Winter On … and On and On and On

I grew up in a house where the winters were long, the springs were greatly anticipated, and the summers were scheduled for one week somewhere around the middle of August. Fall was lovely, but it really was just “introductory winter,” if I’m speaking frankly.

Heat was a commodity no one took for granted. You needed it for a good solid nine months of the year, and it had to be reliable. The thermometer was a device you trusted not just to tell you how to dress for the day, rather we used it to determine whether you should even step outside the front door.

One January morning, when I was seven or eight years old, my family piled into the car to head to church services. It wasn’t an unusual day per se, as despite it being incredibly cold with a nose-numbing ice fog sparkling all around us, one was never encouraged to indulge with the obvious complaint existing within everyone’s head as to just how unhappy one was. My dad had drummed one phrase into us: Your being cold is not a personal experience, therefore, suck it up.

This particular morning, we arrived in the church parking lot and pulled a standard move—something that was considered fairly normal for this time of year—we kept the car running.

It was only once we’d finished the service and loaded back into that car that we heard the radio announcer report that as of today, our little town was the coldest one in America, registering a balmy sixty degrees below zero.

Apart from the obvious danger to skin, other more unusual things begin to happen at temperatures that frosty.

Cars’ tires will freeze to the road surface in a somewhat flattened shape, and now it will be like driving with square wheels.

Heating oil turns into jelly.

Storm windows shatter, and nails pop right out of house siding, whizzing like bullets.

And of course, there are a few extra children’s tongues tethered to flagpoles. *shrug*

For most of us, that was just another day growing up in Wisconsin. And those long, cold winters meant time to chop and haul wood. If you heated your house with a wood stove, like we did, it meant you’d be chopping and hauling at least four cords of timber. You take on a special appreciation for trees at the beginning of the season when you cast your eyes across the tremendous sacrifice they contribute toward one family’s wellbeing, or maybe more accurately, survival.

And although I no longer endure those formidable winters having moved to Virginia, I do currently live in a log cabin and rely upon a large fireplace for mostly the physical sound and visual tease of heat. My wood needs have shrunken considerably, but each year I dutifully have a cord of hard oak delivered, and I stack my treasured logs in a way so they will be seasoned, and I will have access.

Except this year I noticed I still had several layers of split logs filling the bottom third of my main wood rack. It was agreed by me and the well-seasoned logs that moving them to any other location would simply be an exothermic exercise and a waste of precious heat, therefore, the newly dumped truck full of split wood would have to find a home somewhere else.

I eyed available space and assessed my resources. Oftentimes, once you run out of room in your ideal location, you simply look for cooperating trees—solid trunks that will stand as sentries on either side of your neatly stacked row. But mine stood on hills and a good way from the house, and most folks tend to disappear when the general question of “who wants to fetch more wood” is asked, and they see it will require hiring a Sherpa for assistance.

Reaching back into my brain for any latent engineering skills that may have been deposited there via a freak of genetics, I remembered occasionally seeing an oddly-shaped wood pile during my youth in Wisconsin—a state liberally sprinkled with Scandinavians looking for weather just as cold, but a language less annoyingly mimicked.

With renewed vigor, I went about planning my new wood stacking design—the Norwegian Roundhouse. I know this sounds like some sort of kickboxing move, but in truth, if it’s made well, it looks a bit more like a giant wooden gumdrop. And no one has ever had to defend themselves against pectin.

I took apart an old whiskey barrel and used the metal rings as a base, then I placed a layer of thick metal lattice on top to create the “circulation” layer. If there is one thing I have gleaned from my youth, it is that being just cold is much more survivable than being both cold and wet. And everyone who has ever gone camping in the rain knows just how soul-satisfying cryogenically preserved baked beans eaten out of a tin can be.

Wood must not get wet and stay that way.

The whole point of the Norwegian Roundhouse is to build a wood stack that wind can whistle through, mice can scramble through, and no eight-year-old boy can kick down. Breezy, yet sturdy, like the Titanic if it simply encountered an eight-year-old boy.

Layering the wood is a process of intense focus with choice, placing every log facing inward in a large circle the size of a four-person hot tub—or an amateur Florida sinkhole. Each piece of wood is a puzzle that must fit perfectly into its slot. The sides, as you build, must never bulge, never move outward and overlap the piece beneath it. Instead, each one must lay the tiniest bit farther into the center, eventually creating the appearance of a beehive, or a gumdrop, or a pyramid built by a guy following directions provided by IKEA.

As I did not know these last bits of direction before getting about chest high, I spent the next several hours hammering pieces into place. After two full days of choosing the perfect logs, hammering them into their ideal spaces, wedging in supporting structures, and bandaging the hammered and wedged fingers that got in the way, I was finally finished.

It looked awesome. It looked perfect. It looked like a mix of true engineering and art. It looked like I was going to need to call the lumberjack back for another load of wood because ABSOLUTELY NO ONE WAS GOING TO BE ALLOWED TO TAKE WOOD FROM MY “ART IN PLACE” PROJECT.

And so it begins again. The constant pursuit of warmth … and perhaps a small dose of sanity.

~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.

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Singles Club

There is one area in my life where I prove I’m a walking dichotomy. It’s the space that divides how I write, and then … everything else.

As a writer, one is usually tossed into one of two buckets. You can be defined as a plotter or a pantser. Plotter people are diligent with outlines, with creating the beginning, the middle, and the end of their story before penning any work on the manuscript, and they have a good sense of direction for the scope of the project when they first pull up that blank page and begin inserting the rest of the necessary details.

Pantser people (as in fly-by-the-seat-of) are more like archeologists who stumble upon a small protrusion of bone under foot. They then find their tools and carefully start digging, sweeping away all debris surrounding the bone until they’ve unearthed the complete animal that is their marvelous story. That story is mostly hidden from them until they’ve completed the dig. They typically have little to no idea as to the type of animal (the genre), the number of bones (characters, plot points, etc.), and whether the animal is whole (does this baby have a beginning, middle, and end or is it riddled with mind-boggling gaps?).

I’m a pantser with my writing and a plotter in life.

It is unexplainably weird.

One would think that with the freewheeling way I like a story to unveil itself, I would reflect that same sort of attitude in daily life. Except I cannot stomach the risk. Planning and organizing everything brings me the same level of calm as eating a giant blueberry muffin. When finished doing either, I just feel all is well with the world, and maybe a little bloated.

Which is why I struggled against the universe this month as it tried to make me switch hats without warning.

To set the stage, I am big on recycling. I am also a penny pincher and a teensy bit of a hoarder, but I think in healthy doses, these three can go hand in hand and not have people worrying you should be institutionalized. I’m more thrifty than anything else, saving things until I can no longer gain benefit from them. Like the four old computers and their accompanying monitors sitting in a corner and waiting for me to decide on their futures.

My county has a biannual “hazardous material and home electronics” recycling day at the dump. This would be my first visit participating in the festival, but I chose only one computer to do the test run with—as I wanted to assess the safety factor of handing over defunct equipment that had previously held all my life’s most protected information within it.

I thought it would be easy. As in, drive in, hand over, say thanks, drive off.

It was not. It actually was more like: drive in …

My county dump had opened its golden gates at 8 am. I arrived at 9. It wasn’t until 9:30 that I realized I’d possibly made an error in judgment. It wasn’t until 9:31 that I realized I’d definitely made an error in judgement.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

I had a whole plan for this day—a million things to do—and those things had each been assigned a very specific time slot. Today was all about efficiency, and the fact that I was inching forward in a line I couldn’t see the front of meant someone was messing about with my day’s plot.

After half an hour of waiting in a mostly idle position and spotting one car leaving the dump every five minutes, I began to study my surroundings and not just stare at the entertaining piles of refuse divvied up into appropriate heaps. I surmised several things:

  1. My county dump had obviously hired engineers from Disney World to create a snaking path toward the attraction we were destined for.
  2. That snaking path was going to take each car around the entirety of the landfill, circling its footprint so that all of us could see just how wasteful a county we actually were.
  3. The entire county had shown up to throw something away.
  4. I left my smart phone at home.

It was now 9:45 and I had inched five cars farther along the circumference of madness mountain. I was in the middle of doing a complicated mathematical spreadsheet in my head inputting data that included the number of cars I could see in front of me, a guestimate of how many lengths of the chain of cars in front of me it might require to circumvent the entire rock of rubbish, how long it took to empty out the trunk of each car, and a little side bet on when anyone would become angry and frantic enough to get out of their car and climb the trash tower and get a look on the other side.

Two things were certain—one was that you could not turn around and leave. It was one way only. And two was that I could not do a complicated mathematical spreadsheet in my head.

I looked longingly into the backseat and wished I could make that computer come back to life.

I had mail to answer. I had a book to edit. I had a lawn to mow. And somewhere around hour two I realized I had a bladder to empty.

I spent the time watching the girl in front of me and the guy behind me get out of their cars and start chatting. I cleaned out my glove box. I listened to the only radio station without static interview a famous Indian chef about the best traditional Diwali recipes one should cook. I watched the car in front of me run out of gas and the car behind me fill it up again from red plastic containers. I watched two people hug. I wondered how many people had left their kids at home with a “be back in a sec!” statement. I watched the girl in front of me and the guy behind me share an incredibly romantic picnic on the hood of one car. I meditated in 7-minute increments, in between each eight-foot leap forward. I panicked thinking about the nearly three hours sitting in my car, the potential to run out of gas, and the desperate need to pee. I cried during the makeshift wedding involving the girl in front of me and the guy behind me. I shouted out my window that I could cook them Gulab Jamun and Paneer Tikka if they needed catering for the reception.

At 1 pm—four hours after first getting in line to safely dispose of my one old computer, I pulled up to a guy dressed entirely in plastic. I assumed he was safe from Covid, from hazardous waste, and from freezer burn if he were to be improperly refrigerated.

The guy opened my trunk and said, “Just this?”

I rested my head on the steering wheel and muttered, never again.

He closed my trunk and shouted, “I hope you made some friends!”

I slowly followed the car in front of me out of the dump’s gates, watching the new happy couple with the “Just Married” words written from the contents of old fast food ketchup packets across their back window, and listened to the tinkling of a few metal gas and oil canisters they’d tied to the backend bumper.

It was rather surreal to look back at my plotter self and watch two pantsers unfolding life as it came to them. And driving home behind the newlyweds I couldn’t help from smiling. Who would have thought the county dump serviced residents with both drop offs and pickups?

~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.

Wandering Off with Profound Purpose

There is a trail I’ve grown to love. A roughly kept path, both rutted with roots and covered in cobwebs, it’s a weekly venture I now refer to as six miles long and two hours deep.

I’m the only one on this stretch, just me and my hound. It feels abandoned and forgotten—or perhaps never discovered. As if prepared for footfall but neglected of promotion.

 

It’s divided into neatly portioned passages, each segment unique with temperament and attitude. To enter one is to be enrobed within that identity, where changes, both subtle and of magnitude, shift your focus and your vigilance.

A spread of one mile bears a perfect canopy, deciduous arms reaching to embrace and braid, the rustling sounds of leaf brushing leaf and branch chafing branch.

Another offers the heat of sun and great crunch underfoot, as in this landscape, only those forged in a fever can cope and thrive.

Along the route there are dens and burrows. Fallen trees extend the invitation to any fauna weary of their old abodes to nestle somewhere new, a chance to peak from behind still rooted tubers and discern if this view will suffice.

There sits a sanctum halfway through where modern day has not been given permission to bloom. A small, grassy clearing dotted with the remnants of those who lived on it first—or died on it last. A lichened crop of chimney stones resist the urge to collapse, to follow those who built it toward a soft grave of repose.

The surreally green colored moss floor muffles all that travels across or through it, a lush weighted blanket keeping history quiet, but comforted.

Three corner stones, the vestiges of walls, invite the visitor to conjure the past and evoke voices long suppressed by the quelling power of isolation. They still whisper though. But only if you listen.

And I do.

I listen more, hear more, breathe more, smell more. I feel the gnarly rough-skinned barely buried roots that spread beneath my feet, catch my shoe, stub my toe. I feel the sponginess of rotting trees as I traverse across them, the pliable composition of their cells. The crack of their forgiving nature resounds across the hollow or the hilltop, upsetting the status quo soundscape and thrusting a hush upon the busy conversation of all woodland tongues.

There is an unraveling that takes place when walking unencumbered. When untethered from manmade sound, sights, and people. This is a forum for the memory reels to unspool, for the strolling narrator to develop his tale, for soliloquy in all its unpracticed inelegance to gush forth without restraint.

This trail is where I find rebalance. Where presets are over-ridden, and recalibration transpires. It is where rejection is handled, malfunctions are tackled, and failures owned. Insight is sought—if one hopes to move forward—for there is little benefit to a walk such as this if deep and soulful pursuit of the truth is ignored.

Emerging on the other side is transcendent and electrifying. Revelatory in that the accomplishment of such a trek was as feasible as hoped, and wondrous with the fresh new mental space now unoccupied.

The trail stays with me only fleetingly, the feel of crushed pine needles beneath me, the scent of forest floor decay, the melody of life as it exists in that treasured space.

So, I soldier on until next time. I muddle through the concrete days, the desk-filled hours, the mundane and must-be-dones.

The path waits there for me … or for no one.

But it is there, and I have felt its wonder.

~Shelley

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

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

The Meticulously Precise and Non-Magical Way to make Whiskey

I’m nearly finished writing another book.

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

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

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

Disappointing news.

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

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

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

Hugely disappointing news.

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

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

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

Also, no need to “set the scene.”

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

No.

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

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

Damn.

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

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

No excise men?

*insert cold stare here

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

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

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

Nope. Just operator files.

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

There’s no beginning, middle, or end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I learn … they are still magical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If they find it after the zombie apocalypse.

~Shelley

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

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

 

You Cannot Teach An Old Cat New Tricks … Or Anything Really

“What do you think you could do? For your part in the program?” I heard the voice ask.

I looked around my desk. Papers, sticky notes, a leftover bowl of quinoa the cat was extremely interested in exploring.

“Umm …” I hesitated and tried to buy some time. I glanced at my phone, hoping it would ping with some notification that I could cleverly read out.

The phone was not helping. And the person on the other side of the line was waiting for my answer.

Yes. Yes, I very much wanted to be part of an evening called Women In Whiskey, hosted by a distillery I held in the highest of esteem. And Leslie, their head of PR, was offering me just that opportunity IF … I could create a marketable angle for why I should be there—and a persuadable reason people would feel inclined to attend because I was part of it.

The cat pulled a paw out of the bowl of quinoa, now coated with the sticky red grain.

She stared at it intently. She nosed it. Then stuck a tiny pink tongue out and gave it a tentative taste.

Shaking her head to rid herself of the apparently foul flavor, I sighed and frowned.

She didn’t even really give it a try. Judged it unpalatable without truly knowing anything about it.

If only cats were teachable … and not obligate carnivores.

“Whiskey Tasting 101,” I blurted out. “I can do an introductory course.”

There was a short pause on the other end of the line. “In ten minutes?” Leslie asked.

“Fifteen. I will squish four lessons into fifteen minutes.”

“Hmm … what kind of lessons? Remember, you’re going to be working with a food and spirits critic, a mixologist, and a distiller. You’ll have to bring something different to the table.”

Leslie knew I wrote books—middle grade, YA literature, non-fiction essays, and a lot about whisky. She knew I’d apprenticed in Scotland—studied with distillers and people who were hugely passionate with their work—all because I’d eventually developed a great love for the spirit and a yearning to make it. But my main labors were simply writing about it.

How many people would want to come to an event to hear women speak about their work in the industry and find out my part was just “Lemme tell you about my books.”

Can’t imagine that would fly.

But for the past twenty-five years I had done something that morphed accidentally into a profession. I became a teacher.

Enthusiasm can do that to a person.

Or fanaticism. Samey samey.

My history was one that was both typical and atypical of a person first introduced to brown spirits.

Typical, in that I thought it was the most disgusting thing ever to touch my lips—save for Jeremy Krazinski, who, in fifth grade, tried to plant a big one on me just beneath the monkey bars when I had no idea it was coming.

Atypical, in that only a few short years later, after having traveled repeatedly to Scotland and gaining a depth and breadth of appreciation for everything falling between the barley and the bottle, I found myself determined to make it. To understand the craft, the science, and the magic of that spirit.

My longing for a deep dive found fulfillment because of a great distillery, but my love for whisky blossomed because of a great teacher—one who discovered my first handshake with the spirit had been an avoidably painful one. I’d learned incorrectly and had a good bit of erasing ahead of me. From that moment on I’d grown resolute to not allow the same “first time flop” unfold for other people. I wanted them to love whisky as much as I did.

“What will you teach?” Leslie repeated.

I recalled a series of essays I’d long ago written called Belly Up to the Bar. “Eyeing, Nosing, Tasting, and Finish,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

Indeed, the more pertinent question going through my mind was, Sure, I can write about it, but can I aptly teach it?

I thought about the most proficient instructors in my life thus far. The ones whose lessons have left the greatest indelible imprint on me had no degrees in education—nor fancy lettering following their names. They had instinct, purpose, and need.

A cat has schooled me in the necessity of paying attention to the most muted of reverberations as much as any sound engineer. You wish to catch a prey? Listen like your life depends upon it. Hunger can tutor the stupid right out of you.

An elderly Polish neighbor repeatedly walked me through the woods as a child, revealing what will taste good raw, what will taste good cooked, and what will outright kill you if you so much as lick it.

And no doubt my parents have left me with life lessons near impossible to accumulate from anyone else: Do what you love, love what you do, and please pay attention goddammit to what Mrs. Sobieski warns you not to lick.

We are surrounded by teachers. Many have a desire to give you what they already possess: comprehension of the world. And oftentimes for free—simply because of the passion they possess with the subject.

“Okay, you’re hired,” Leslie decided.

I was thrilled. Most times in life I’ve found myself as the student—the hungry pupil desperate for know-how, happy to be on the receiving end of it. But on this night, I would get to be that teacher.

That teacher who teaches what she loves, and loves what she teaches.

Likely I will start off the session with an introductory phrase such as: “Thank you all for coming, thank you for being willing to learn, but mostly I’d like to thank Mrs. Sobieski for allowing me to be here tonight.”

The Reservoir Distillery’s “Women in Whiskey” event.

(Robey Martin, Beth Dixon, Mary Allison, and Shelley Sackier)

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.

~Shelley