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

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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.

Booze, Britain, & Maybe Someone’s Bride

If you’re asked any questions you can’t answer, just send those folks to me.

I looked at my boss. The one who brought me to the London Whisky Show with just barely enough information to sound like I was dangerously competent but not snarkily egotistical.

You mean like, “How many proof liters are you pulling off the still between noon and 6pm on every third Saturday of the month?”

Or how about, “Exactly what percentage of liquor are you extracting from that rare twenty-five year old rum cask you’re resting your bourbon in for two years?”

Or even this one. How bout this one? “Will you marry me?” *hic* Can I lob that one over to you as well?

He gave me a look from beneath his brow. Umm … no. You can deal with the drunken fan boy bits on your own.

Fab. Back to work.

And work it was, as setting up a booth in Old Billingsgate—one of London’s myriad iconic buildings, notably a venue that used to house the world’s largest fish market—was not just as easy as plunking down a few bottles of booze and then flipping a shingle to say ‘open for business’ as thirsty customers strolled by.

Instead, it was setting up the most eye-catching, magnetically plumaged display of all your finest award winning wares right beside hundreds of other eye-catching, magnetically plumaged displays of award winning wares.

And for most of us, all on the size of a postage stamp.

The festival brought distillers and whisky lovers from all over the world together to experience some of the most coveted, laurel wreathed drams begging to be savored. Participants wandered (and eventually stumbled) about from booth to booth over the two festival days with supremely developed palates and highly developed expectations.

Now there may only officially be listed just over 100 carefully selected global distillers, but each one of them had some version of, You think that was good … (pulls bottle from beneath hidden shelf) … wrap your tongue around this one!

Altogether, a patron had somewhere between 600-800 drams of whisky to filter through in 48 hours.

As did their liver.

Of course, there was recommended show etiquette.

Spit, don’t swallow.

Drink lots of water—hell, bring your own IV pole if it’s not too unwieldy.

And if you are officially documented by the patrolling Security Stewards to have asked more than three exhibitors for their hand in marriage, the last one has the right to hold you responsible for their children’s college fund.

Gamble as you may.

One of the most challenging aspects of the festival was to reel in the participants, convince them that Reservoir’s whiskies stood head and shoulder above most others because we were not a carbon copy of the vast menu list available.

Our ingredients are of the utmost importance.

We pride ourselves on those ingredients being local.

Our process is different, our distillate is unique, our people are unprecedented, and for Pete’s sake, every day we festoon our bosses’ office doors with balloons and thank you notes because we just frickin’ love working here!

PLEASE JUST COME TASTE OUR WHISKIES!

In truth, we may not have sounded quite so desperate, but you get my point. You have to stand out. And not in a gimmicky way. You have to present them with something that’s memorable, that’s meaningful, that matters.

You have to make them want to take you home in a bag.

Okay, that did not come out right, but again you get my point.

It was an opportunity to meet people who love whisky and who make whisky from every corner of the Earth. To share what we’ve made, to learn from others, and to come home filled to the brim with the vim and vigor of pursuing our future.

We also come home smelling a little bit of fish, but that’s beside the point.

We travel the world with our wares. Sometimes we come to you. Sometimes you come to us. Most importantly, we come together, our spirits aligned.

Now, agreeing whether you want to make monthly payments to the university or just one lump sum is where we might diverge, but we can always work that out over a dram or two.

~Shelley

My favorite customer …

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.

 

 

 

 

When Everyone Tells You You’re a Witch, Eventually You Try on the Hat

I don’t feel well¸ I’d whispered just loudly enough for my own ears to register.

I reached out for the wall beside me, steadying quivering knees, and felt my hand slide southward until it came to touch the floor. I wrapped both arms around my bent legs. In this custodial cocoon, I closed my eyes and searched for a thread of clarity as a new anchor of support.

Another sound my ears captured—their scattershot proficiency even further impeded by the thump of my resonant heartbeat—was a half growl, half moan, also coming from me.

I spoke again in a whisper, directing my words to both recently and long-passed female relatives, If you all think this is funny, I will find a way to make you pay for your merciless amusement. Leave. Me. Alone.

I looked up and scanned the room. It was rich with excavated artifacts—urns, beakers, swords, and tools, skins, sketches, baubles, and bowls. Relics unearthed from the very ground I stood upon—or hunched over, as it were.

The Kilmartin Museum was perched atop a small ridge that ran along the edge of Kilmartin Glen—a stretch of prehistoric sites through the valley of a tiny village in western Scotland. It was here I was suddenly sinking with the feeling of lassitude—which I’m certain brought a smirk of self-congratulations to many of my female ancestors, as the words they shared with me when alive were of the variety that would bring great alarm to most, but were banal and eye roll-worthy to me during my youth:

You’re an old soul—you simply can’t recall your past lives. The tarot cards show this.

Open your ears to the goddesses, don’t put up such walls to their speech.

You are but a vessel—and willing or no, your spirit is an empath and draws the needful toward you.

I’d believed none of it. But partly wished it were true. They believed all of it. And impatiently waited my surrender to their truth.

I’d come for research—to resurrect not only the tangible details I’d need for my story, but the perceptible ones as well. One provided a sense of touch, the other, palpable only by the mind. Many storytellers find that if one can stand in the spot where the tale unfolds, and utilize all one’s senses, countless doors of creativity swing open with ease.

The problem I was encountering was not so much the onset of malaise but discovering that the long distance travel had not shaken the long buried voices of my own dead relatives—those who regularly muttered around me—and they now intermingled with the voices of those I wished to hear more clearly and singularly.

The book I was writing steeped within a warm soup of Celtic mythology and village mystics. The book I’d just finished was fraught with warring witches and fear-filled kingdoms. Death snaked its way through both narratives, just as my familial undead featherstitched their presence uninvitingly through more of my calendric cycle than I wish were true.

Their calls—which were clearly an unmistakable theme in both books—repeatedly stressed, You are one of us. Do not be deaf to the obvious and inevitable.

And although I may have purposefully shut out the opinions my more eclectic family members layered on, I have never been deaf to great books, as they speak to me with more than mere words. They leave countless overarching impressions. When you are the reader of any story, the author prays they have cannily articulated some message to you, and you leave feeling moved by the experience. When you are the author, you hunt for that affecting message. It is oftentimes a slow sweeping away of debris that reveals the structure: the bones, the skull, the spine.

And standing in a multi-roomed hut, jammed with primitive curios, or upon a battlefield, the acrid smoke charred deep into the soil, or beside a cairn, the stones heavy with the grief of thousands of tears, I can barely pick out the tone of my own long ago voiced youthful complaints as I stymie the growing sound of history’s vocal barrage.

I’m not like all of you. I’m my own person, I’d said to some auntie, eyeing me with pity through the wisps of the exotic smoke from her cigarette.

She’d shaken her head. You see it wrongly. You are not tethered to this hallowed ground with an anchor, but rather a tube. One that can act as a channel.

She is right. There is a hurricane of chronicles waiting to be heard. And countless times in my life I have been in the right place and present at the right time where the valves have twisted open. At these moments, I am usually caught unawares and overwhelmed.

Fighting off a chorus of narrators, rich with the urgency of untold tales is akin to skittering down an icy, rock-laden hill. You will not come out unscathed.

As writers in any genre will affirm, there are myriad ways to quilt the patchwork of a story together: spending months or years in a library while pouring over reference books, chronicling dream journals and cherry-picking threads of a narrative from within it, ferreting through new innovation and discovery via disrupters and thought leaders we interview. The list is endless.

But there are those that believe the stories are omnipresent, ubiquitous as the air we draw for each breath. And within our breath is the breath of others. Our task is to tap into the substance of it, the elements within it. We simply unveil that which keeps it muffled from others’ ears.

I had no inkling I would be a teller of tales one day, that I would find a snug fit of comfort stretching beyond the bounds of everyday humans and attempt to build worlds elsewhere. And for an unfathomable amount of time I stubbornly resisted seeing one of those unhuman worlds as it was repeatedly illuminated by others who believed they held access to it and wished to hand me a key.

Those experiences—the ones where I’ve been flooded with the emotions, or voices, or thrumming vibrations that did not belong to me specifically—have more often than not, not been welcome. I don’t know why they appear. Maybe those women are right. Maybe I am an empath. And welcomed or no, some unseen fingers may continue to twist open that wheeled handle despite my trying to plug the spigot. But lately … lately I have wondered why I would willfully eliminate a source of inspiration or guidance. Why would I dismiss a muse as it sits staring into my face, or whispering into my ear?

So for writing’s sake, for the enrichment of story, I will try on the hat—to see if it fits. Fits like a child’s head, warmly embraced within the arms and bosoms of women long passed, but refusing to be forgotten.

~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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture This: One Last Time …

Once upon a time I met a guy.

Okay. That’s not true.

Once upon a time I didn’t meet a guy, but I got to know a guy because we started working together.

Uh, okay, not even all of that is true either. We never actually started working together, we actually worked apart, but our efforts came together for just over four years.

I absolutely love the look on people’s faces when I tell them that my blogging partner of over fifteen hundred days is someone I’ve never actually met. It’s such a great story.

But even great stories—no matter how epically enthralling they are—will come to the last line of their tale with bold letters that say: THE END.

That part usually feels like you’ve been impaled by an errant satellite antenna and now have to wrestle it out of your flesh on your own with nothing but nail clippers.

Robin Gott and I had a couple of things in common:

  • We both spoke English—although he mostly speaks Swedish now as that’s his current crash pad country.
  • We both saw the world with a slightly skewered sensibility.
  • And we both loved his sense of humor—although I’ve never specifically heard him say he loves his own sense of humor, I took it to be a fact because on more than one occasion, when I would receive his sketches for the next post, there’d be an array of splatter on the page that I could only assume came from a mouthful of tea when finally sitting back to surmise one’s work.

But … we had one thing we did not share in common:

  • The way we envisioned Scotsmen.

I saw them as broad-shouldered, well-muscled, claymore-handling kilted men who eyed me with a savage come hither look.

And Robin saw them as knock-kneed, prickly-legged, bagpipe-wheezing kilted geezers who couldn’t look anyone straight on because they were also cross-eyed from too much bagpipe wheezing.

His version was a helluva lot funnier than mine so I stopped writing about them. One does not want funny in one’s delusional, sigh-inducing afternoon daydreams.

I cannot begin to convey the number of reactions Robin’s cartoons have produced—it’s usually the first thing anyone brings up when speaking to me about the blog. More often than not, that comment is snorted, or chortled, or sniggered out by an individual retelling the tale of being in a public place while reading the post and then making some embarrassing sound of amusement that turned heads and raised brows. Coffee shop lines, grocery checkouts, and a couple of bathroom stalls. I’ve heard it all.

My kids had their own take on Robin’s work. Oftentimes my daughter would grumble as to the awkward teenage shape her blog version body projected, and my son would beg me to stop writing about him, as surely some teacher at school the next day after the post was published would brandish their smartphone, showing him one of Robin’s colored pencil drawn sketches of him and warn, “You’d better never do this in my class.”

I soon came to realize that Robin’s depictions of myself were wholly accurate: frizzed, limp, or muddled hair, ungainly limbs, mismatched clothes, and always an expression that conveyed anarchic chaos.

Usually, they were also more flattering than the truth.

And speaking of truth we circle back round to the facts. And the sad fact of the matter is that there are only so many hours to a day and Robin’s are jam-packed full of a burgeoning family life, day job, and acting career.

Sometimes you have to whittle away the fat from the bone—cuz, you know, sleep is a thing.

And I get it. When we first joined forces, we were pumping out four or five posts a month. Solidly. For more than a couple of years. Then a few people entered my life—an agent, some editors, and a dastardly heavy breathing brute of a thing called a deadline.

We scaled back.

Once a month posts made everyone breathe easier. Except readers. And I got it. And by ‘got it’ I mean complaints. More people wrote in to express their dissatisfaction with the new arrangement. People NEEDED their Sunday shot of Gott—and oh, yeah, the writing wasn’t horrible either.

I advised most folks to recycle old posts. Most folks advised me to go take a long walk off a short pier.

Ah well.

But we must all come together and wish Robin farewell and good luck. The artistic world will continue to benefit from his influence and presence—whether he’s producing a play or appearing on film. And his doodles will live on. They are on my walls, in my text, and within my heart.

I have heard from so many people about the joy Robin’s sketches have brought them, and I know everyone will be saddened to find them absent.

One day, a long time from now, my grandchildren will likely discover as they tour through one of the halls in the Smithsonian, a jar containing a brain submerged in formaldehyde.

“What’s that?” they’ll bend down and shout into my Miracle Ear, seeing me chuckle with self-congratulations about a long ago prediction.

“That,” I’ll croak out, “is science’s failed attempt to understand the workings behind the waggish and whimsical wit of a man who saw the world through an enviable pair of glasses.”

I will pause and smile and remember.

“I was lucky to know him, but I never met him.”

~Shelley (& Rob)

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.

 

Go Fetch Me a Pint

There is nothing more attractive to me than a big, burly Scotsman dressed in a kilt.

250115good (562x800)

Scratch that.

There is nothing more attractive to me than a big, burly Scotsman dressed in a kilt and holding a glass of single malt scotch.

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Oops. One more go at this.

There is nothing more attractive to me than a big, burly Scotsman dressed in a kilt, holding a glass of single malt scotch and offering it to ME.

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BINGO.

And the great thing about January 25th is that my chances of seeing this attractive vision unfold increases monumentally all because of one charming fellow.

Who happens to be dead.

Nonetheless, Robert Burns is still remembered, admired and hailed around the world. His birthday is celebrated in ways that likely have him wishing he could be there and glad that he is not. It all depends upon what party you end up attending.

So let me explain …

Ole Rabbie Burns was born on January 25th, 1759 in the southwestern part of Scotland in the village of Alloway. His folks were farmers, and as most farmers barely have two farthings to rub together, they rubbed together that which they did have—each other. Robert had six other siblings—plenty of hands to lighten the load—which might have been the reason Robert had time to read and write.

And chase girls.

Lots of them.

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Once his father passed away, Robert and his brother took over the family farm. At this point it seems Rabbie may have asked himself some questions about the direction he wanted to take with his life.

Would I prefer to be writing up the yearly farm accounts or writing down poetry? Better yet, would I rather be watering the land, or down at the local watering hole?” And finally, Should I choose to sow seeds into the soil, or into all of the bonnie women I can catch?”

It was clear Robert excelled with whatever was behind door number two—which was usually him and some other lass.

His poetry was oftentimes meant to impress the fairer sex, in order to have sex.

And lest you think I’m pulling your chain, let me provide some proof: our lustful lyricist had a total of TWELVE CHILDREN by FOUR WOMEN. Seven were illegitimate, because, well … after a while you stop counting. They just become stock.

It seems the old bard knew how to make his quill sing.

*ahem* (and a few others’ too)

Okay, back to celebrating someone’s birthday and not conquests.

Once Burns finally kicked the bucket—at the tender age of 37, from what was apparently reported as “heart disease,” although there were plenty of folks who stated that whisky and women contributed to his demise—his cronies decided to carry on the tradition of celebrating his birthday with a yearly tribute: booze, women, food and okay, fine, poetry.

If you were to cast a wide net, chances are you’ll find a Burns Supper happening somewhere within spitting distance. As long as you’re a champion spitter. But the circle grows smaller each year.

Lots of folks love whisky, everyone loves food, and a couple of folks even like poetry. There you have it. The makings of a Burns Night.

There really are only a few ingredients necessary for its success:

  1. FOOD: All things Scottish—if you’re attempting to be truly authentic. So, neeps and tatties (smushed up turnips and potatoes), cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leeks, not leaking roosters!), haggis (most of you do not want to know), and cranachan or cream clowdie (this is just a hot mess of oatmeal, cream, sugar and whisky—breakfast for highland savages).
  2. MUSIC: Make friends with a bagpiper. Tell him to bring an extra lung or a tank of O2 because it’ll be a long night.
  3. POETRY: Or any good storytelling material. Have your guests tell a joke, recite their favorite piece of prose—authored by Burns or any other great odist, or share a memory of when they too were a drunken, sex-depraved, Scottish lad.

And finally, but most importantly …

  1. WHISKY: The more you imbibe, the better the food becomes, the more appealing the music grows and everyone becomes a balladeer capable of reciting rhapsodic soliloquies (insert roll of eyes here).

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The point is to enjoy a night of all the things that delight our senses, but unlike any other holiday, you may bring your broadsword and claymore to the dinner table.

Burns Night Suppers are usually long and lewd, reeling and risqué, and require two aspirin and a taxi at their completion.

They are worthy and memorable events, and I can’t encourage you enough to source out a local shindig in your area. Or be brave and throw the dinner together yourself. After all, attending a Burns Night is your best chance for running into a big burly Scotsman, dressed in a kilt and holding a glass of single malt scotch. Whether or not he’s going to offer it up to you is something you may have to negotiate. My advice? Hum a few bars of Auld Lang Syne and see if he warms to you.

Slàinte!

~Shelley

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.

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A Rite of Passage with a Perishing Piper

I’m a sucker for tradition.

Anything that has a ceremony, a ritual or a rite of passage—I’m filled with goose bumps, my breath comes short and I’m often searching for some celestial choir of angels to swing down from the rafters to make it a massive biblical event. Maybe one worthy enough to throw a small epilogue onto the end of the New Testament. We can call it, ‘The Newest New Testament.’

I’m not saying it’ll ever happen, and maybe all those early years of repeated genuflecting and inhaling terpenic-scented incense has left me with a woozy, slap happy wit—one that expects seas to part, meals to multiply and the dead to rise.

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Except I’m not really like that.

I can appreciate lessons of morality, plus the necessary insight one must cultivate in order to apply time-tested and multi-authored philosophy. This education is critical. Much of it can be gleaned from the passages of great religious books. But it can be incredibly soul crushing to some—in particular to small children whose teachers are sharp tongued women covered nearly head to toe in billowing capes of all black, and whose weapons are heavy yard sticks that can reach up and ring the pearly gates’ doorbell to report all poor behavior.

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Soon, I learned that I preferred my religious lessons to come from Monty Python’s films and Flying Circus. A giant cartoon foot coming from the clouds to squish out all the evil below it was a mental picture I preferred to hang on to when needing moral guidelines. Hellish devils with demonic eyes—not so much. Therefore, I attribute my current gooey nature to a mix of my befuddling past and will leave it at that.

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Last week, I participated in a century long practice at my daughter’s school that has packed a yearly ‘one-two punch’ of heart-swelling sentiment whenever I attended. And for each one of those years, it has been the highlight of the academic season.

It is called Convocation.

And apart from the general act of convoking, the assembled mass is treated to a few dynamic moments all squished in to about 75 minutes worth of pomp and ceremony. It is the official opening commemoration of the school year, honoring the graduating class and their parents.

Firstly, the show starts off with a big bang—or a giant wheeze, if we want to get technical.

A bagpiper slowly ambles the huge perimeter of our giant gymnasium, blasting out a few golden oldies from the 1700’s.

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This guy is costumed head to toe. He looks like an authentic Scotsman pulled straight off the battlefield of Culloden—minus the spray of blood. But for some, you’d think there was blood pouring from their ears by the looks on their faces.

Yes, it may be true that he’s probably as old as the songs he’s pumping out of his ancient carpet bag, and that every year folks place bets as to whether or not he’s going to drop mid gasp before he reaches the podium, but for me, no matter how poorly his pipes are tuned and despite the fact that it’s difficult to tell if the bagpiper has started playing or the crowd spotted him standing at the door and groaned collectively, he is the most sublime part of the show.

And from my perspective it all goes downhill from there—they’ve opened with their strongest act.

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The large cast of faculty—decked out in their graduation gowns and scarves—follow behind the piper, and parents and their stripling scholars bring up the rear. It is a parade of high-powered proportions. Authoritarian, illustrious, and grand. It’s also surprising that the ceremony can be held indoors, as the massive amount of computing power represented in the collective brain tissue present requires an inordinate amount of oxygen to keep it running. And we all know the piper has used up more than his fair share, so traveling behind him can be dicey.

Thereafter, we hear the requisite speeches from lofty politicians, returning alumni, the headmaster and the senior class president. Some years have been livelier than others. There is always the hope that whoever the visiting dignitary is will spew out a soliloquy worthy of some fire and brimstone special effects, but more often than not it is polite and encouraging, a speech equivalent to raising a small colored pennant with the words, Go team, Go! printed on it.

Halfway through the show (ahem, ceremony), the choir tentatively releases a few uncertain chords, and the school orchestra makes a gallant attempt at playing a splashy piece. There appears to be an enthusiastic display of shiny cymbal work, which is likely a purposeful decision, as many of the musicians are still struggling with remembering how to tune their instruments this early in the year.

Nonetheless, it’s a marvelous display that chokes up even the stodgiest at heart. For me, it all contributes to the growing fervor and the knowledge that, for my daughter, it is the last time she can participate in the pageantry and fanfare.

It is a day to cherish, a memory to cement, and it leaves me with an overwhelming desire to scour the local papers for a bagpipe instructor.

Surely there’ll be an opening for work in that field fairly soon. But then again, the dead may rise.

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~Shelley

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

Dazed & Confused; the crackpot college tour.

Steam train

Steam train (Photo credit: eckenheimer)

My only defense is that I dipped into my ‘sanity jar’ one too many times, came up empty and proceeded to agree to something everyone is still shaking their heads at. Yes, I jumped onto the caboose of the crazy train.

Borrowing the oft spoken words from my fourteen-year old son, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Selecting the phrase I should tattoo on my forehead: “Beware. Thick-witted woman.”

English: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks

English: Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, perhaps my deeds do not deserve a Hester Prynne blood-red letter on my chest, but maybe I should be forced to wear silver “I” for idiot earrings over the next couple of months for believing that my husband, my daughter and I could shove twelve university visits into five and a half days.

The COLLEGE ROAD TRIP became a blasphemous phrase, uttered in pure frustration on a regular basis. It’s now moving up the ladder for hashtag trends on Twitter.

Where did I go wrong? Somehow I convinced myself that both my seventeen-year old and I could muster up the ungodly amount of energy Sir Sackier generates for an hour’s worth of work and spread it out evenly in one day. Times six.

And we would have succeeded had neither one of us needed to eat, sleep or pee. I’ve discovered a strain of camel in my husband’s genetic makeup.

He diligently put together our itinerary. It began at MIT in Boston and finished at King’s College in London. In between, we squished Edinburgh, Saint Andrews, Strathclyde, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Oxford, University College London and Imperial College. The UK looks so much smaller on MapQuest.

Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries, South West ...

Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries, South West Scotland (Photo credit: iknow-uk)

I would love to say I perched forward excitedly in my seat as our car sleekly swept past rolling green hills, lush with heather, sheep and historically preserved castles. In truth, I was drunk with exhaustion, alarm and angst as we either barreled down the motorway, unable to see anything but the hazy red glow of the tail lights two feet in front of us—momentarily visible between swooshes of overwhelmed windscreen blades—or idled on the same road, waiting for yet another accident to be cleared, so we could all carry on barreling until the next snarl brought us to a screeching halt.

I now know the precise shape of my heart and what it tastes like as well, for it spent a goodly amount of time residing in my mouth.

It didn’t matter how hard we tried, we were an hour late to everything. It became surreal. No matter when we left, we ended up cursing the weather, the road, the GPS, the parking, the underground or just people we randomly bumped into as we dashed passed them on our way to an office that was numerically ordered by folks who surely thought they were picking lotto numbers.

Sorted White Paper Pile

Sorted White Paper Pile (Photo credit: Walter Parenteau)

Once locating an office, one thing became crystal clear to both my husband and me. Every one of these professor’s tiny lairs looked EXACTLY like our daughter’s bedroom. How could this be true? Does everyone who studies physics have the same ability to compute the science of matter and motion, but find themselves puzzled by the form and usage of drawers? Papers, folders, letters and documents were everywhere: covering every surface, propped against the walls, stacked up on the floors. And if there was an area that had any white space showing, it was heavily scrawled upon, revealing either the country’s launch codes or the cipher to Cypro-Minoan syllabary. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that some of these folks have decoded all sorts of Bronze Age scripts, but simply can’t remember where they put them.

My daughter is looking forward to fitting in with her people because brain function lost on laundry is brain function lost forever.

Math Wall

Math Wall (Photo credit: trindade.joao)

Meeting after meeting, I found myself sitting in a chair, desperately trying to follow the conversation and line of questioning. Symbols were used in place of words and squiggly lines formed a foreign alphabet. I felt my eyes glaze over repeatedly, only briefly registering when I recognized some part of speech. Sadly, it was usually an article like and, the or at. It was humiliating.

Occasionally, I ventured to open my mouth and realized I shouldn’t have. More often than not, my seventeen-year old gave me the wide-eyed glare that silently shouted, “KEEP SHTUM!” And after a while I could see that same face on many of the faculty. Okay, maybe they were all getting tired of my questions about time travel, but it wasn’t like I was announcing that I believed in unicorns.

I’d definitely save that declaration for a follow up meeting … should there be one.

Regardless, I did try to participate. I echoed back many of their statements by simply shifting their words into a slightly different order, but after a while, I realized I’d taken a peek into the other hemisphere of my brain and found it cold, dark and nearly empty. I quickly slammed that door shut and hustled back into more familiar territory.

The highlight for me was taking the laboratory tours. I saw folks doing research on optics, gravitational waves and solar wind using Star Wars lasers and vacuums that could suck the dirt off anything down to an atomic level of clean.

In one massive lab, I swear I was on a revealing backstage tour of a David Copperfield magic show.

space

space (Photo credit: Sweetie187)

One person made a whiteboard diagram of outer space and told us how he was involved in mapping newly discovered stars, planets and solar systems. I asked if I could snap a quick photo to send to my eighth grade science teacher. Finally I had proof that my leaving a giant question mark in the space provided for the question asking ‘how large the universe was’ should not have been checked wrong.

Yes, it was a crazy week. No, I’ll never agree to do anything like it again. But in the end, we all lost a little weight, met some amazing scientists and discovered the true limitations of our individual bladders. My daughter came back home more confused than clear about what she’s searching for in a university, but I’m fairly certain I unintentionally lessened the number of offers coming from across the pond, so ultimately that might help narrow down the choices.

Finding the right school can be a heart-palpitating hunt, but honestly, finding the right vacuum is more of a true achievement.

At least everyone knows what I want for Christmas.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

Men in plaid. Aka Highland Games

For some people, a work of nature can make their hearts sing: a sunrise or sunset, a full moon, a double rainbow, a field of poppies. For others, it might be the music of Debussy, an African children’s choir, or the ocean as it rolls with breaking waves across the sand.

English: The Bagpiper

For me, as glorious as these things are, nothing comes quite as close to filling me with awe as seeing a man dressed in a kilt. If he’s blowing a set of pipes, all the better.

Alright, so my “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” viewpoint might be a little different than most.

I’ve been to Scotland many times. Not as many times as I’m hoping to go, but more times than my children wish to recall. When the strains of a bagpipe seep past me, I spot a flash of plaid, or I walk into my pantry–overrun with single malt scotch–I am transported back, if only for just a moment.

To remain there longer, I need do one of a few things: get on an airplane and head to the Highlands, strap some whopping big horns on to my dog and beg him to release his inner Highland cow, or go to one of Virginia’s many Highland Games.

Highland Cow

Highland Cow (Photo credit: Vanessa (EY))

Are you with me on the theme here?

Last week I went with door number three.

A few thousand others did too.

Thankfully, when the second George of England requested that the Scots kindly exit the United Kingdom for a permanent vacation, they (at gunpoint) willingly agreed and took one of the original cruise ships over the pond to set up a few tents in Canada and America. I say thankfully simply because one of their camper sites turned out to be Virginia. Apparently, the welcome was warm enough to encourage putting down a tap root. They stuck around.

And since the crabby English didn’t like seeing the Scots in their party clothes, or hearing their party music, or following their party leaders, the Scots took all of that with them and dumped it on the front lawn of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Celtic riffraff, but really lyrical riffraff.

But even having spent the last couple of centuries sliding away from a Scottish burr and into a southern drawl, these folks have held tight to their customs if not their castles.

Virginia Highland games, while not as raucous and cutthroat as those I’ve become acquainted with in Scotland, still retain the one thing that binds them no matter which land you’re visiting.

PRIDE.

The clan system is strong.

And they keep reminding each other of just how strong their clan system is. The Camerons are stronger than the McDonalds. The McDonalds are mightier than the Fraziers. The Fraziers kick the butts of the Buchanans. And the Buchanans think the only thing the Camerons show superior strength in is body odor. So there you have it. Clan competition.

Pipers piping.

Caber throwers cabering.

Archers arching.

Leaping lassies leaping.

Stone putters putting.

Sheep herders picking out the prettiest sheep.

Cattle smugglers pointing up at an eagle to throw you off the fact that you’ve just lost half your herd.

Fun and games.

And whisky.

And haggis.

And then more whisky.

Gun and fames.

You’re never as thunk as you drink you are, but the drinker you sit there’s, the longer you get. Hic.

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Although seeing the men toss their cabers is an absolute thrill, the true highlight for me is always the electrifying, heart-quickening rush of the pipes. Hearing the combined sounds of one hundred pipers pouring every ounce of their spirits into music that will shred your soul is an addictive experience, and one that will likely leave a tiny tattoo on your heart.

They’re lined up in formation, silent and prepared, mist swirling about them like smoke from a long ago battle. They’re given the cue and collectively send skyward the chilling notes of bloodshed, crusade and struggle mixed together with grit, guts and glory. It leaves you shattered and breathless.

The gathering audience is silent, struck dumb with the power of the ghostly cries of voices silenced by graves. You can feel the crowd shiver. A big blowzy woman next to me breaks the sacred moment with, “Oh aye, I’d like to squeeze one of them there pipes myself.”

A few tender-conscious women make a swift sign of the cross and one man chokes on the pint of Guinness he’s swilling. The games have truly begun.

After a full day of watching the descendants of my favorite country duke it out Hazard/Highland style, we leave and drive home. I am left satiated for the moment, but know the feeling won’t last. As we wait at a stoplight, I see in the car beside me the swaying hips of the sweet figurine–the Hawaiian Hula girl.

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11-22-09 (Photo credit: idovermani)

My only wish is that somebody, somewhere will create the Scottish equivalent of the kilted man. I think back to the pious women and what they’d make of my new dashboard saint.

I bet if they had one, they’d take the long, curvy road home from church. And then have to go back for the second service.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here)!

 

Fake, Folly or For Real?

For all my talk these last couple of weeks about the wicked wind and how it’s left my brain addled from its overzealous quest to uproot any unnecessary trees from the mountaintop, personal safety has never been an issue. As long as we stay indoors. In fact, I sometimes even get a little smug about it.

The wolf blows down the straw house in a 1904 ...

Picture the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. Look down the line from pig to pig until you see the porcine smile that I’ve come to perfect. It’s the last guy in the row. I’ve no snub-tipped turned up snout or floppy ears to frame my face. The thing we share in common—the thing that spreads the smirk of self-congratulations over our features—is that we both live in a pile of organized rubble.

Pig number three was, if you recall, a fairly suave fellow who chose to invest in the safety of his future. I’m not so sure we could say our choice to build the bastion we live in was so much a conscious one as it was one of opportunity. When we first investigated the land we hoped to build on, we all noticed the abundance of “unforgiving soil.” Using our available resources, building a stone house from the bedrock it would perch on seemed a very green thing to do, plus any locals we ran into who knew of our desire to build up here advised us to “build a brick sh*t house if we hoped to keep it standing.” Sound advice.

Well, when all was said and done, there were a few piles of leftover materials that I refused to have carted away. The look I received from most of the cleanup crew was akin to that when I tried to train my dog to sing in Spanish. Just a slight cocking of the head. 

“You sure you wanna have all them there rocks pilin’ up round the place? You got youngins and them piles is like puttin’ up a big ol’ welcome sign for a mess a snakes. What you tryin’ to build up here—Gibraltar?” (Insert snort here.)

I smiled, knowing that whatever I said would never sound sensible enough. “I’m sure we’ll figure out what to do with the rocks.”

“Rocks? Them’s no rocks, them’s boulders.”

I nodded and watched all the trucks slowly leave with everything except them boulders.

Then for the next six months I heard my husband make little tutting noises every time we passed by the piles or someone happened to mention them, wondering what they were for.

For the next year after that, I didn’t exactly see any snakes, but I sure felt them writhe around in my stomach when trying to hatch a believable plan for their future.

Landscapers secretly gave me the ‘crazy lady’ label and would turn to my husband to make sure he knew that if we expected their company to move the stones anywhere on the property, it would cost the equivalent of a new section for International Space Station.

Deutsch: Stonehenge, Großbritannien English: S...

In truth, my husband knew what I wanted to do with them. He’d spent enough time with me in the UK to realize any trip to his homeland would be structured around as many stone circles as I could manage to visit.

Yes, I’m thoroughly besotted with them, mesmerized beyond any other great wonder of the world. Put me next to the Sphinx, Chichen Itza, or the London sewerage system’s original Abbey Mills pumping station and I can’t help but wish I was standing instead amid the fragmented remains of a few jagged rocks specifically placed for a purpose no one can be quite certain of today.

Sure the other grand structures are jaw dropping and eye popping, but they’ve all been figured out. Their functions were described in great details by wall carvings, cave paintings and city architectural plans filed in drawers labeled possible cures for cholera. Stone circles are a planetary puzzle. It’s almost as if every culture that ever built one of them tossed the instruction pamphlets away after a couple of years during spring cleaning because to them it was totally obvious what the formations were for.

Cover of "The Lorax (Classic Seuss)"

One day, this conundrum that’s left so many folks either duplicating them in their back garden, or scratching the sides of their heads contemplating their purpose, will be solved by some young whippersnapper. He’ll make the grand revelation that actually these circles were simply each community’s recycling center, or chain coffee shop, or that here was the village’s last Truffula tree. Maybe it was simply a grand distraction from whatever people were not supposed to see. Who knows?

The things that are clear to me can fit into a tidy little list of Thing One and Thing Two.

  1. I have to do something similar, create my own Stonehenge—albeit on a very very small scale because even though NASA’s budget is now akin to my monthly grocery bill, I still cannot afford some grand landscaping extravaganza.
  2. The need to make some sort of stone arrangement is so strong and unexplainable it falls into the realm of curious. I can’t not do it.

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And maybe the architects of those ancient communities felt the same way. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland once she fell down the rabbit hole. With or without the Drink me label, she’d probably have done it anyway. It was obvious and it needed to be done. Or just like the habit to both fish and foul the Thames, there’d be a giant “Aha” moment coming to somebody eventually. Until then, we’ll all just wait and make pretty stone gardens, hoping someone will discover the instruction pamphlet.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

 

Pipers On Sale, Aisle Three

When you think about giving someone a gift, I’d bet most of you don’t entertain the idea of gifting a person. It seems a rather archaic bestowal, one reserved for a plantation owner increasing his human workforce, or a recently deceased pharaoh to accompany him into the world to come, except when you consider who is bestowing the gift. My English husband, Sir Sackier, considers himself—if the fates cooperate—the future royalty of reclaimed land (that would be America). Therefore, granting a human endowment would not make him pause, believing the token curious, or even illegal.

English: Don Quixote is knighted by the inn-ke...

Nonetheless, one of the nicest things he ever did for me happened on the day we’d moved into our newly built house on top of this mountain, a damp, misty December morning. Both my folks had come to help unpack boxes and direct a crew of moving men. Shortly after the moving crew left, I moved to the kitchen, burying myself in a box of newspaper wrapped crockery. Suddenly, I thought I’d heard somebody shout. I pulled my head out of the four foot deep box, hoping someone had finally discovered my favorite white platter that had gone missing two moves ago.

Sir Sackier hollered from outside, and my mom rushed into the kitchen, all a twitter, saying I’d better high tail it out to where he was. I expected the worst. Surely the man had fallen into an undiscovered well, or maybe he’d come upon a prickle of porcupines, a gang of angry elk or a cackle of hyenas. My mind whirled with all the unusual suspects when it came to the sceptred isle native.

I stepped onto the deck off the kitchen. Sir Sackier stood there with a ridiculous grin spread across his face. He looked like he was eight and had found his first frog.

“Do you hear something?” he asked, cocking an ear toward the mountains.

I leaned forward and scanned the horizon. What should I be listening for? The scream of a bobcat? The cry of an eagle? The sound of a bullfrog being squished behind his back?

“No,” I said, and then stopped. Because just then I did. I heard the magical sound my heart had suctioned itself to, years earlier when I first went to Scotland.

English: Piper James Geddes plays the most rec...

Bagpipes.

I looked out into the mid-day gloom, across the tree-covered slopes of the mountains, wondering how in the world I’d gotten so lucky as to pick a plot of land that was within earshot of a practicing piper. And then I saw him coming up our driveway.

Wheezing up our driveway.

Our driveway, which is one mile long and one thousand feet straight up.

“What do you think?” Sir Sackier asked me as both my parents joined us on the porch, a video camera in his hands and pointed at my face.

“Oh my God, the poor man!” I shouted, positive the piper was going to have a cardiac arrest before he made it to the top. “Did you do this?” I pointed at the asthmatic geezer in full Gaelic getup.

That eight year old face beamed and nodded. “Yep. Happy moving in day, Shell!”

I looked back toward the kitchen boxes. “Where is the carton that has our first aid kit? I need to see if we have a defibrillator in it.” I bit my lip wondering if there was going to be an eventual lawsuit, but hearing that beautiful sound in the most perfect setting made tears come to my eyes. A piper! To christen our new home.

After fifteen more blissful and painful minutes, the piper finally came through the front door without pausing for breath, and into the hallway—where I thought he’d surely collapse. Instead, he stood bellowing in the hollowed out foyer, perfectly centered beneath a space that rose a full forty feet above him. The blast of the pipes exploded through the house, puncturing the walls and paralyzing my parents. This is oftentimes the sneaky tactics of a military piper, who then signals the rest of the highlanders to sneak up behind their stunned victims and slice off their heads with a clean sweep of their broadswords. Although this probably wasn’t intended, loss of voluntary movement was a by-product of my husband’s housewarming gift.

Even if my folks were too polite—or too stupefied to put their fingers in their ears—I stood there, rooted to the ground, thrilled with the razor sharp melody piercing my bones. It was then Sir Sackier informed me that he felt we needed a house piper and this man was my gift. He could play at whatever events we hosted up here on the mountain. How could I say no? But it was necessary to make a clear distinction. I felt we owed the poor man as he nearly did himself in climbing the mountain to get here, not owned the poor man because he was idiotic enough to pick up the phone when harkened by this aspiring new monarch. I doubt Sir Sackier heard what I said. He had his fingers in his ears.

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).

 

Lads & Lassies, Pipers & Poets

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...

January 25th marks the birth of Robert Burns. The Ploughman Poet. The Bard of Ayrshire. Scotland’s favorite son. Sadly, most people only admit knowledge of the catchy tune he penned that they drunkenly mumble along to come New Year’s Eve at midnight: Auld Land Syne.

He wrote poems and lyrics, collected and improved folk songs and fathered as many children with as many women who would have him. No wonder so many people claim him as their ancestor. The guy was a rogue—and a quick one too. He died at age thirty seven, making a remarkable attempt to populate half of Scotland.

Regardless, numerous individuals, whether of Scottish decent, whisky aficionados, or enthusiasts of poetry, annually plan to commemorate this man’s existence and accomplishments (both bardic and bedroom) with an evening of debauchery and boredom.

Scotish dirk

The whisky I love, but somewhere during the third hour of poetry, I’m looking to impale myself on the first dirk  I can slip from any man’s stocking. Consequently, I appreciate the whisky with more enthusiasm than I probably should. Of course, this is what everyone else is doing and why they believe they’re channeling Laurence Olivier.

A typical Burns Night, or Burns Supper, as it is both commonly known, used to be (and I’m sure remains in some stuffy circles) a “boys only” getup held on the anniversary of Rabbie’s birth. Gathering that Burns himself likely preferred the company of women and wouldn’t have missed the chance to gaze upon the legs of a lovely lassie, a few welcome mats have been placed at the feet of the fairer sex. It seems to have spiced up the evening for many a current soirée and is gaining popularity, as more women begin to view whisky as something more pleasurable than a root canal.

The supper components make or break any Burns celebration. More often than not, you’ll find most of the guests sleeping with their eyes open at the table, making frequent lavatory trips, or curled up in a fetal position in the cloak room, arms cradling a depleted Lagavulin bottle.

Assembling your own Burns supper should not be undertaken lightly; get it wrong and you will find attendees plotting your grisly death and funeral. One must consider the key factors needed: the proper guests, the right food, the liquor and the entertainment.

The guest list is crucial. Have a gathering of wallflowers or self-indulgent bores and your evening feels like watching the weekly defrag session of your computer: it will never end. That’s when I find myself making crosshatch paper cuts on the inside of my wrist with the edge of the menu in an effort to locate a vein that may end it all.

If you find the menu is reminiscent of something even Fido would shake his head at, do not blame it on the Scots. Just because these folk were once scrap cloth clad savages does not mean they couldn’t wield a torch with just enough finesse in order to perfectly caramelize the tops of their Crème Brule.

homemade haggis, scotland food stock photo

 

The main course, haggis, (aka sheep pluck), is a dish whose preparation and success requires deft skill in the kitchen. Try to find a large animal vet who moonlights as a Michelin rated chef to construct yours. Avoid the kind sold in a tin can.

The liquor is simple. Only the best. Famous Grouse need not apply.

When it comes to entertainment, if there isn’t a piper you might as well call it a nice little dinner party because without Mungo MacBugle blowing the cobwebs out your ears, it’s just going to be a slightly Celtic book club meeting with weird snacks.

The Scottish Piper - Victorian print vector art illustration

I have attended other peoples’ Burns Supper and I have thrown a couple of my own. Let me be honest. It is much easier to have a “babysitting emergency” in the midst of someone else’s grand Gaelic failure than in your own living room, among fifty hungry guests, who can clearly see your children alive and well, and currently working as unpaid wait staff.

My suggestions for you? Start small.

Gather your children, your parents and spouse—or anyone you trust not to blog about you the next day, and ask them to come to dinner prepared to recite a short poem, quote or bawdy limerick.

Check out a couple of the easier recipes offered by the BBC (click here).

Then head on over to the nearest (and reputable) liquor store and purchase yourself a good bottle of uisge bathea. Do not skimp and buy something that can double as mouthwash or battlefield disinfectant. If you’re new to whisky, look for a spirit that isn’t heavy with peat or smoke.

Finally, toast with abandonment. The more frequently you do, the quicker everyone becomes pithy, handsome and hungry enough to eat sheep pluck.

Slàinte!

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what’s cookin’ in the Scullery this week (here) and what we’re all talkin’ about down in the pub (here).