows with interest at what you’ve just professed, they oftentimes will ask you to expound, to further enlighten the dark areas of their minds. And when you can’t …

Yeah, you better hope there’s an eagle or a squirrel close by. Maybe an errant This is not a test text that comes across everyone’s screen to save your tuchas.

I’ve become so profoundly aware of this situation because recently I’ve been purposefully surrounding myself with speeches.

Next month I’ve got a couple to give. It’s good to look at the historical soup of a million others. But I’ll quickly point out two that emerged and left me with a measurable thumbprint of thought.

I’ve just finished a book that held a selection of Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement speeches. They’re short, they’re punchy, they’re meant to occasionally have faculty members behind him draw in a sharp breath as he tells the students in front of him what the school has been glossing over for the last four years in their protective bubble.

No doubt within three sentences, you know this is pure Vonnegut.

Last month, I watched The State of the Union address. I’ve seen plenty of others. I know how these work. But these weren’t the words of the individual who was elected to office. Far from it. And I think for the people who voted him into that position, and for those waiting for the much touted promise The presidency wholly and completely changes a person, it was a lost opportunity.

It was purple prose.

Sticky, sweet, and yet altogether flavorless. No meat. No message. No memorability.

No thanks.

There is so much we people hide behind these days. Other people’s words, other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. It’s really not impossible to create our own.

It’s intimidating, yes, because we may be rejected or rebuffed.

It’s effortful, yes, because it requires one to formulate concrete thought and opinion, and wrestle with why you want to say these words in the first place.

And it’s humbling because there are bucketloads of moments when afterward we discover just how wrong we are.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Try to be authentic. Strive to be astute. Reach for earnest bona fide status.

I want people to truly seek out my words, and to have engaging enough words that they will fight through the forest of extra pages of editorial intros in order to get to them.

And like any good firewood chopping Wisconsinite, I know where the good stuff in a tree really is. And I want my books and words and sentiments to reflect that.

Otherwise, it’s all bark and no heart.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

I used to cling to a mantra that encapsulated everything I thought and felt, and was conveniently and succinctly put into three words:

Change equals death.

I know. It sounds … dead on perfect, right? Like I nailed life for nearly all of us, yes?

Except, every time I uttered this phrase and expected to get a high-five from the person listening, I was instead greeted with the fusion of eyebrows. It was like I’d asked each one of them, “Can you make any part of your face look like a caterpillar?”

I don’t say the phrase out loud anymore.

It’s not that I don’t like entomology, but rather, I’m trying much harder these days to embrace change.

Or death.

It could be both.

I’m not sure.

I have been incredibly lucky to have been given a plethora of experiences on this particular go round—this multi-decade drawing in of sustainable breath. Experiences that have allowed me to steep in, or wade in, or dip a toe into the pool of at least three things I have been passionate about thus far:

Music—Writing—Whisky.

(Yeah, yeah, the whole childbearing thing has been grand as well in case the two of you are reading this.)

Moving from one to another—or even doing two simultaneously—has proven to leave me with heart palpitations that prove I can be a pretty fearful person. Or that I’m housing a really large tapeworm.

But it can be hard to give oneself permission to explore and be curious.

Being a grownup requires discipline.

And a huge sense of humor when catching a reflection of yourself when stepping out the shower.

But mostly it requires the understanding of multisyllabic words like: Timeliness. Efficiency. Quality. Obstructionism. And all these things—when done in concert and with proficiency—can produce the thing most folks are seeking:

Payoff.

Now, defining what a payoff means to any one individual may fall on a wide spectrum of meaning and significance.

In the past I have assigned it to mean something that will end up paying the electricity bill.

But sometimes we need to feed meters in other areas. It’s so easy to dismiss the importance of learning something new because effortful thinking can be … well, effortful. And who truly likes to have sweat leaking out their ears? But paying the brain bill is crucial. And especially worthwhile after the reward of newfound knowledge and skill bathes you in a golden glow of self-congratulations.

It just feels damn good to get smarter.

It’s happened to me at least twice.

Once when I figured out that there was a filter in my vacuum cleaner. And the second time when I figured out that it was a waste of time to vacuum.

Other things that have paid off for me during the last few months?

Naps, fresh air, walks.

Yes, I’ve found the answer to life is to live like my dog.

A dog that can drive, and read, and open a bottle of wine—true—an unusual breed, but every day that puddle of sun on the wooden floor is increasingly comfortable, and I’ve gotten used to peeing outside at the edge of the woods.

I’m only kidding.

I never go as far as the edge of the woods.

There are the other myriad bits of horse sense that every day grow to sound more reasonable—I wouldn’t call them aha moments but rather duh moments of realization.

Anger is a waste of time.

Righteousness is a waste of breath.

Tantrums look awful from a 71 year old civil servant.

I think you all know where I’m going with this one. Nearly all of us survived a year where it felt like our country was thrown into a giant Yahtzee cup, shaken until our teeth began to rattle and then tossed out onto some new horrific cardboard landscape in the 2017 version of Life.

And I mean nearly because thankfully Hasbro has decided that this year’s version would be updated with a space that says, “If you have shamelessly behaved in any lewd and licentious way, the rest of the players are free to vote you straight off the island.” So yes, the dominoes are falling in a sweetly satisfying design of their own making.

Enough with the game metaphors.

My point is, we’re surviving.

But is surviving enough?

Sometimes it feels enduring is all one can do when surrounded by an unhinged political circus that has the annoyance factor and efficacy of a fruit fly convention. (Dear God, may it have the lifespan of one as well.)

Maybe we all just need to remember that if we put out one overly-ripe and near to rotting piece of fruit all those vexatious pests will make a beeline straight for the cesspool (or cesshouse or cesshole) and feast themselves to death while the rest of us get on with work in a gadfly free zone.

And maybe that work means making some changes so that we can ALL continue to keep the American dream alive—the one where we’re encouraged to see just how much of a difference we can make on this planet by discovering our talents and skills. A chance to see just how far we can push the limits on the human experience.

So maybe change doesn’t equal death always. Maybe, I will have to consider that if I stubbornly set my talons deep into the earth where I now stand, I will deserve getting flattened by the giant 64 wheeler flying down the highway and coming straight at me.

Sometimes it only takes a few steps to the left or right, just enough to get out of the way of your own demise.

Just follow the chicken.

What I’ve come to understand this last year is that change is actually a choice. And choice is a freedom. And none of us should ignorantly pass up the opportunity to exercise our freedom. In a world where more and more of us are being stripped of our liberties by those who are in power, it becomes easier to see that the phrase Change equals death should be altered to Change equals fear.

This makes a lot more sense when trying to parse what’s happening around our globe.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We have a choice. So let’s make a change while we still can.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

Words Fail Me

I come from a family full of stage folk.

I’m pretty sure that somewhere on my birth certificate it states that I wasn’t born in a hospital but rather on the jutting apron of a stage.

I was raised flossing my teeth on the grimy ropes of the house curtains. I learned to crawl up on some poorly constructed way over-budget theater catwalk. And I probably believed for years that whomever was hired as the followspot operator for the sun should be readily fired, as he was doing an abominable job whenever I was outside and in need of illumination.

There was the stage, and then there was … well, I heard there was other stuff, but I wasn’t sure what it all was or looked like.

Whether drawing a bow across an instrument shaped like a violin but surely in truth a tortured cat, skipping across eighty-eight keys with the hope and a prayer that some of them will be the right ones, and a few in the right order, or clutching a microphone and praying it can cover the intense alarm on my face as I gaze out over a crowd of hundreds, it didn’t matter that I left my lunch in a bucket backstage before stepping into that lonely pool of light. What mattered was that minutes later I realized that I’d left my heart out on that dais and that I was going to have to go back there to get it.

Because I wanted to do it all over again.

I’m not sure if the real thrill came from the adrenaline rush of standing in front of showgoers and hearing them applaud at the end of the number or the stress release of realizing that I made it through to the end, had not fainted in the middle of my performance, and no one had to rush up on stage and drag my limp body off into the wings.

It was always, always a possibility.

And the thing that created the most mammoth amount of nerve jangling? Going blank.

I’m going to guess that most folks have had this happen to them at least once in their lives. You forget someone’s name, all the facts you’d just crammed into your head the night before for the big test have suddenly vanished, maybe you arrive in a room and think, I’ve walked down into this cobwebbed, basement utility room for … what again?

And the consequences for these blunders can range from annoying to GPA torpedoing.

My vocation blunders were usually on the end of the spectrum marked “cringe-worthy.” That just went with the territory.

But thankfully, there were a boatload of tricks I’d learned over the years, ready to be shelled out at a moment’s notice, if my brain suddenly blew a fuse and all went dark.

Lose the thread in the middle of your fiddle solo? Just “accidentally” knock a peg and lose a string. Then give a nod to one of the guys in the band. They then take over while you just start clapping along and wait for a stage hand to slide you your spare Stradivarius.

Blow the choreography? Quick do the splits. Audiences love the splits. It’s both riveting and unsettling. And throw in some Travolta disco fever hand gestures. Pretty soon one of the other dancers is going to improvisationally pick you up and help pirouette you off the stage and out of the fray.

Forget the lyrics to your song? Point the mic to the audience and scream, “Sing along! Y’all know the words!”

Or step on the microphone’s cord and unplug it—or if it’s cordless, switch it off, and bang it on your hand like the battery’s gone dead. Send up looks of frustration to the sound booth at the back of the theater and shrug apologetically at the crowd.

There’s always something one can do to hide a misstep or mistake, and the more you do it, the more adroitly you grow at gracefully sliding around it.

But … what if the mistake is not you but your audience?

Yeah, sure, that’s a bit meta. But let me explain.

These days I no longer shuffle or sing or fiddle my way across a platform, I simply speak atop of it. I visit schools and libraries as an author determined to inspire middle school and high school kids to leap off the great precipice of possibility, wade through the wretched whirlpool of failure, and trudge down the precarious path of the Hero’s Journey just like their favorite characters.

I also encourage them to erect statues of all their school librarians.

But occasionally you get thrown a curveball you’ve never been thrown before—like arriving to give a talk to a bunch of people who were half the people you thought they’d be—not as in size, rather stature. As in, some of them were still busy forming eyelids and fingernails. One or two of them were definitely going to struggle with my talk mostly because talking was an incredibly fresh activity for them.

How could I deliver a message which was tailored to kids who were already prepping for their SATs when the true audience was still working on their ABCs?

I panicked. And it wasn’t pretty.

There was no mic to sabotage, no instrument to abjectly point to with regret—there wasn’t even a back door. And a back door is crucial if your excuse for not showing up when your name is called is that you heard cries for help out in the alley and rushed to aid the distressed and then rode along in the ambulance to make sure the paramedic had enough blood on hand because you happen to be O negative and the universal blood type.

I stood in front of these tiny preschool and elementary kids as they whirled in circles on their swivel chairs. Extra added bonus? The swivel chairs also had wheels.

My brain raced and squealed in a high-pitched hysteria: How do I rework and reword my ten minute tale of resilience about strong-willed and single-minded NASA scientists who had worked for fifteen years on one Mars rover project only to see a fat chunk of their life’s work come to a hugely crushing end because of some unforeseeable and miniscule error in math calculations?

So … there are these people who built a thing that went up—up to where the stars are, right? And this one thing—which took them a bazillion years to build—just went … boom? Right? Then these people gasped, hit the floor with their knees, ate a lot of ice cream, and then got up and said, “Let’s give her another go, Stanley!” Does that make sense? Cuz that’s what I’m telling you to do too.

Imagine this scenario—just with different subjects—on repeat somewhere about four or five times. Yeah, that was my talk.

I really thought I’d blown it. It was the wrong talk, to the wrong audience, with the right stuff, but the wrong time.

I made a tiny bow of my head and mumbled the end to a smattering of applause from the befuddled librarian and a few parents.

As I was packing up my things to slink out to my car, thinking I could wallow quietly in a pool of my lead balloon bomb, a mother and her small daughter came up to me. “We’d like to buy your book.”

I pulled back. “Really?”

“Yup,” the girl replied. “I’m going to read it … once I learn to read.”

I looked at the mother. “The main character is twice her age.”

“Not for long,” the little girl said.

I thought about my talk’s message of dealing with downfalls. You get in over your head, you make a mistake, you face failure in the eye. It happens. So get up, get going, start again. You go from can’t to can, couldn’t but want to, didn’t but will.

Life is not a stage, life is a series of stages.

This little girl got it. Shined a spotlight on it too. I started applauding, but that came across as a little weird.

So I just did the splits.

~Shelley

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

 

 

Rabbit Holes: Some Call it Daydreaming, Writers Call it Work

Aristotle argued that all objects craved their “natural place,”—the geocentric center of the universe. That would be Earth. Okay, well at the time Aristotle was sucking in air Earth was considered the be all end all.

And maybe yes, there exist a few folks who still believe this and are lagging a bit behind with their history homework, not having quite caught up to where the rest of us live—aka more than two thousand years in the future. And within the world of fairly trustworthy science.

Although, to be fair, the science we all believed one hundred—or even one thousand years ago was believed to be trustworthy too.

Until it wasn’t.

Regardless, it was explained to me that ‘Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there.’

This is from a book currently resting on my bedside table: But What If We’re Wrong? By Chuck Klosterman.

Often, I liken myself to Aristotle’s rock. I belong at my desk, in front of my screen, with my hands hovering over my keyboard, and my eyes effortfully scanning words across a page.

Except thankfully, there are other forces of nature at play (read friends and family) that repeatedly fight Aristotle’s idea of gravity where I am concerned, shoving me out into the world where people and ideas are in mix and at play.

I am not at all a fan of going places where you have to make eye contact with others, or exchange words that add up to more than those in a haiku, or share the same oxygen molecules. This behavior comes about just before birth when whichever deity is creating your personality profile decides you’ll be a professional recluse and switches on the genetic codes for artless, awkward, blundering bore.

But ultimately these opportunities are the catalyst that make the question WHAT IF burble up from the basement of my brain. And that is not an altogether unpleasant feeling.

It starts like indigestion but then belches out with measurable relief.

Yes, regularly I collect data to support the theory that I should simply stay home and away from crowds (read anyplace another person is already occupying), but more often than not, I am wide-eyed with surprise to discover the hidden gems of history, or art, or that people have moved on from wearing elastic waist pants and eyeglass ropes.

Except no. Turtlenecks are here to stay, dammit. (And the earth is the center of the universe … Yeah, yeah, I hear you.)

The WHAT IF question is one I have pinned up on my computer screen. It is the foundation for creative thinking. And creative thinking is the foundation for creative writing. And creative writing is the foundation for paying my bills—as people will not buy books that scream, “I’m exactly like that story you just read yesterday only my characters are Latvian!”

Yeah, not gonna fly.

But how many of us practice asking WHAT IF (insert head scratching query here) in real life? Chuck Klosterman did because he had to write a book where he asked a pile of crackerjack thinkers questions about their level of confidence on subjects like physics, and time, and whether AOL would ever come back into fashion.

And I do it because the thought of copying someone else’s ideas and simply giving them a limp and an accent is about as creatively appealing to my brain as separating all of the lint from my dryer into individual color piles.

Also because I enjoy electricity and food. Again … near carbon copies of other people’s tales do not equate to financial security. And more often than not a lawsuit.

But in real life? I’m not terribly sure I engage in this examination. Not nearly often enough anyway.

And maybe not at all ever—but that would be wholly embarrassing to admit on a public platform so let’s all pretend I didn’t, okey dokey?

This is not some sort of mid-life crisis desperate attempt to fill ever widening, fathomless gaps in my life, but rather just an everyday exercise of whim and whimsy. And okay, maybe a touch of the age thing, but hush—just follow me here.

It’s a fairly effortless task in my working realm, as the sky is the limit ergo, nothing is absurd. I can confidently lean back in my chair and ponder the impossible:

WHAT IF my main character quit his job, won the lottery, or discovered he had cancer?

WHAT IF my guy slowly starts to disappear, or can now communicate with polar bears, or wakes up with knees that can bend fully backward?

WHAT IF he can think himself anywhere, or program the earth to stop spinning, or activate himself to become any element in the periodic table?

WHAT IF every fictional character ever written about comes alive? WHAT IF we discover that our laws of physics only work this way on earth because we’re stuck on some default setting of one on a scale of ten and the answer has been printed on the last page of every IKEA instruction booklet?

Yeah … rabbit holes.

But I rarely spend time going into that warren when I and my life are the subjects for consideration. And it might be fun—if not a little necessary at times.

We’re all full of certitudes in life. We’re sure our political view is wide enough, confident we think with deep consideration, positive we’re slightly above average—at least in comparison to the other yahoos we find ourselves surrounded by.

But what if we’re wrong?

What if I’m not really meant to be Aristotle’s rock?

What if I’m meant to be Aristotle?

If we’re all going to be proven wrong one hundred or one thousand years from now, where’s the risk, right?

Think the absurd. Be the absurd. Do the absurd. Accomplish the unthinkable.

Physician, heal thyself? How about writer, imagine thyself.

~Shelley

 

For the time being, the blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all gossiped about down in the pub. Or check out last month’s post and catch up.

The Grave Danger of Being Silent

“Okay, you’ve got to choose one word. And one word only that will describe you and a representation of your life to be carved on your tombstone.”

I was at a writer’s meeting. And this was one of those wretchedly “fun” exercises we did to stimulate creativity, or imagination, or brain damage.

It was my turn. Everyone looked at me.

“Umm … whisky?

NO! was the general shout from all corners of the circle. Most of these people knew me well enough.

The host looked at me with a full measure of pity. A little bit like how I look at the dog after he’s eaten an entire stolen loaf of bread and he’s all swollen and gassy but still looking for more: pathetically.

“No, not whisky,” the host said in patient tones. “Whisky is something more of your life preference rather than your life portrayal, Shelley.”

Yup. Same look.

“Okay,” I said, determined to get this one right. “Then I choose voice.”

That answer got a woefully polite round of applause.

But the more I thought about it, the more I grew certain that it should have received a standing ovation. Because, in essence, it really has been the central theme threaded throughout my entire life—and every day, it grows more paramount.

In about two weeks, my next book will be published. (The Freemason’s Daughter) (disclaimer: Publicists and marketing departments get super cranky if you do not provide easy links to readers or refuse to say the phrase, “In my new book, The Freemason’s Daughter” as the start to every conversation. And let me tell you, it was a monumental challenge to work that one in with my seventy-four-year-old garbage man whilst handing him one more bag full of cat poop from the litter box.

“There are men in it,” I said lamely. Yeah, he was going to love my young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old Scottish girl.)

Anyway, again, in about two weeks, my next book will be published. I can hear all of you muttering the word finally.

And although this book has all the crucial motifs that appear in every coming of age story—the challenges of youth, friendship, love, relationships with six burly smuggling Scotsmen—the keynote theme that rose above all others was this: Where the hell do I fit in?

Now, granted, the voice that uttered this query at least one time in every chapter classed it up a bit with a lilting, girlish British accent, but it is, beyond a doubt, a central examination that needs answering by the end of the book.

And maybe it does get answered and maybe it doesn’t. I ain’t gonna spoil it for all of you. Especially ol’ Cooter Covington who promised he’d buy the book as long as I somehow managed to have the cat experience a fatal accident before he came back next week. But to find out … (The Freemason’s Daughter).

Funny enough, that question was present in my middle grade contemporary novel, DEAR OPL (Dear Opl – You’re welcome), about a thirteen-year-old American girl suffering from prediabetes and obesity who struggles with loss everywhere in her life except on her body.

Before that, I voiced that question as I made the transition from mandatory mother to partially needed parent to occasionally sought guidance counselor who receives messages like, “I’d like to schedule a major meltdown on Thursday evening after my class on linear algebra. Could you clear your schedule and send me a bucket of chocolate so I can have it there while you talk and I cry?”

My job status was shifting. And I needed to redefine some new position I could find fulfillment within.

And, quirkily enough, before all of that, my actual voice was the focus of my entire life. I got paid to sing. Once or twice I got paid not to sing.

The point is, “voice” has been stamped all over my forty-seven years of life.

Which brings us up to the present and the future—to my love for soothsayers and crystal ball gazers.

Because now, in recent months, voice has become a ubiquitous word. Rare is it a solitary strain, buried beneath the weight of larger, louder bodies that attempt to silence it. Rather now, it is a growing collection, a chorus, a rising refrain.

It is the sound of town hall meetings, the chant of protests, the carefully crafted question in a press corps meeting. It is the debate across the aisle, the conversations in the coffee shop, and the gossip over the garden fence posts.

It is the struggle to parse fact from fiction as myriad voices crow with what they believe to be true—or what they want you to believe as true. It is the concerted effort to eliminate the noise, to brush away the flashy and distracting so that you can uncover the naked, unvarnished reality.

Yes, it does exist.

And when we are able to do that—when we are finally able to hear inside our own heads, we will hear that sound that many of us have spent a lifetime ignoring. Our inner voice. The one that never lies to you. The one that says, Do not go out wearing those pants under any circumstances.

Yeah, that one.

The amazing thing is, is that all of those voices are asking the very same question—that one about inclusivity. Where the hell do I fit in?

We all want our voices to be heard, our words to matter, our existence to count. Whether we’re a president determined to believe we are the greatest, largest, tallest, (insert-superlative-here) guy to draw breath. Or we are the lowly chap who’s still trying to muster up the energy to clap as loudly for that president as we watch him wave from one of his golf courses and we finish the leftovers from last night’s TV dinner.

Forecasting the future is dicey work. Asking the hard questions about that future needs to be done—despite the unwelcoming off the cuff response of an extra tiny pointy finger barking at you to “Be quiet!”

Don’t. Don’t be quiet. Find your voice. Raise it. And use it.

Because I’ve kind of grown fond of the idea of having voice on my tombstone. Otherwise, I will have to resort back to the original epitaph of whisky. Although maybe I’ll spiff it up a tiny bit with that lilting, girlish British accent.

She saw the beauty and necessity of hard liquor.

~Shelley

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Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor (NOW FOR HIRE- so do go check out his gallery!)–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

In Good Spirits

I needed help.

Professional help.

It’s a phrase I utter at least a dozen times a day it seems, and not every episode is referring to the fact that shock therapy might be just the thing.

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This time I was searching for answers to questions that did not reveal the meaning of life, or my purpose in the universe, or even advice on how to handle the creepy guy at the grocery store who is always asking if he can hold my melons while I search for apples.

Ah … Security??

No, this time I needed help with my new book. The writing “fiction” part is always so much fun. But the “researching the fiction I just wrote and discovered wouldn’t even be remotely believable” part is always a little hard to choke down.

Best to do them in tandem.

And as my new book takes place in a distillery, and there’s one nearly spitting distance from my house, it would be foolish of me not to immediately take advantage of the expertise within grasp.

So I pleaded my case, called the joint, and set up an interview to make sure that my new manuscript wasn’t going to entirely fit into the genre of fantasy.

Or an oval shaped file under my agent’s desk.

At first I thought Ian Thomas, the new director of operations at the Virginia Distillery Company, was worried about the time—because he was always checking his watch.

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And then I thought for a second that maybe the fellow I was standing across was fairly new to the concept of wristwatches, as when he did look down at it, he stared at it with intense focus for at least four or five seconds.

And then I realized that I was the actual idiot.

Ah. An Apple watch.

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Ian was getting about as many requests for attention as if he’d had a tiny toddler tugging at his pant leg—which, coincidentally, he’ll have in a few short weeks as he’s expecting his first child.

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So perhaps coaxing a fledgling whisky distillery through its beginning years full of growing pains is exactly the kind of training a soon-to-be dad should be having.

If nothing more than to reinforce recognizing the blissful joy of losing consciousness for more than ten minutes in a row.

That, and maybe to discover what a bazillion new parents come to realize during the agonizing teething phase of their tiny tot: whisky can act as a damn fine benumbing agent …

For the parents, of course.

And this man is sitting on a gold mine.

The questions I needed answering were specifically related to the running and operating of a single malt distillery:

How much does each ingredient contribute to the overall end product flavor profile?

How much does the temperature and humidity in your warehouses play a part in the maturation process?

How many times have you tried to roll a full wooden cask of spirit into the back of your car to sneak home and feigned surprise when one of your coworkers discovered you struggling with the back hatch of the trunk?

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Yup. All relevant.

We spent hours walking through the facility, and Ian patiently explained every piece of equipment and component involved in the operation: the gristmill, the mashtuns, the washbacks, and stills. The miles of plumbing, the resourceful recycling, the freshly plowed and planted barley fields, and the mile-long list of government officials he had to converse with on a daily basis in order to make this American malt find its way from barley to bottle—or grain to glass—or field to finally in my hot little hands.

At one point, while talking in the warehouse that securely housed the seven hundred wooden casks snugly hugging their aging spirit, Ian received the equivalent of another toddler tug that needed attention and stepped out of the warehouse while I ecstatically and repeatedly filled both my lungs with as much of the intoxicating, spirit-drenched air as they could hold. And then, profoundly lightheaded from hyperventilating, I suddenly worried that I had inhaled enough of the whisky-dense atmosphere to register as too intoxicated to drive home.

Maybe Ian’s watch would keep him busy whilst I slept off the fumes and stretched out across a few ex-bourbon barrels.

I thought about the last jaunt I’d undertaken researching a book—an afternoon spent questioning an internist about all the effective emetics available in the 18th century. There were no heady, soothing scents of toffee and brown sugar, butterscotch and bananas encapsulating me like a giant embrace from the ancient gods of magical elixirs. Just half a dozen homeopathic textbooks opened to pictures of poisonous plants that could make you puke.

Yeah, this one was turning out to be a lot more fun.

We finished the day with Ian allowing me to further question him in hopes that he could provide answers for the stickiest parts of the book—things I was struggling with and that were critical to the book’s authenticity and success: the biology, the chemistry, the plot.

His answers were enlightening. And clarified that there were actually a solid handful of hugely capable, talented, and ingenious people who worked alongside him to craft this outstanding spirit that holds so much promise.

And surprisingly, if not somewhat disappointingly, not one of them were alchemists or felt the need to invoke a series of sorcerous spells to turn this water into wine—er … whisky.

Apparently Gareth Moore,

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Chairman and CEO of Virginia’s newest spiritus frumenti emporium, really knows how to hire his nine-to-fivers and reviews of their work are about as glowing as the cheeks of those who imbibe in their product.

“Okay,” I said to Ian back in his office, “just in case this post goes viral and the only way you can fend off the sudden surge of paparazzi at the distillery is by locking yourself in the waste management warehouse and hiding behind a tank full of lye and caustic soda, is there anything else the world should know about Ian Thomas, young whisky maker hailing from Tennessee?”

“Ah,” he said, glancing at his wrist again and staring at it intensely for about four seconds, “Well,” he chuckled self-consciously. “I like casual strolls along the beach, I’m a good husband, I love my family and Virginia … and I’m working hard to make a world class whisky.”

I don’t doubt for one second all these things are true. Ian is a busy guy with a full life that’s only going to get fuller in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. A new dad. A new home. A new job. Yeah, he’s got his fingers in a lot of pots.

Copper ones to be precise.

And I think the world of ‘world class whiskies” is lucky to have it so.

~Shelley

HEADS UP Y’ALL: Robin has his annual calendar of curiously clever cartoons for sale starting now. If you’re hoping to take a peek a tiny bit farther into his unfathomable brain, then I suggest you head on over and order yours tout de suite! They won’t last!  Robingott.com

For the time being, our blog is closed to comments, but if you enjoyed it, maybe pass it on to someone else. Email it, Facebook it, or print it out and make new wallpaper for the bathroom. If it moves you, show it some love and share. Cheers!

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.