Life is like a Box of Chocolates: Sealed, Stolen, & Seeing the Countryside without You

A bazillion years ago—let’s call it seven—I went on a trip to the United Kingdom, crisscrossing the country to view university after university, accompanying my then seventeen-year-old daughter as she scoped out her next big chunk of education.

The recollection of big cities and ancient villages have long been swallowed by the fuzziness of time and now reside in my head the same way one retains precise memories of a colonoscopy. And although I can appreciate the anesthetic delights of anterograde amnesia for some experiences in life, the one long-cached, souvenir stilled lodged firmly in my hippocampus is that of stumbling across a tiny shop on the high street of Oxford.

Hotel Chocolat.

It’s not a hotel, although I’d have no issues with setting up camp in a corner on the floor if I should accidentally get locked in after hours. Rather it’s a luxury chain of the ultimate chocolate shopping experience.

There is no trickery involved in drawing customers off the cobblestoned streets—just an open door, where the aromas of ground and sweetened cocoa beans snake invisibly around your wrists and appear beneath your nose, tugging you inside and fastening the lock behind you.

When I first saw the shelves lined invitingly with countless bars and baskets filled with creamy brown confectionery, I remember turning to my daughter and saying, This is where I’d liked to be buried, please.truffles

In keeping with the traditional facial expressions of young adults, I was immediately silenced with a practiced and perfected eyeroll.

We silently moved about the shop, but apparently with each new peak into the burgeoning baskets and careful scanning of each shelf, Chloe finally turned to me and sighed.

What? Her gaze was stern, her tone was clipped. Why do you keep clucking your tongue, Mother?

I hadn’t realized I was, but it was likely true.

I just don’t understand why they’ve chosen to mash all the extra bits into the chocolate, I’d said. The chocolate looks perfect on its own. It doesn’t need fruits and nuts or brownies and gingerbread in it. You can’t improve upon perfection.

It was then that she held out a square box with six small globes within it.

Oh yeah? Are you telling me that you will not put aside your ridiculous rule for this?

In her hand was milk and dark chocolate, swirled together in an eddying ripple, apparently each orb pillow-casing a teaspoon of whisky.

My knees weakened a tiny bit as I envisioned what two of the dreamiest comestibles would taste like as clearly betrothed companions.

I shook my head with fixed determination.

Too expensive, I said as an excuse, when what I was thinking was, Surely disappointing.

Christmas came a month later, and the gift of truffles filled with single malt scotch came from the outstretched arms of Chloe, smugly determined to win the category of Best Gift Ever.

I was elated. Excited. Curious. And worried.

I put them in the refrigerator for safe keeping.

For six- and one-half years.

I couldn’t bring myself to try them. Too expensive, surely disappointing.

I know I’d frustrated her, as I recall a few years after that holiday, I’d received a beautiful box of chocolates in the mail. Chocolates all filled with other things other than more chocolate.

box celebration chocolates decoration

 

I put the box aside, deflated. But Chloe simply texted the sender and said, Obviously, you do not know my mother. Your lovely gift will be mothballed in cold storage indefinitely. But thank you, nonetheless.

She then proceeded to eat them on my behalf.

Last month, I traveled by train again across the UK. To my utter delight, the port of origin held a Hotel Chocolat shop. I spent a few harried minutes and far too precious pennies on a doppelganger box of whisky-filled truffles, an identical box that not four months earlier–as I cleaned out the fridge to move houses–finally found its way out of the back of the fridge and regrettably into the waste basket.

Thrilled with the chance to redeem my unappreciative behavior, I placed my pungent package on a shelf above my bunk and dreamed of the soon-to-receive declarations from family that I had at last lost my persnickety fallibility.

The next morning, I promptly exited the train, mindlessly leaving that little package filled with chocolate and whisky, and the expensive opportunity to salvage some respect.

I’d also left my reading glasses. Another thing I’d rebuffed for years.

It did not occur to me that I’d left these things until I began rooting around for an aid with map reading.

My heart raced, followed quickly by my feet. Ten minutes had passed since I’d exited the train, and dashing back out onto the platform, I saw nothing but Scotch mist.

The train was gone.

With panicked flapping limbs and the alarm of a woman who left her baby in a taxi, I managed to locate and communicate my loss to a white-haired train attendant whose Scottish dialect was as thick as the slabs of solid chocolate I would have preferred to have purchased in the sweet shop.

Fifteen minutes later, the elderly man returned, a broad smile stretching the road map of wrinkles across his face. He handed me my reading glasses.

I peered at him. Did you happen to find the chocolate? The whisky-filled truffles?

Oh aye, he stated grimly, but all edibles are immediately binned if left behind. That’s the policy. But if ye want my opinion, lassie, yer far better off wi’out them, as nothing foreign but yer lips should touch a single malt scotch. Any addition is like two trains colliding into a crash.

He looked at me sternly and pointed at my glasses. Perhaps use your wee spectacles before making such a purchase next time. After all, ye canna improve upon perfection. Some things are just more sacred when separate.

blur book book pages close up

~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.

Climb Every Mountain (even those without cell service)

One day, when my children were very young, I said to them, “Do not live a safe life.”

Over the years, they’ve come to understand what I meant by that. Be bold. Explore. Seek adventure. Leap!

And they’ve both taken those words to heart, and each in their own ways.

One has decided to live as far away from home as possible and still be considered a resident American. And the other has decided she’s not even entirely satisfied with the offerings of this planet, and is seeking to set up permanent dwelling on some other.

I’m fine with that. In a weird, No, I’m not taking it as indicative of how near you’d like to be to me.

Because that would be safety. Not the message I was pumping.

But I suffer the byproduct of all that, Go concur the world! flag waving. My fault. Entirely. And suffer I do. Because I was born a worrier. I have grown to become Olympic level competitive on that scale.

There are messages that come to me from both kids that fuel the scale of anxiety, like:

Wait, what day is it today? Oh, god, it’s July?

Or

A gift from you of one hundred dollars? Finally food!

Or

I’m heading to Patagonia for a hike. You won’t hear from me for at least a week.

That last one is what I’m going through right this very minute. And I’m not going through it very well. I think I’d go through it better if I’d not had exchanges like:

Me: You know it’s winter there now, right?

Her: Good point. I’ll pack a scarf.

Me: How will we communicate?

Her: Communicate? Mother, the whole point is to leave all people behind.

I have deep breathed my way through nearly twenty-four hours of her traveling to simply get to where nobody else is. And now, knowing that it’s pretty likely she has arrived at the base of some glacial fjord—because we lost communication five hours ago—it is simply a projection of my mind’s interpretation of her scrabbled together emailed itinerary that I will cling to.

Let’s take a peek into the inner workings of a somewhat neurotic, definitely overprotective mother’s brain as we view her schedule, shall we?

Day 1 – Something something Torres del Paine something something Estancia Sector. *shrug* I don’t know. It’s all in Spanish. I just filled in the proper names of places.

Day 1 (my take) – Hike from the lowest point of some fjord until you feel a torrential pain across your body, then point yourself toward Antarctica—from whence a stiffer cold wind is blowing—and stand in this section until the pain has subsided, and you can move forward again. Or the spring thaw arrives.

Day 2 – More Spanish words including Ascencio River, then Los Vientos, followed by Chileno Montaña, and finally, La Morrena.

Day 2 (my take) – Forge across river of ridiculously fridgid temperatures, lose your vientos, which could be food, or water, or all camping gear. I’m not sure here. Then lose the trail map and find yourself totally alone, cold, and without wifi.

Day 3 – Blah blah blah foreign words including Nordenskjöld Lake, Almirante Nieto Hill, and again, another word ending in something that sounds like it hurts, Cuernos del Paine.

Day 3 (my take) – She’s somehow found herself in a small area that Scandinavians have staked claim to, they give her shelter, and whatever that new untranslatable Norwegian word that defines coziness is, they watch a Danish drama, then put her in a sauna to thaw out, and finally roll her back out into the snow for a taste of compare and contrast—life, versus you wish life would end.

Day 4 – There’s something about the Francés Valley, words that end with the phrase The Italiano Campsite followed by other foreign text and the concerning location Hills Paine Grande, ultimately coming to an end with even more worrisome words placed side by side Paine Grande Mountain Refuge.

Day 4 (my take) – Clearly, she’s in Europe now. I saw nothing about flights or boats. I have no idea how she’s arrived on that continent. But the thing that disturbs me most is that she agreed to trek the ‘Hills of Great Pain’ followed by the ‘Mountain of Great Pain.’ The last word ‘refuge’ does little to assuage my anxiety, as being an American, I fear she may be shown the same kind of hospitality our country is currently offering others who are seeking shelter. Paybacks, baby.

Day 5 – I used Google translate. And I think all of us know exactly the sharp accuracy of linguistic interpretation available here, right? Using this fine tool, I have made out the phrases chunks of floating gray glaciers, catamaran dividing great blocks of frozen spears, and impossible to operate ice field.

 

Day 5 (my take) – I think Google did a fine job. I think if she has made it this far, she will make it no further. I think that this part of Chile is sending a message: Go ahead and just try. We love a good laugh. And we’re keeping you in this frozen tomb until climate change forces us to defrost.

I have stopped looking at her itinerary. I’ve come to realize that translating biblical Hebrew texts into Middle English and Old Norse would be a better use of my time, and I’d best get moving on learning all three dead languages. In another week’s time there will either be a phone call from my exhausted but exuberant child at the airport or an ex-band member of ABBA—now retired cliff dweller—in Patagonia with some unfortunate news.

Either way. It’s all out of my hands.

But it is a safe bet that my whole “do not live a safe life” series of lectures will continue to come back and bite me on the backside, for as I dropped this child off at the airport and shouted out at her receding figure, “Have a safe trip!” the last thing I heard was a fading cackle of irony.

~Shelley

PS–An important update to all the Robin Gott Doodle Devotees out there! Robin has opened a new site where you can finally and officially purchase some of his finest and funniest work via a website called Society 6. To quote the champ of chuckles, “I know it sounds like some kind of low-budget South African sci-fi film, but it’s actually an online market place for all sorts of design.” Don’t miss out. Check it out here: ROBIN GOTT

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.

Batteries, Boyfriends, and VW Bugs

This last month I learned a few new things about cars:

  • Jump starting a car battery is dark and semi-dangerous magic nearly anyone can do.
  • Wrestling out and replacing certain car batteries is a little bit like squishing a bloated elephant into a shoebox.
  • YouTube can teach you how to do both and come out mostly alive on the other end of it.

It all started around the time finals were happening for most college students in my neck of the woods with my own college student up to her earballs in textbooks, tests, and giant tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. Nothing alleviates an overheated thermogenic thought process like two pints of Hazed and Confused on a daily basis.

I received a text from said college student’s boyfriend:

When’s the last time you started Chloe’s car?

I scratched my head. Six weeks ago? Eight? It didn’t really matter because that thing was dead. Like unrevivably dead. It would be like digging up Beethoven or Mahler or Schubert and fist pounding on their chests screaming, “NONE OF YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR SYMPHONY NO. 10!”

Yeah, that kinda dead.

I texted back an emoji shrug.

I could hear Ben’s eyes roll to the back of his head, and I don’t blame them for doing so.

He finished off: I’m coming over with a new battery. It would be nice for her to have a working car when she gets home from school.

I agreed. I also thought that it didn’t really matter if all the car parts were functioning if one did not have money enough to fill it with “go juice.” It kind of puts you in a position where you’re All Hat No Cattle.

But they’re college kids. They’ll figure it out.

I was working at my desk when Ben popped in. “I’m here. I’ve got the battery. I’ll be in the garage.”

“Need help?” I asked.

“Nah. Easy peasy.”

Super. I could keep writing. And I did.

For about sixty seconds.

“Do you have any gloves?”

Got Ben gloves. Went back to writing.

For about sixty seconds.

“Flashlight?”

You betcha.

Work … sixty seconds.

“How bout a magnet?”

Search for magnet: Old toy boxes. Drawers. Next to credit cards, computer hard drives, people resting in my living room with pacemakers.

“Nope. Sorry.”

Ben shrugged. “Never mind. I’m sure that piece will fall out of the engine block eventually.”

I looked at Ben with eyebrows that reached to my hairline.

Back to work. I counted to sixty twice.

“How small are your hands?”

Oh dear lord. I pushed back from my desk. “Let me find some shoes.”

I entered the garage and saw Chloe’s little VW bug with its hood popped. A miniature PAC-MAN of motorcars. Ben, whose height most telephone poles will nod with deference to, was almost in a downward facing dog yoga pose, hovering over the engine block.

There was a lot of grunting going on, but it might have been coming from the bug, as whatever Ben was trying to tug out of it seemed super important for that little roadster to cling to.

Apparently, it sensed the ongoing, effortful labor of disassembly and finally decided to put up a fight. It’s a little bit like going to the dentist for one defunct tooth to be removed and when you finally have a moment of anesthetic clarity, hear, “Oh, good lordy there’s another one. Well, she really doesn’t need that guy for chewing anyway.”

Yes, I think in a blind panic, but what about for maintaining social norms like speaking without sounding like I’m an eight-year-old whose face just met a tree trunk after a bike crash?

“What can I do?” I asked.

Ben explained to me that we just needed to slide the battery into place and then voilà, back to work I go and he’s outta here. Easy peasy.

Except he was finding it just a teensy bit tricky to slide this particular battery into place.

“How come?”

He gestured at the ground which held oddly shaped bits of plastic, metal, screws, caps, and hoses. It looked like the car had thrown up onto the garage floor. “A lot of stuff had to come out in order to remove the battery.”

“I assume all that stuff is essential?”

Ben shrugged. “Yeah, it all has to go back.”

I looked at the disassembled engine parts. I really really hoped he remembered where all the bits and pieces originally lived because none of them were color-coated, or Post-it note labeled, and there were no IKEA directions to be found anywhere.

If it were me, I would have labeled everything with Garanimal tags—like the clothing line my mother used to buy for us when we were little kids. Each piece of clothing had some anthropomorphic animal code attached to it so you could find something that matched to make a set. Make sure the alligator shirt is not paired with giraffe shorts and then feel confident sending that child on off to school.

Yeah, there were a lot of things on the ground that looked like they needed to be remarried to their original partners.

“You’ve done this before, right?”

Ben flashed me a smile and held up his smartphone. “YouTube.”

Oh, good heavens.

For the next three hours we battled with that little bug, trying to slide, shove, inch, hitch, and bang that new damn battery into place. It was like trying to get a cat to swallow a pill. That battery refused to go down.

We, as instructed by the warning words of the World Wide Web, did not tip the battery. Which would have made things so much easier. At one point I suggested to Ben that if we couldn’t tip the battery, maybe we should tip the bug. Seriously. It would have been so much easier.

He did not agree.

At long last, we did manage to get that SOB back into place. In fact, we managed to do it twice, because after the first time—once we’d reconnected all hoses, screws, and pulleys—we discovered a small piece we’d left out on the garage floor. Something akin to an OR nurse tapping an open-heart surgeon on the shoulder just as he’s tying off the last stitch of flesh together and pointing to the pan that still held an essential organ.

But we did it.

Easy peasy.

~Shelley

This thing ready to go??

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

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 (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.

271116shock02

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.

271116ian02

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.

271116apple02

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.

271116expectant02

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?

271116barrelo2

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,

271116gareth02

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

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Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

I think three of the most frightening and exciting words spoken together in the English language are: three, two, one.

And the space that comes right after it? The silence where we then announce the outcome? Talk about a pregnant pause. Talk about stress and hope and anticipation—and the new physical knowledge of the phrase gut twisting.

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

What nobody wants to hear is Three, two, one … uh oh.

But it happens. And it’s said. With a lot more regularity than many of us would believe—or admit to.

I think most of us regular folks can probably scare up a decent quote or two from marvelous, mind-blowing space moments, right? Things like:

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I think the old British Bulldog would have loved to take a peek inside one of the many locations dedicated to our American aeronautics and aerospace research to see his words in action.

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

Space has long been an interest of mine. And parenting. I’m super dedicated to the act and art of parenting. Also writing. I can’t imagine my life without writing.

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But this is where I’ll stop with that whole list because any further and it’s going to sound like I’m generating some sort of online dating bio—and that is not where this essay is heading.

It’s mostly about space and parenting. The writing part is simply my way of communicating to your eyeballs the beautiful connection between the two.

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

Okay, so actually, my interests are space, and parenting, and writing … aaaand failure.

Although there is some bewitching halo that’s thrown over the beautiful bubble of someone’s great achievement, there is nothing sparkling or spellbinding about a person’s failure. When seen up close, it’s usually unsightly and has us cringing but unable to turn away. A lousy result is a big pile of rubble we tend to shove underneath the nearest sofa and not show our friends by outlining it on the floor with glitter.

Failure hurts. It’s distressing and insufferable. It is your demanding and troublesome Aunt Gladys showing up on your doorstep and expecting attention and accommodation forthwith.

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You cannot turn her away. She is there. Staring you down with two leather satchels in her hands expecting a cushioned chair and a hot cup of tea immediately. The only thing one can do in a situation like this is …

Prepare for it.

NASA rehearses for surprise Aunt Gladys visits relentlessly and gravely. When every single penny of your budget is scrutinized, questioned, and arm-wrestled for and, more important, when human lives are a big wager in the game, you cannot afford a whoopsie poo from out of the blue.

Last month, I went to pick up my daughter from her summer internship with God—or rather, her god—at one of NASA’s facilities. She was building space rockets—well at least that’s what chose to believe because every time I asked what she was up to she rolled her eyes and reminded me about this little piece of paper she signed called a non-disclosure agreement.

This is a euphemism for the phrase, tell anyone what you’re up to and we’ll slice off your legs at the kneecaps.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely that bad, but it was close. Maybe they’d only slice off her legs at the ankles, but she really wasn’t budging.

Anyway, I was given a glance at that amazing level of preparation NASA employs with its projects. Their walls were lined with pictures, graphics, renderings, and sketches of accomplishments and failures.

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

I’m not saying it’s a gallery of shrapnel and explosions meant to terrorize and paralyze—it’s more like the “Mars Exploration Family Portrait.” There are a lot of pictures and footnotes that say, Stranded in Earth orbit, Crashed on surface, or Destroyed during launch.

How many of us would actually snap a selfie as we stand in front of an epic bungle and then nail it to the wall, poster-sized, right outside our office so that a couple dozen times a day we get to eyeball the lead balloon bombs that are our past?

I think not many of us.

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But with each new person I met, read about, or simply saw beavering away in their government issued lung compressing cubicles that day, I began to wonder if maybe these people’s parents might have peppered their bedroom walls with exactly that kind of décor.

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

Imagine this: right next to their American Mathematics Competition medal, their National Latin Exam Award certificate, and their Presidential Physical Fitness badge, there are two school exams—also pasted up on that wall. One is a Latin essay with whatever Latin words are the equivalent to this paper is atrocious scrawled across the top of it, and the other is a math exam with a big bold red F next to their name.

Next to that is a pink slip from Burger King with the explanatory words Malt machine too complicated for employee to master. This is just above a snapshot of a text reply to the request for a date revealing the response, Uh, Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

It is rocking horse manure rare to have one without the other. And yet as parents, we typically practice buffering our kids from these missteps and wrecks because …

Well … who wants to see our offspring suffer, or struggle, or return to us bleeding and holding out the handlebars of their new bicycle in one hand and three teeth in the other? Who routinely places their descendants in some Houdini hindrance and says, “Don’t forget to hold your breath,” just before their ears are submerged under water? Who leaps up from the bleachers and fist pumps the air, hollering, “I got it on tape!” to their kid who just did a major face plant onto the asphalt just as the one hundred meter dash shotgun went off and then explained to surrounding parents that the rest of the night was going to be spent watching that film a thousand times and taking notes?

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

I know that sounds a bit extreme, and I’m not saying we just shove them all over their security gate in the middle of the night, dust our hands of the whole situation and then drive home.

No.

We can visit.

We’ll gauge their progress and applaud their efforts. We can wander the facilities hallways and see their scrubs and scratches, identifying the technical names for efforts that had to be scrapped because NASA has an abort procedure for everything: pad, launch, ascent, in-flight, and even the one everybody wishes they had in their car for an annoying passenger—ejection. Some plan for every phase of the course lest something goes wrong. And it will.

Our kids don’t have to stay there very long. Just until they get the hang of the new mindset, this unusual framework for their labors.

And that framework is: You will get it wrong. And then you get it right. Errors are normal. Mistakes are natural. Failure is fated. But what it doesn’t have to be is THE END.

In no short amount of time, they’ll be well rehearsed for life.

I know it can work. I heard the setup after I’d dropped my daughter off at the beginning of the summer. This was gist of the conversation:

Mentor: “Here’s what I want you to do. Make blank do blank.” *

Daughter: “Umm … That’s not very specific.”

Mentor: “Don’t I know it. That’s life. Now off you go.”

Results? Plenty. Loads of them. Usable ones? Not so many. Lots of failures. An endless amount. Embarrassing ones, time consuming and hugely frustrating ones.

Except one.

And really, truly, ultimately—that is the point. Don’t fall at the first hurdle.

Because what people often misunderstand is that right up until the moment of the wreck is not a colossal waste of time or effort. The result may be called failing, but the rest … is called learning.

There’s a lot to be said for scars and skinned knees. Our war wounds can be epic and extraordinary tales. They show we’ve done battle and that we made it through to the other side. They can prepare and instruct and inspire our kids to reach for the stars.

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Foot-Slogged Journey from Zero to Hero

According to Google, the definition of the word hero is:

A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A warrior, a knight, a lionheart.

Or we could go with Google’s second definition:

Another term for a submarine sandwich.

I am surrounded 24/7 by heroes. Their voices ring in my ears in pitches that reveal their age and dialects that unmask their country of origin. Occasionally, their speech is so foreign to my mind, I find I must consult etymological dictionaries to make sense of what they say.

Most of these heroes I conjure up myself.

It’s a writer’s process that involves a mixed bag of tools: a few shovels and brushes for the archeological dig to uncover the bones, or a hammer and chisel to chip away at “whatever isn’t the angel,” or, my favorite, the ability to sit with a mental stereogram—where you purposefully lose the eye’s traditional and automatic ability to focus—and then suddenly, mind-blowingly, find a new depth of perspective.

Something magical emerges from something quite ordinary.

I’m used to following these heroes through some journey.

We meet the hero. Something happens to him that forces him to change—despite the fact that he is resistant to change. He’s drawn into some crisis. Things go to hell in a handbasket for a brief period of time. Some metamorphosis occurs, impacting our guy and allows him to respond to the call. And then …

BANG!

He saves the day.

Amen.

I am drawn to these people like a needle pointing north and with the same urgency as when anyone cracks open the door of an oven filled with chocolate chip cookies.

My above definition is a super-simplified explanation of a complex, universal storytelling form called …

The Hero’s Journey.

(Please note: In my head, anytime this phrase is said aloud, its audio quality is enhanced by some impressively epic reverb.)

According to many who’ve studied the great stories of mythology and the broad swath of tales that fit beneath the umbrella of the monomyth, there are a few things necessary in each of these sagas:

A situation, a protagonist, an objective, conflict and disaster, and very important—an opponent.

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My list is by no means complete, but just an “around about” example to further my unfolding tale.

But the hero I’m going to tell you about is not one of mythology or conjured up by my writerly imagination. She is a regular Joe. A flesh and blood body. A mortal, a maiden, and amusingly, mine.

Okay, that last part may no longer really be true, as she leapt from the nest two years ago, but the ownership part isn’t the important bit. It’s the journey. It’s one I was given the privilege to watch close up and from all angles.

You know those first words we record as proud parents in the biblical baby books of unprecedented infant achievement? This is found in hers:

Airpane.

Yeah, not a typo.

One tiny fist with one tiny finger extended upward and continuously, unrelentingly, irritatingly pointed toward the sky. One tiny mouth was forever uttering what two tiny eyes could see and two tiny ears could hear.

Airpane.

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Rare was the day when I had the time to track each one of her identifications—and I certainly did not possess the keen eyesight and impressive auditory range that she seemed to have been born with—but I breezily verified each one of her chirps with some form of response like,

“Wow, good for you, Toots. Keep your eye out for more.” Or,

“Clever girl. How many is that this morning? One hundred? One thousand? I’ve lost count.” Or,

“Okay, I get it. You were a pilot in a previous life. I’ve got to fold laundry.”

When my daughter was about five, two common career themes emerged and spilled out into her everyday life. She was heavily into deciding between becoming a ballerina or an astronaut.

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One day, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her. She was going to have a few follow-up booster shots for some prior vaccinations. Knowing her intense hatred and fear of needles, I tried to plan something fun to follow that doctor’s appointment that would keep her mind off of the wretched shots:

We were going to have lunch … WITH AN ASTRONAUT IN TRAINING!

A family friend was delighted to hear of my daughter’s early interest in space and eager to encourage her tiny spurts of enthusiasm. It was exactly what we needed to follow that pediatrician’s appointment—which was …

Awful.

She hid, she screamed, she threw tongue depressors at the man as if she was barricading herself inside an ice cream truck with nothing but popsicles to use as weapons. She told him she was going to hunt him down in the middle of the night.

Yeah, it was appalling.

Anyway, back at lunch, our astronaut friend began to fill my daughter’s head with all the details involved in becoming “an astronaut,” and at one point launched into the myriad medical tests and examinations one must undergo in order to determine if one is even physically fit enough for space.

My daughter inquired about inoculations.

“Yep,” he said. “Plenty of needles.”

She then turned to me and asked, “Do ballerinas need shots?”

Well, I thought we were finished with our miniature hero’s journey into space and that life would finally return back to normal. I would no longer have to feign interest in her long conversations about the complex water systems aboard the International Space Station which provided astronauts drinking water made from a filtered mixture of recycled shower water, old astronaut sweat … and pee.

Except I was wrong.

Because every day that space interest grew. Whether she was curious about rocket fuel, or space shuttle tiles, or the physics of learning how to fly.

At one point, she said to me she would happily accept a one-way ticket to Mars if it was available and she qualified, and then gave me permission to give away everything in her bedroom to Goodwill.

“What?” I said. “You’re still interested in space?”

Apparently, this was the equivalent of asking, “What? You’re still interested in breathing air?

She struggled with physics like it was some Minotaur she’d regularly sword fight with each night before bed.

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She spent countless, frustrating hours with her teachers in order to understand—not memorize—the facts in front of her.

One of her teachers—a Japanese physicist, whom I swear was the prototype for Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid—threw countless roadblocks in her way.

“Why waste your time with space?” he’d ask her. “Space is for boys. Dolls are for girls.”

She would march from his classroom and turn to face him just before leaving and flip him the bird.

He, on the other hand, would smile with smug contentment after she left, knowing he’d lit a fire beneath someone’s nettled knickers.

Word had it, that this man had come to America with the impassioned notion that the world needed more girls in math.

But apparently, he didn’t want ones that crumpled when facing adversity.

Walking into her bedroom was a bit like being a detective who opened the door belonging to a guy whose crazed neural network encompassed all four walls of the freakishly alarming one room apartment he lived in. Where equations were sprawled across every square inch of space, and yarn connected one spot to another, making the entire room feel like it was a massive, but not yet completed, macramé pot holder.

Understanding that this was a language I would never have the codes to decipher, I’d offer up encouragement from the safest quarters of my own comfort zones—stories.

Seeing her bleary eyes each morning, and the small, but growing bald spot patches where she would regularly grasp at fistfuls of hair—I first assumed out of frustration, but after taking into account the amount of information she was trying to consume, I came to believe it was in an effort to expand skull space—I would offer up my suggestions. I didn’t want her to give up.

“Why don’t we head to the library and check out some super stories about space adventure? Stories like Aliens Love Underpants, or The Martian Chronicles, or Ender’s Game, or (most important) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

But with each book I brought home and encouraged her to read, they ended up buried beneath printed out specs of some new rocket booster. Or NASA flight mission reports. Or CDs that declared, you can learn how to speak Russian and Chinese in under ten minutes a day!

She didn’t want to read a space story.

She wanted to be a space story.

Countless times in this child’s life, I’ve stepped back and looked at the path she was traveling. It’s been riddled with potholes, roadblocks, detours, and burnt bridges. But it has also been abundantly sprinkled with mentors: sensei sword masters, Yodas, Gandalfs, and Dumbledores. Guides who have handed her a sword, a light saber, a wand.

Repeatedly realizing how out of depth I was, the best I could hope to do was step out of her way. I was not going to be the antagonist in my very own child’s heroic journey. I did not want to be her conflict, her disaster, her apocalyptic Death Star.

But I could keep her sword shiny, her lightsaber full of batteries, and her wand connected to Wi-Fi at night whilst she slept.

I looked for the places I belonged in her story. Many times I found it was on the sidelines taking notes. It’s what we writers do to nudge a story into place. It’s what we cheerleaders do to rally our heroes. It’s what we parents do to encourage our children.

Today, this child of mine studies aerospace engineering at MIT and is in the middle of her first summer internship with NASA.

It is a beautiful thing to realize that Thank God, you did not get in the way of someone else’s dream and hopefully, instead, pruned back the prickly path a tiny bit to make the journey a little bit easier.

I celebrate both of my children’s achievements as they come, and tell them about the importance of embracing each one of their failures along the way as well. There is no rising without falling.

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Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we may bring back the bandages and antibiotic ointments that come with life’s splashdowns and spills. It is all part of the hero’s journey and there are no shortcuts around facing your dragons.

Today I am so happy for this child I find myself nearly bursting with joy. I seriously just want to take a bite out of her.

I’m guessing she will taste something like a submarine sandwich.

~Shelley

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.