The Din of December

There is something magical about the word December.

And I think it’s more than the tingles I get from simply saying the word—a word that envelops me with a warmth containing decades of memories, all twinkling and glittered. I think it’s the hearing of all things December related.

December has a sound all its own.

For me, and where I live on this patch of earth, it is the sound of swirling snowflakes, cotton soft and cushioning. It’s a muffling of the natural world, a bright white quilt under a blue-white moon.

It’s the sound of wind chimes chinkling, nudged by invisible fingers of a frost-laden wind.

It’s the whistle of winter’s breath as it races down the chimney shafts and rushes through the empty halls, a purring, fluid melody, so measured and hypnotic. Suddenly, it inhales and pulls all open doorways shut with slaps of sound that startle, breaking soothing silence.

I hear the somber trees, brooding and contemplative. Rhythmic and slow, their drinking of the earth and drawing in the air allow them time for mindful reflection, and their meticulous planning of a spring that slowly creeps closer day by day.

And I listen for the pop of seasoned wood, ensconced in flames and smoke. The tiny hiss from flickering tongues is the language of heat, a faint articulation of a promise against the bleak and bitter chill.

I warm at the thrum of mellifluous song, the trilling of carols, the honeyed blend of bright, buoyant voices. Whether it be the refrains of jubilant noise thrust toward the heavens of a brilliant starry night, or one single, hallowed melody, hummed quietly and kept in check, music seeps out into the air, whimsical, innocent and heady.

This month is filled with the sounds of gratitude: the contented sighs slipping from souls who witness December’s darkness replaced with tiny, twinkling lights, the bright-eyed, gleeful shrieks from innocent mouths who point at storied characters come to implausible and colorful life, and the cheerful hail of reception that fills front halls, front porches, and the faces of those behind front desks.

It is abundant with the thanks for a warm cup of tea, a filling cup of soup, a coat, some shoes, a toy, a bed.

It is filled with a million wishes on the same bright stars, overflowing with countless dreams whispered deep beneath the covers, scratched in a letter to Santa, chanted in prayer over candlelight.

I hear the sound of sharp blades on ice, waxed sleds on snow, snowballs on parkas.

There is the noise of muffled feet on carpeted risers, the hum of a pitch pipe, a sharp intake of breath, and the strains of melody and harmony and dissonance braided throughout the next many minutes that make the hair across your arms quiver above goose flesh even though you are in an overheated room, squished into an undersized chair.

Throughout the month there is the crunch of dry leaves, the cracking of gunshots and the grunt of effort when dragging home that which will fill the freezer. I hear the soothsaying of snow, the delightful patter of euphoric feet, and the collective groan from a city full of scraping shovels.

The sounds of December are those of rustling coats and the stomping of boots, the rubbing of hands against the numbing, wintery sting. They are the hushed prayers of voices in holy vigil, the retelling of sacred stories to fresh ears and hungry souls.

The sounds I hear are those of glasses, clinking all in toasts. They are the wishes of warmth and the hope of fellowship, the thirst for triumph and the promise of change.

But most of all, I hear the plaintive yearning of my heart, voicing the wish that December won’t end, that January won’t come, and that time will stand still.

December is a month of sounds that sounds so good to me.

~Shelley

Lastly, I leave you with a small gift from me to you. I sing Norah Jones’ song ‘December.’ A tune I feel is my holiday hug to the world.

(And a huge hug of thanks to my wonderfully gifted son for mixing and production.)

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.

Kindness Costs Nothing, but Tomatoes are a King’s Ransom

I am a procrastinator.

Although my explanations for delaying any decision or activity are crammed with reasonable details, I am also fraught with unreasonable guilt for the pile up of decisions left unmade and activities left undone.

One day I’ll get to that bucket list which is now a barrel list.

One day I’ll see to that niggling pain I’m hoping will disappear (obviously, it’ll definitely disappear by the time of my funeral, so I’m kinda covered on this one).

One day I will discover how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

For the last couple of years, on my one hour and fifteen-minute route into work, winding through farm fields, cow pastures, and five-house towns, I have passed a little wooden shack—a farm stand selling vegetables. I remember thinking, One day. One day I’ll stop and check it out.

Finally, the excuses of I need to get home, or I need to get to work were put aside because one of those John Deere combines that claimed 620 horsepower but only 6 mph speed stopped traffic on my tight and twisty farm road. Coincidentally, in front of that farm stand. I now had absolutely no excuse not to investigate that which has been a colorful blur out my window. Countless bountiful months—those spring through fall harvest seasons—simply whizzed by for years where my only excuse was “not enough time.”

Farmers have a way of putting the advice of “stop and smell the roses” (or the newly mown hay, or the freshly dropped cowpie patties) into crisp and unignorable perspective. It is not so much advice as it is a forced bit of guidance.

I pulled off onto the semi-circular dirt road that advertised the large hut with a few wooden shelves full of tomatoes, green beans, shallots, and corn, okra and peppers, potatoes, and beets. Each bin held a price, and I stared dumbly at them for a full two minutes. I glanced up to see a dry erase whiteboard with an entire menu and coordinating costs that matched the bins’ prices.

Ten cents for any tomato larger than your fist. Five cents if it’s one you can shove wholly in your gob.

No way, I thought. That’s got to be wrong. Or maybe they all tasted like they should sell at a K-Mart Blue Light Special event.

I found a five-center to test, overestimated the size of my mouth as I crammed it in, and then experienced the delayed response of one who realizes just how determined tomato innards are to gush past the house of their skin and any other boundary one feebly tries to embrace them within. Juice, seeds, and an exclamation of surprise came flying out my mouth.

But this is a farm stand in the middle of nowhere. Who’s watching, right? Who saw me splatter the wall and the front of my shirt, and the whole whiteboard menu?

Umm … maybe the fifteen cars idling on the road waiting for the great green beast to give them passage around him. Apparently, my faux pas was entertaining enough to produce a couple of honks and one “Nice work!” from the audience.

I trudged back to my car and found an oil rag, hoping I could erase some of the whiteboard’s woes I’d crafted. Word by word, and price by price, I replaced the tomato splattered menu with fresh listings, thanks to the dry erase marker on a ledge beneath it. I was mid-way through my work when I stopped to marvel at the taste of something so magnificent and a price so unmatched. I can’t believe I’d been missing out for years on this vegetal treasure chest.

Returning to my work, I’d turned to hear the squeaky hinges on a truck door slam. An elderly man in grass-stained overalls tottered toward me on legs so bowed they looked like parentheses rather than appendages.

“You changing the prices, young lady?”

“No, sir,” I answered as he stared at the marker and rag in my had.

He snorted and pointed to the vegetables, “You city folk come by here lookin’ for a bargain and still aren’t happy with what you find. I’ve told Beatrice that her prices are too low anyway, but she’s just a good-hearted woman easily taken advantage of.”

“I’m not city folk, and I promise I’m not changing the prices. I’m just redoing the whiteboard because I accidentally splattered tomato all over it. I was trying to do the right thing.”

He pointed toward the empty see-thru plastic bin with the sign above it displaying the words Money Box – Honor System. “The right thing round here is to pay before you consume, and most people—city or farm folks would know that.”

I felt like I was back in school, chastised by the principal for some second-grade misdeed. And I also felt a little bit miffed that I’d been unfairly accused of said misdeed, but I knew what it must look like to this guy, so I unzipped my purse and searched for my nickel.

Of course, I had no change. Of course, I had no dollar bills—no fives or tens.

I pulled out a twenty. “Do you by chance have change?”

The farmer slapped a hand to his thigh and cackled. “Do I look like an ATM machine to you?” He shook his head and moved back toward his truck, mumbling, “You city folk.”

Except I wasn’t whatever negative version of city folk he had in mind. And I was about to shout that out when I saw the old guy returning. He held up a silver coin, dropped it into the plastic box, and then said, “This one’s on me.”

I nodded with my humble thanks. “Please tell Beatrice her tomatoes are amazing.”

He shrugged and snorted. “I have no idea whose farm stand this is actually. I was a couple cars behind you in the line and was getting grouchy with the wait. I saw what happened and just had some fun while stretchin’ my legs. You drive safe now.” He got in his truck and pulled back onto the road, the traffic now cleared.

With a face likely as red as the tomato I’d mostly eaten, I finished off repairing “Beatrice’s” whiteboard.

When I was done, I pulled out my $20 bill and dropped it into the “Honor Box.” The way I looked at it, I was half paying a fine for all the wasted time of never stopping by and purchasing the best tomatoes ever, and I was half paying for that exceptional fruit.

Some life lessons are a little pricier than others, and somehow, I felt like it made sense to purchase a twenty dollar five-cent tomato.

Next time I’d bring a pocketful of change.

And a change of clothes.

~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.

Don’t Wait for a Chance … Take it

A couple of days ago I did a yet to be published interview for a bourbon organization geared specifically to women. Not surprisingly, its name is Bourbon Women.

The first question I was asked was When did you realize your life’s path was leading you to whiskey?

I have answered this curious query a thousand times over the last twenty-five years, and yet I never tire of telling the tale.

My first sip of whisky was in Scotland where after I’d finished a tour of the Oban distillery—situated on the frothy west coast—I’d been handed a dram of their prized product to try. A mirror would have reflected the female doppelganger of the green Mr. Yuk face, and I immediately declared this liquid foul, poisonous, and something that needlessly dirtied a previously clean glass. I was 22.

I had been touring Scotland for the first time and was perpetually aware of the countless fragrant assaults on my nose and the repeated exposure of jaw-dropping vistas. This country was leaving its indelible thumbprint all over my senses. The whisky was one I was trying to rub off.

The following evening, our hotel barkeep asked if I’d like a wee dram before dinner. With a tongue more acerbic than the whisky I’d tasted, my then husband clarified how it would be a wasted pour, as my palate was rebellious to the drink.

Feigning some chest-clutching cardiac arrest, the barkeep asked what I’d tried, and then knelt beside me, lamenting over the fact that my tongue had been assaulted with the deep end of the whisky flavor spectrum. As a neophyte, I should have been introduced to the various “flavor camps” that existed within single malt scotch.

With deft speed, the barkeep returned with an elegantly shaped nosing glass filled with an ounce of straw-colored gold—a whisky my tutor described as a “Lowland Lady.” I tentatively took a sip and held the liquid in my mouth for a few seconds as my counseling barkeep instructed. The memory of the Oban’s feisty smoke, oak, and cloves was replaced with a glass of something delicate, sweet, and custardy.

Everything about today filtered through my mind. The aroma of embering peat fires. The leaden smudge of sky that dispensed a drizzly mist. The pub with its heavy meat pies and patrons with their heavier dialects. The woozy-inducing beer—leaving me heavy-lidded and inarticulate. The muffled rustlings of the ancient hotel with faint whispers of its past inhabitants. The towering mountains, the ravaged castles, the gleaming lochs.

I swallowed and felt transported. This elixir was as bewitching as promised.

Thereafter, I found every new adventure with whisky fused onto the myriad ingredients that made up this country. The citizens, their tales, their villages and pubs, the distilleries and warehouses, the landscapes that unrolled in front of me, and the inescapable flavors and scents that soaked the air and earth. Whisky was no longer simply a high proof spirit, but a potion that unfurled in story form, revealing the magical elements of countless distinctive times, places, craftsmen, and skill.

Had I remained steadfast and insular—unwilling to accept the proffered hand holding out a second chance—I would have missed the thrill of a career where I now find myself writing, researching, and lecturing about whisky, as well as selling it, making it, and most importantly, enjoying it. I would have been blind to a magnetic pull that existed right beside me, shunned from view because of one unfortunate first impression.

And haven’t we all had this experience? One where we make a quick judgement, assess prematurely, haphazardly dismiss something or someone and then march on our way, never realizing the potential impact of possibility.

In a time where we are inundated with choice, where so many of us are surrounded by an embarrassment of riches, the tapping for our attention ubiquitous and inescapable, do we owe it to ourselves to slow the speed?

Should we study and take more time to contemplate before we move with haste on toward the next decision needing to be made?

I often wonder how many times I may have made this very blunder, erroneously rushing beyond the now and into the what’s next.

Of course, it’s likely we all have a handful of things we attempt with repeated effort, and for one reason or another, failure is what we face. We may never develop a taste for that food, or that book, or that person. And if we are impartial with those efforts, not sabotaging the outcome beforehand, it is easier to shrug and move on.

Interestingly, both sadly and happily, some things just take time. I was not born with a penchant for historical fiction. It took me three false starts before finding myself sucked into the world of Tony Soprano. And I fervently avoided hip hop music until my son started writing it and Ellen DeGeneres began dancing to it.

Those flavor camps of Scotland? The vast spectrum of delicate to rugged, silky to abrasive, subtle to pungent? I embrace it all now. But now is a long way from 22.

And looking back over those decades, I am filled with such incredulity and joy over what taking that second chance brought me. Yes, maybe it won’t work out. But maybe seeing if it does will be the best adventure ever.

It was for me.

~ 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.

Communicate or Consternate: the Power of your Tongue

No one will complain that you made something easy to understand.

This was a slide I read while watching a Keynote speaker address members of the American Distilling Institute—a conference I attended this week. He also mentioned that someone had stolen his antidepressant medicine that morning and that he hoped whoever did it was happy with their decision.

For weeks leading up to the summit I felt my enthusiasm grow. It started like most of my decisions to attend an event such as this; I justify it by pointing out to myself and others how much I was going to learn and extol how it is worth the expense, time, and energy to appear.

Then, as the sessions and speakers are more fully revealed in the days before arrival, I grow in fevered pitch with an eagerness that verges on eye-roll worthy, mainly because I’ve become convinced that this one meeting will be wholly instrumental and pivotal to my growth both professionally and personally.

Except the most transformative opportunity offered is typically when I come across a booth at the Expo where some cosplayer Lady of the Lake is handing out plastic swords as well as lapel stickers that say, “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.” I then cover my current lapel sticker from the previous booth that said, “Be like a postage stamp. Stick to something until you get there.”

Alas, the one thing that appears repeatedly throughout the three-day event is proof of how many of us fumble with the sagacious quote above. I become aware that some speakers were selected to lecture at the conference not for their ease of communicating complicated data, rather for accolades granted, accomplishments trumpeted, or they won an arm-wrestling tournament with the conference coordinator on some drunken night, and this was in the kitty.

Don’t misunderstand, there were countless inspiring speakers, but more often than not, the art of communication is something many of us struggle with every single day—whether it’s in the performance of our job description, or we’re chatting with an everyday Joe, newly met or longtime known. It’s a captivating experience to encounter someone or listen to them lecture and find they are silver-tongued and eloquent, but curiously, I’ve occasionally found that the more learned they are, the more unintelligible they may be.

As an example, I filed into a lecture hall, along with about 150 other attendees, all of us excited to hear the most up-to-date and innovative information on how yeast can become our newest BFF, if we truly understand its deepest desires. The professor of brewing science at a far-flung institution began with an apology: “I am about to squish eight hours of university lectures into 45 minutes. Most of it will be intelligible only to those of you with a masters in biochemistry. And onward!”

Only onward was not where most of us went with the professor. Most of us looked around the room to gauge how many of us had a masters in biochemistry and were enjoying the microscopic photos of the principal structures of aerobically grown distilling yeast cells, the table summary of the Embden-Meyerhof-Parnas metabolic pathway, and charts highlighting the biosynthesis of amino acids. I quickly realized that yeast and I were likely never going to exchange interlocking jewelry with one another.

My intention was not to sit in on a university lecture far beyond my wheelhouse and fume with frustration over wasted time, rather I had presumed—based on the title—that I might listen, take notes, and then bring home some data to our head distiller that said, if we switch to this yeast, we’ll have bigger yields, or if we utilize this enzyme, we’ll have bigger yields, or the word “yeast” is Sanskrit for, “to seethe or boil,” therefore they may benefit from a few anger management sessions if we’re hoping to see bigger yields.

I think you get my point.

Our takeaway from any exchange is one we hope to capitalize on if we’re in a business setting, or delight in, if we’re feeling out a new friend.

I am particularly good at wholly forgetting who I am when introducing myself to fellow attendees or approaching speakers I want to congratulate after a worthy session. I think my best words are often, “umm … I, uhh …” and something inaudible as I glance down to check my own name tag for identification. Rarely do I recall the pithy pitch I’d practiced in the bathroom mirror just before leaving the hotel that day. I’d be better off handing the person a QR code to scan at their convenience that will bring them to an interactive website with a pull-down menu to pick and choose from.

It also does not help that a “distiller’s” convention starts off every day with a boozy breakfast and a bucketful of hazmat level tastings to fully appreciate some of the latest trends, so I am going to attribute my inarticulate blundering as only the result of that full strength participation enthusiasm I bring to every conference and not general incompetence, okay?

The big picture is that maybe some of us need a little extra help “reading the room” these days. Maybe our messaging skills are rusty, our presentations inefficacious, maybe our wording falls short when trying to explain to people how effective we can be by using words like inefficacious to describe things.

Maybe it would be helpful if a room moderator would communicate to the conference attendees as soon as they discover a speaker is a no-show, rather than assume everyone will figure it out after thirty minutes of speculatively waiting. Some of us take longer to “read the room” than others.

Ultimately, most peoples’ desires are to be heard, to be comprehended, to be deemed adept at relaying vital and useful information to those who choose to listen to them. But for those who really don’t care, may I suggest an introductory slide of benefit?

I am only responsible for what I say—not for what you understand.

If I see this up front, I’ll happily head back to the boozy breakfast for a second round and spend the hour practicing my own high-proof pitch.

~ 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.