How to Keep a Bridge Quiet When in the Car

There is nothing like writing a book to illuminate just how awful a communicator you are.

I think everyone should do it. Not only for the (eventual) resounding joy of completing such an accomplishment, but also to recalibrate your ego—bring it down to a more palatable level.

Like bug height.

And it’s only at such a degree that you will see the crucial minutia—the details, the complexities, the nuances that exist beneath the large umbrella encompassing the process of conveying information. Yes, the granular level is critical; the grammar that contains all the basic linguistic units that make up our parts of speech, but there is so much more than the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in each sentence.

Of course, to see that “so much more” collection, one must pull back the lens to include a big, broad perspective. One must don the panoramic glasses of an omniscient deity, let’s say, providing you the opportunity to view your work from every angle and from great heights.

I’m not so sure I’ve ever met a human who embodies the ability to do all of the above, for if you ever have the chance to experience publishing a book in a traditional manner, you begin to see that there should be countless names given credit as author, and not just one boldly inked above the title.

Let me explain. I think writing a book is a metaphor for factory work. Rarely, do we find one person who wears every hat. Creating something—for instance, a widget—typically requires an interconnected tapestry of relationships. Even if you hang your own shingle stating you’re a one-man band baker, it’s doubtful you’re also the grain farmer, the mill grinder, and the manufacturer of the oven, right?

The last box I tick off on the completion list of “book writing” is to craft an acknowledgement page. Over the years, I have learned to keep a checklist, as there is nothing more worrisome than coming to that moment when this write-up is due, and you’re wracking your brain for Who else? Who else? Oh fudge, there are surely more!

There are. I’m not kidding when I state that I would like to include some grade school English teachers who taught me the basics, and also highlight others whom I hold at fault for not drilling more into my brain. I suppose one could lasso in any individual who aided you whilst learning language, but it’s mostly considered a slight not to include one’s parents, so we’re mostly covered there.

The factory work of book writing is where we could state that our earliest teachers are the manufacturers of the raw ingredients. They provide the schooling that leads to the recognition of a collection of sounds, which are assigned to various letters. Placed together and in dictated order, they form a syntactic unit.

I see myself as the widget maker—utilizing all those syntactic units. Once possessed of all those units—or words—I churn them out and pray they have a functional purpose. Whether to educate or entertain, the person who soon purchases those words will, optimistically speaking, find them worth the expense.

That widget is then inspected by upper management for design flaws, operational errors, and defects of any nature. Upper management includes editors, proofreaders, and interior designers. The widget gets sent back to the production room floor a lot. A LOT.

Then that widget is enrobed in fashionable, eye-catchy wrapping. Photographers, graphic artists, models, and designers first all huddle in some stylish conference room and bemoan the fact that it will be near impossible to convey the “idea” of the widget, unless upper management can make the “idea” a better one. Upper management sends the widget back to the production room floor.

The floor operator (that’s me) has no one to complain to, as she is not unionized and really just hopes for a paycheck and therefore, straps on her elfin cap once more and gets to work.

Eventually, either the widget is acceptable to upper management and the creatives, or someone shoves it through inspection as they can’t stand to look at it one second longer.

The larger point is that we’re all involved in trying to communicate something to others. Something we feel is worth the slight distraction from whatever other activity those others may be engrossed in.

Us: “HEY!” (Now, someone holds up the widget)

Others: “Huh?” … “Oh, I get it.”

Us: “Our work is done.”

But getting to the “done” part is arduous—and, oftentimes, sadly unsuccessful.

Communicating is hard. Telling people what you think, how you feel, what you see and believe should not be that difficult with all the tools at our disposal, and yet, because of inflection or syntax, those threads are open to interpretation.

Every proofreader (but mostly those having worked on my books) will tell you that we give meaning and emphasis to words and phrases where we absolutely shouldn’t. I am at an Olympian level when it comes to misplaced modifiers.

Example: Being a lover of bridges, this one was gorgeously swoopy.

There. I just made a bridge a lover of bridges. (facepalm)

Back to the larger, larger point—I trust my readers to know what I mean, not what I say. And I ask them for forgiveness and also not to laugh at the parts that I did not intend to be hilarious, like making bridges anthropomorphic.

I think, as humans, we all have ample experiences to point to where we’re finding dialogue, and communication writ large, to be more challenging than ever. Whether attempting to pair the perfect emoji to replace words (often fails), sifting through media opinions hiding as facts (often succeeds), or trying to decipher what code level color the CDC has stamped as today’s mask needs (usually epic blunders), time is an important element one must employ on both ends for success.

Well, maybe time to communicate, time to interpret, and time for a stiff drink if we manage to botch up the babel.

I stand by my suggestion that everyone gives it a shot though—a shot at writing a book. It will flood you with a sense of thoughtfulness as you spend countless months and years attempting to craft content that will be unforgettable. It will highlight the value of cooperation as the team of factory workers by your side pour their souls into attempting to re-craft your content so that it will be readable, enjoyable, and all errors will be “forgettable.” And lastly, it will provide you with an opportunity to say something without being interrupted—as this always happens to me whenever I’m in a car with a bridge and they just blurt out their enthusiasm for overpass architecture.

~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.

Life’s Luck: From Lemons to Sour Grapes, Mine is Weirdly, all Fruit Related.

Last month sucked. I mean really, really came out looking like an ugly puckery lemon.

I smashed a finger in between two 75lb boulders (yeah, while trying to do that rock wall myself—from last month’s blog).

I got a wicked thrashing from a wrathful, hell-bent-on-sparing-no-one poison ivy plant.

I got diagnosed with a second basal carcinoma (treatable skin cancer that plagues many pasty white Midwesterners who are unfamiliar with this thing local people call summer).

I broke my lawnmower.

I was stung by a wasp whose last dying wish was to leave a flesh wound and memorial to himself the size of an award-winning walnut.

And I got a UTI.

Okay, none of this stuff actually happened last month. That was a lie.

It happened this month.

Month and candor aside, the reality of so many calamities all at once did not bode well under the “Thank God, I got my Covid vaccine—it’ll sure be great to get back to normal” mindset I was cultivating.

Those thoughts ultimately tanked, and in their place crawled splints, bandages, skin grafts, physicians, lab techs, prescriptions, pills, ointments, potions, and spark plugs.

It was often hard to keep track of what went where, and on one miserable afternoon I found myself visiting the library to pick up a book I was hoping would take my mind off my miseries.

I was in line, waiting in the lobby for my turn to come in and approach the desk, when I heard someone triple tsk from behind me. I turned to see a woman as wrinkled as an old crabapple, her white hair braided and wrapped into a bun, held together with what looked to me like a couple of birch twigs and a meat thermometer.

I smiled, nodded politely, and turned to face forward again, only to hear her sigh and utter, “Dear me,” under her breath. She tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned, pointed to one of the many bandages wrapped around my arms and said, “You really should let that breathe.”

“Let what breath?” I asked.

“Your poison ivy.”

I looked down at the book she was holding in her arm. Kitchen Witchery: Spells, recipes, and rituals for something something magical something enchanted something something. I narrowed my eyes at her and tried to ascertain how this witch had discovered one of my ailments. “How do you—”

“You haven’t quite covered all your blisters,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, I really got walloped this time.”

She shook her head. “What did you do, roll in it like a dog in a cowpie patty?”

“No, I was weeding, but I bet my dog had a hand in spreading it.”

“Do you hug your dog?” she asked, pointing for me to move forward in line.

“All the time. He’s the best dog I’ve ever—”

“Stop doing that.”

“Exactly. I know. The oils on his fur transfers to my skin …”

“Not where I’m going. Stop doing it because dogs hate to be hugged. It makes them feel like they’re being devoured, and they’re helpless in that arm lock of stupid humans.”

“Oh.” I stared at the floor for a second before catching sight of her book again. “Well, I’d have to say that I truly feel like I’ve been cursed with something these last few weeks. Just one thing after another.” I looked up at her with a crooked smile. “Any hex breaking spells in that library book of yours?”

“You’re hoping some magic wand will wave away your poison ivy?”

I shrugged. “And my rock-smashed finger, wasp sting, skin cancer—anything that can alleviate those scourges?” I pointed out the ailments around my person.

The old woman studied me for a second or two, opened her book, thumbed through a few pages, and then slammed it shut with a crisp snap. “The book suggests not so much any incantation or elixir, but it is very precise on one specific action.”

“Oh?” I felt my eyebrows raise with hope.

She rolled her eyes. “Stay inside.”

I felt like an idiot.

She looked at me like I was an idiot, so I suppose my feelings were justified. “Ah, well. I suppose most of those wonky spells are simply drivel and gibberish. Are you just reading the book for fun?”

She glanced down at the book again and then spread it wide open to a page with a black iron caldron holding a bounty of vegetables from the garden it sat within. “Nope. I wrote this little beauty—there’s only one copy, and I convinced the librarian to put it here on the shelves. The problem is, I lost the original recipe for my mother’s tomato soup, and every time I want to make it, I have to come back and check out the book. Now that,” she pointed at the page, “is a cure-all for just about everything.”

I gave her a wary look. “How about a urinary tract infection?”

She cracked a smile and spat out, “Ha! That, my friend, is just a curse on all womankind. And no amount of kitchen witchery can make much of a dent in its presence.”

I shrugged. “I guess sometimes we’re just unlucky.”

“As I see it, your dog is going to get a bit luckier with no more hugs. Although sadly for you, I’d say it’ll be some time before anyone is going to want to wrap their arms around your bandaged body.” She searched the ceiling and then said, “Maybe try a bottle of wine.”

“Hug a bottle of wine?”

“No. Drink it. It won’t cure anything, but it’ll sure keep you from being cranky while Mother Nature deals with all your ailments.”

~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.

Will Goldfish be More Clever than our Children?

Because of the nature of my work, I often find myself in the company of children and teenagers. If one intends to write for young adults, or those peeking over the wall into young adulthood to see what the fuss is all about, one finds benefit by listening to them, conversing with them, and generally just taking a softly tipped stick and poking about in territories you might not normally be invited into.

Curiously, that same ‘nature of my work’ is growing more challenging as it does not fit into the current timeframe of many young adults’ attention span—a trajectory of current evolution where now every fleeting second of focus counts and best be saturated with impactfullness.

Where I used to describe the concept of story to young readers as a richly developed plot with engaging dialogue, a diverse set of problems that might tangle complexly at first but unravel beautifully in the end, and a few solid examples of struggle, failure, perseverance, and finally success, now my definition has been forced to change. Currently, I define story as “Once upon a time there was a guy, he had a problem, he figured it out, the end.”

Much more TikTok, much less time-honored tale.

Short-form episodes are now the norm. One can see information streamed about nearly anything and those sessions require a mere 15 seconds of focus. The problem is, is that a recent study determined that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to a whopping eight seconds today.

Goldfish have a better chance of making it to the end of that video as they are believed to have an attention span of at least nine seconds.

Somehow, our youths are being encouraged and pushed to find satisfaction with a story that lasts less time than we expect them to be standing in front of a running sink, washing their hands. I grapple with this especially hard when I realize that oftentimes just one of the myriad sentences I shove into a paragraph far exceeds the newly allotted timeframe many kids will devote to scanning words across a page. And how does one cram a beginning, a middle, and an end into a curt and clipped few moments?

One of the most difficult tasks authors—or anyone with something to sell—must do, is create a pitch. Something that answers Why should I devote my attention (or hard-earned pennies) to you? It often involves boiling your story or your product down to its bare bones—the skeletal structure that shows all strength and no fluff.

The process for authors often happens like this:

  • take a 325-page book and reduce it to one page (hard)
  • take that one page and tighten it to one paragraph (ugh)
  • take that one paragraph and shrink it to one sentence (facepalm)

If you’re writing a film script, the next bit is to slash it to fit the form Blank meets Blank. Godzilla meets The Godfather, Dirty Harry meets Harry Potter, Jaws meets The Little Mermaid—or something like that. Somehow the mash-up is supposed to bring immediate clarity to anyone hearing the phrase as to the plot, struggles, and triumphs within the storyline.

But does it really?

Can one short phrase really tell us the necessary amount needed to exclaim, “I get it”? Can a fifteen second video really reveal the depth of dance, comedy, or education? Is it even possible to jampack a “How to Fold a Fitted Sheet” into 30 seconds or “The History of World War II” into a three-minute YouTube video? Will our next generation of surgeons learn how to remove our gall bladders via Instagram stories?

Personally, it takes me donkey’s years to learn anything. And it’s not because I’m slow. It’s because I’m slow and stubborn. New information that crosses my path is met with skepticism until I can research its source, decipher which end of the political spectrum it may live on, and see Anthony Fauci demonstrate it at a White House Press Conference. It took me literally decades to watch the series MASH because I believed, like the execs telling the show’s writers, that the series run would be limited because the Army isn’t really a pool for humor.

I need convincing. I need repetition. I need my children to walk through the door at holidays and declare amazement at the fact that they’ve actually time traveled into history and perhaps I should let someone in the science department know that it’s possible.

“When are you going to get a new microwave, Mother?”

“As soon as I’ve researched all the newfangled ones on the market. There’s a lot to learn and compare.”

“Have you yet learned that this antiquated piece of junk is a fire hazard?”

“DON’T TOUCH MY RADARANGE!”

But it’s more than just diving deeply into any subject to learn its function, purpose, and capability, it’s also about staying with something long enough to feel the comfort of its complexities. Typically, you cannot learn to play the piano by just watching someone else on video, and it’s downright impossible to sum up our planet’s horrific battles by declaring into a camera lens, “Humans fight. War bad”. There is nothing wrong with embracing the depth and breadth of any subject, but I feel it’s wrong to lead kids into believing any topic can be shortened into a framework of explanation that would have the writers of Cliff Notes blush at its brevity.

Our world is huge in scope and requires effortful thought to make sense of even its least complicated aspects. It’s a daunting task, and we’ll never finish it, but we certainly shouldn’t allow our children to shy away from it. History takes time to be explained. Skills take time to be acquired. Stories take time to be told.

Perhaps we can quote American author and keynote speaker Michael Altshuler more often to our children: The Bad news is time flies. The Good news is that you’re the pilot.

~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 Impossible Job of Thanking Your Barista

I’m sure you’re up to your earballs in leftover turkey right about now. That is, if you overestimated how much turkey only you and one other person plus your dog could wolf down in two days’ time. Or maybe you were like me and decided that come hell or high water, you were going to make five gallons of bone broth with that carcass, and needed all 14 pounds of the turkey you ordered last year—pre-Covid—when you found that super-duper farm that said they would raise the bird to your specifications.

For Pete’s sake, that farmer read Harry Potter to your poultry from the the end of June onward. And he played it Vivaldi before bedtime. And he regularly fed it a posh protein diet of sautéed shredded lizard sprinkled with dried grasshopper powder, delicately placed atop a bed of tender shaved young bulbs. On special occasions, old Tom got a soup pureed with snails, slugs, and worms, swirled with a small dusting of sand and gravel for grit to aid with his proper digestion.

Yeah, you really can’t go back on someone’s efforts like that.

So, a lot may have changed from last year’s big food festival, and this year’s attendance level might have been reduced to only those you regularly sneeze on and don’t apologize to. But the one thing that has remained a steady and dependable guest at all of our tables is the necessary presence of gratitude.

We are reminded of it everywhere. We may be feeling rather down in the dumps about not scarfing down half of Aunt Marge’s Rum Chiffon Pie this year, but all we need do is read the headlines to remind ourselves about how many Aunt Marge’s are no longer around to make such a treat.

It’s an effortless endeavor to see that we are not alone in our suffering or sadness, and there are countless others who may be experiencing greater loss than we are.

It reminds me a little bit of growing up in Wisconsin. One was not allowed to indulge in the wholly justifiable complaining about how cold one was. Because it was not a personal experience. Everyone was cold. Chin up. Shut up. Get up. And get on with it.

But back to the gratitude.

Typically, I am the type of person who nearly falls on my knees in appreciation for anyone who’s kind enough to even hold open a door for me, let alone ease some significant burden. And I’m annoyingly delighted to see every sunrise or sunset, every flower bloom, or bird in flight. I get an absolute thrill even hearing my dog belch as I’m confidently assured he loved the meal I prepared for him so much that he snarfed it down too quickly and ate a bucket of indigestible air.

Yeah, uber grateful person.

So, it came as a bit of a head-scratcher when I recently heard an interview with A.J. Jacobs, an author I adore, as he spoke about his latest book, Thanks a Thousand.

Knowing how seriously he plunged into his research when writing something new—like The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, where he took it upon himself to obey the divine suggestions to “Love thy neighbor,” “Be fruitful and multiply,” and of course, “Stone adulterers,” I had no doubt his newest book would be as intricately studied.

Mr. Jacobs takes the elemental concept of exploring how gratitude can enrich our lives and produce countless experiences where we are more thoughtful and grounded by using his morning cup of coffee as the chosen object of his determined efforts to thank everyone who was a part of making it materialize before him.

Seems rather effortless really, but in truth … it is impossible.

From the clerk who rang up your bag of beans, one can move to the roaster, the trucker, the airline, the packagers, the bean harvester, the farmer, the mechanic who fixed the tractor the farmer needed to use to plant the beans. The manufacturer of the tractor, the countless companies that created the parts for that manufacturer, the construction workers who built those plants, the people who made lunch for those construction workers. I think you get my point. The list is exhaustive.

Jacobs speaks to and visits miners and biologists, goatherds and smugglers, and that travel required trucks and airplanes, boats and motorcycles. He realizes the myriad materials that went into the making of that sip—the rubber, wood, steel, and bat guano. His assessment is that it required thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

To make one cup of coffee.

In an era when we feel so disconnected from one another, A.J. Jacobs illuminates the miracle of human cooperation. Togetherness. Relationships. Synergy. Support.

It is not unlike the super-human efforts that have gone into the research and development of one of many vaccines our planet is desperately and impatiently waiting upon. We have discovered that it takes the whole world to help the whole world.

And as the world and all its many inhabitants do what they can to heal our planet and our people, let’s take a moment to realize just how connected we really, truly are and need to be.

This year we may be apart. But it is so that next year and for countless years following we can be together, closer than we’ve ever been before, because gratitude became the cream in our coffee.

~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 Meticulously Precise and Non-Magical Way to make Whiskey

I’m nearly finished writing another book.

This one won’t be published for the public though. It’s a technical manual.

I’d never done a technical manual before; therefore, this genre has been entirely new to me.

I was at one point reminded, Technically speaking, technical manuals do not fall into a “genre,” Shelley.

Disappointing news.

I was also at one point informed that my other skills of fiction writing were, although appreciated, inapplicable with this work.

“What do you mean?” I’d asked, halfway through the job.

Please do not allow the machinery to have any “dialogue.”

Hugely disappointing news.

In my mind, everything is conversing with anything beside it. Refrigerators hum, clocks tic, boats roar, trees creek, tea kettles whistle, grills hiss, frying pans spit, drains gurgle—I could go on.

There is conversation with their purpose, with their function, and it is our choice to tune in to hear it if we choose to do so—or maybe it’s just a special type of non-worrisome derangement those of us who practice anthropomorphizing inanimate objects experience every day.

So, okay, the mash tuns, the fermenters, the stills, and bottling equipment will not be engaged with any discourse. Fine.

Also, no need to “set the scene.”

Wait. What? No “Once upon a time”? No “In a galaxy far, far away”?

No.

No “Imagine if you can, a farm field in Virginia filled with rows of waving grain. Corn so tall, so yellow, so sweet. Wheat so soft, so feathery, so—”

No. Also, just list the manufacturer of each piece of equipment. No need to give colorful backstory that creates a uh … biography for them.

Damn.

But the still is an old copper Armagnac pot which surely, if you’d allow me to research, has the most fascinating history, connecting it to a village in Gascony, and likely to some illicit brandy making where people’s lives were at risk for defying the king’s orders and skirting around the excise men, right?

No. Louis XVI died in 1793. The still was made in 2006. Write that down.

No excise men?

*insert cold stare here

Fine. Hard facts only. It has been an arduous road to travel. It has been serial numbers, maintenance schedules, standard operating procedures, operator responsibilities, quality controls, ingredient specification sheets, safety protocol, system malfunction detection. It has been measurements, sampling data, testing methods, recording methodology, and out of the realm of tolerance identification.

No language describing the invention of any equipment, the trials and tribulations of the inventor, the recognition, the accolades, the race between rivals to patent first, to reach the market, to make a name and reap rewards.

No timeline of history, the tales of great machinery malfunction and mishaps that caused strife, or injury, or daresay … death.

Nope. Just operator files.

It’s ‘if blank, do blank.’ Or ‘when this, then this.’ It’s ‘measure now, record here.’

There’s no beginning, middle, or end.

It is not a story, not a narrative, no plot.

None of the machinery barely scrapes by, screeches to a halt, or belches out for attention.

The manual is meant to be informative. Concise. Crystal clear. It is meant to provide a “just in case” scenario for an event like a catastrophic pandemic wiping out all previous operators’ ability to fight through throngs of apocalyptic zombies to appear at the facility, allowing any stranger to eventually walk in off the street, discover the book and easily, effectively, and effortlessly pick up where we left off.

No, Shelley. It is meant to use as a teaching guide for new employees.

Yeah, that too, but my take could be plausible (I mumble quietly).

So, I study each piece of equipment. I learn its function. I define its specifications. I describe its purpose. It is thirsty work as I crawl around, beneath, above, and inside many of them. I watch them perform. I study their mechanisms. I research their optimal modes.

And I learn … they are still magical.

I learn it from listening to the operators as they describe their years of experience working with each station.

The grain will stubbornly clump and ball if you don’t chase it with the paddle in the cooker. It likes to hide right in that corner.

If you don’t clamp down the hose securely, the impellor pump turns into a raging snake that’ll spit hot mash on every square inch of the production room floor.

You see that steam rising from the strip still’s parrot spout? We call that the dragon’s breath.

I did find a story. The story of waking up the yeast before releasing it into its comforting, warm bath, of performing the tightly timed choreography between pieces of machinery as they demanded immediate attention to avoid calamity, of discovering that the general consensus for many of the processes was that you just had to feel it, smell it, taste it, gauge it. The machinery had its tells, and a good operator was sensitive to them and could anticipate results because of the accumulated years of a bonding relationship.

Making whiskey requires procedural care, yes. It’s a recipe. It’s a step by step adventure that when timed perfectly churns out a salable product.

But to me, and to others, the machinery is responsible for the alchemy, the head-spinning potions, the conjuration that leads grains to glass, this honeyed, headying elixir.

But the manual will not reveal that magic. The manual will not even hint at it. The manual conceals the story.

Except it’s there. We just don’t capture it within the pages that keep the secret safe. It is for others to read between the lines, to unearth the buried story within it.

If they find it after the zombie apocalypse.

~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.