In Good Spirits

I needed help.

Professional help.

It’s a phrase I utter at least a dozen times a day it seems, and not every episode is referring to the fact that shock therapy might be just the thing.

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This time I was searching for answers to questions that did not reveal the meaning of life, or my purpose in the universe, or even advice on how to handle the creepy guy at the grocery store who is always asking if he can hold my melons while I search for apples.

Ah … Security??

No, this time I needed help with my new book. The writing “fiction” part is always so much fun. But the “researching the fiction I just wrote and discovered wouldn’t even be remotely believable” part is always a little hard to choke down.

Best to do them in tandem.

And as my new book takes place in a distillery, and there’s one nearly spitting distance from my house, it would be foolish of me not to immediately take advantage of the expertise within grasp.

So I pleaded my case, called the joint, and set up an interview to make sure that my new manuscript wasn’t going to entirely fit into the genre of fantasy.

Or an oval shaped file under my agent’s desk.

At first I thought Ian Thomas, the new director of operations at the Virginia Distillery Company, was worried about the time—because he was always checking his watch.

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And then I thought for a second that maybe the fellow I was standing across was fairly new to the concept of wristwatches, as when he did look down at it, he stared at it with intense focus for at least four or five seconds.

And then I realized that I was the actual idiot.

Ah. An Apple watch.

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Ian was getting about as many requests for attention as if he’d had a tiny toddler tugging at his pant leg—which, coincidentally, he’ll have in a few short weeks as he’s expecting his first child.

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So perhaps coaxing a fledgling whisky distillery through its beginning years full of growing pains is exactly the kind of training a soon-to-be dad should be having.

If nothing more than to reinforce recognizing the blissful joy of losing consciousness for more than ten minutes in a row.

That, and maybe to discover what a bazillion new parents come to realize during the agonizing teething phase of their tiny tot: whisky can act as a damn fine benumbing agent …

For the parents, of course.

And this man is sitting on a gold mine.

The questions I needed answering were specifically related to the running and operating of a single malt distillery:

How much does each ingredient contribute to the overall end product flavor profile?

How much does the temperature and humidity in your warehouses play a part in the maturation process?

How many times have you tried to roll a full wooden cask of spirit into the back of your car to sneak home and feigned surprise when one of your coworkers discovered you struggling with the back hatch of the trunk?

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Yup. All relevant.

We spent hours walking through the facility, and Ian patiently explained every piece of equipment and component involved in the operation: the gristmill, the mashtuns, the washbacks, and stills. The miles of plumbing, the resourceful recycling, the freshly plowed and planted barley fields, and the mile-long list of government officials he had to converse with on a daily basis in order to make this American malt find its way from barley to bottle—or grain to glass—or field to finally in my hot little hands.

At one point, while talking in the warehouse that securely housed the seven hundred wooden casks snugly hugging their aging spirit, Ian received the equivalent of another toddler tug that needed attention and stepped out of the warehouse while I ecstatically and repeatedly filled both my lungs with as much of the intoxicating, spirit-drenched air as they could hold. And then, profoundly lightheaded from hyperventilating, I suddenly worried that I had inhaled enough of the whisky-dense atmosphere to register as too intoxicated to drive home.

Maybe Ian’s watch would keep him busy whilst I slept off the fumes and stretched out across a few ex-bourbon barrels.

I thought about the last jaunt I’d undertaken researching a book—an afternoon spent questioning an internist about all the effective emetics available in the 18th century. There were no heady, soothing scents of toffee and brown sugar, butterscotch and bananas encapsulating me like a giant embrace from the ancient gods of magical elixirs. Just half a dozen homeopathic textbooks opened to pictures of poisonous plants that could make you puke.

Yeah, this one was turning out to be a lot more fun.

We finished the day with Ian allowing me to further question him in hopes that he could provide answers for the stickiest parts of the book—things I was struggling with and that were critical to the book’s authenticity and success: the biology, the chemistry, the plot.

His answers were enlightening. And clarified that there were actually a solid handful of hugely capable, talented, and ingenious people who worked alongside him to craft this outstanding spirit that holds so much promise.

And surprisingly, if not somewhat disappointingly, not one of them were alchemists or felt the need to invoke a series of sorcerous spells to turn this water into wine—er … whisky.

Apparently Gareth Moore,

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Chairman and CEO of Virginia’s newest spiritus frumenti emporium, really knows how to hire his nine-to-fivers and reviews of their work are about as glowing as the cheeks of those who imbibe in their product.

“Okay,” I said to Ian back in his office, “just in case this post goes viral and the only way you can fend off the sudden surge of paparazzi at the distillery is by locking yourself in the waste management warehouse and hiding behind a tank full of lye and caustic soda, is there anything else the world should know about Ian Thomas, young whisky maker hailing from Tennessee?”

“Ah,” he said, glancing at his wrist again and staring at it intensely for about four seconds, “Well,” he chuckled self-consciously. “I like casual strolls along the beach, I’m a good husband, I love my family and Virginia … and I’m working hard to make a world class whisky.”

I don’t doubt for one second all these things are true. Ian is a busy guy with a full life that’s only going to get fuller in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. A new dad. A new home. A new job. Yeah, he’s got his fingers in a lot of pots.

Copper ones to be precise.

And I think the world of ‘world class whiskies” is lucky to have it so.

~Shelley

HEADS UP Y’ALL: Robin has his annual calendar of curiously clever cartoons for sale starting now. If you’re hoping to take a peek a tiny bit farther into his unfathomable brain, then I suggest you head on over and order yours tout de suite! They won’t last!  Robingott.com

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

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

Slaughter and Mayhem; How I Love November

There is something incredibly magical about the transition from October to November. And by magical I mean mostly spine-chillingly creepy.

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I cannot begin to keep count of all the happenings around here that start off with the catchy refrain Hey y’all. It’s time to celebrate the Festival of the Dead.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was raised and surrounded by incredibly careful Catholics. We were polite. We barely made eye contact. And whenever there was anything remotely resembling the acrid scent of incense, we automatically genuflected and started in on a few Hail Marys.

Where I live now, I see a mishmashed range of religious followers or unfollowers, but I also find myself amidst a plethora of pagans. And as it’s nearly impossible to ditch my Midwestern deferential upbringing, just to be neighborly, I pick and choose all the parts of Samhain I deem acceptable to participate in, and blindly wave off the others.

For instance, in the past I would drive my sheep up from the far reaches of the meadow toward the barn to be stabled for the cold winter months ahead like all ancient farmers were wont to do, but once there, would find they’d argue like two bloated barristers, insisting that as long as I left the cover off the grain barrel, they’d ration themselves and keep an eye on the forecast.

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I drew the line at sacrificing horses, which are meant to represent the fire deity, Bel or Belenos, the sun god, and who reportedly would win back the world come springtime. It’s just such a messy job, plus if you’ve ever seen dead horses, they’re really not up to winning back anything for you after you slay them.

A couple of times, I was happy to extinguish my hearth fire and march through the fields alongside the rest of my townspeople with the intent to kindle a new blaze from some choice sacred oak, and then take my flaming torch back to relight my home fires. The snag was that usually somebody had issued a secret declaration to reinstate the ancient rites of human sacrifice to please a few disgruntled gods, and you wouldn’t know till you got to the big bonfire if it would have been wiser to simply stay at home and grout some tile.

Worse still, was when I once arrived at the glowing gala get together and found myself looking up at a massive effigy—like The Wicker Man. I hazily recalled something about the forcing of not just one unlucky fellow, but a whole slew of folks into giant wood and thatched cages, along with every flavor of farm animal, some bread and honey, and a few jugs of vino. It’s once everyone and everything was stuffed in there nice and tight that the large light bulb in everyone’s head illuminated just as a rosy glow from below shed some extra light on all of them—in the form of a giant pyre. There was a lot of protesting at first, but things eventually quieted down.

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Of course, most of us know that on All Hallows Eve the veil separating the dead from the living is tissue thin—see-through for many if you regularly make a habit of chatting up dead relatives.

And I’m totally fine with that, as being a novel writer, I’m wholly used to hearing voices and engaging in what most folks would see as worrisome one-sided conversations.

In the ancient days of Samhain celebrations, spirits were greeted warmly from their regular gloomy, dank haunts. Everyone scooched over a bit on the couch to make room round the hearth, and a few nibbles of barley cake were offered as well as a cup of grog.

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Most ghosts were grateful. A few remained mulish and curmudgeonly. But who can blame them with the months of back breaking chain clanking and heavy breathing they have to repeatedly practice for The Big Night? I’m sure there are times where the Other Side is no picnic, so one should be somewhat understanding with the occasional gripe.

Lastly, I’ve always welcomed anything that shed light and warmth during the ever increasing dark days of oncoming winter. Stingy Jack, or Jack of the lantern, proves to be a piece of folklore I’ve always found entertaining.

In this old Irish tale, Jack—a tightfisted farmer—manages to trick the devil twice, resulting in one livid Beelzebub. God, who apparently watches the entire event unfold, is thoroughly annoyed by Jack’s seedy character. In the end, neither wants his company in the afterlife. He’s given the boot by both and told to head back from whence he came.

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Apparently, Jack is a bit of a baby and still carries with him a fear of the dark. Just to prove he’s got a heart of gold, the devil tosses old Jack his version of an Everlasting Gobstopper to light his way —a lump of burning coal from the fires of Hell. Jack hollows out a turnip and wanders the earth to this day, ready to pop out of the creepy shadows of any porch that sports a carved out pumpkin.

Kids love that story.

There’s a lot to look forward to as usual, and I really ought to get a head start on making a few extra batches of barley cakes for all the upcoming visits from dead relatives who refuse to leave the comfort of my couch. As the older one gets, the larger the cast of characters grow.

~Shelley

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

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

Crashing and Burning; It Takes Practice

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

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

Sometimes you hear the word Liftoff!

Or Action! Or Go!

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

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

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

“Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

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Or “That’s one small step for man …”

Or “Failure is not an option.”

Or is it?

The whole failure thing, I mean.

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

I’m talking about NASA, folks.

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

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

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

And they are connected. Magically. And ordinarily.

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

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

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

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

Prepare for it.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, you read that right. Failures.

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

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

I think not many of us.

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

Not to be cruel. But to be … constructive.

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

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

Yep. Victories and defeats.

Achievements and downfalls.

Wins and washouts.

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

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

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It’s just not something we regularly do.

But NASA does.

And I vote NASA raises our kids from now on.

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

No.

We can visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except one.

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

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

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

To fly to the moon. To land on Mars.

And maybe more important, to come back again.

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~Shelley

*(sigh … nondisclosure agreement thingie)

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Publishing; It Takes a Village (and some groveling)

Recently I had to write an acknowledgment page for one of my books.

You know what they are, right? They’re usually found at the back of the opus—the part so many folks gloss right over as the writing is mostly filled with names and one line quips about what these names did to contribute to the publishing process, and how life, the universe, and all of mankind could not have been birthed and evolved into what it is today without these sage and wondrous mortals.

Not terribly interesting for the average Joe—unless, of course, you happen to be one of those sage and wondrous mortals.

But in writing my page of “thanks yous,” I can easily see just how out of hand one of these notes of gratitude can become.

It’s critical that one includes the upper echelon of those who ultimately gave your book bound words a chance to be seen.

For instance, you must absolutely never forget to flatten yourself to the floor with a giant thanks to your editor—el supremo persona, le meilleur, un eroe—whatever language you choose to describe one of the most erudite, patient, resourceful, and good looking people you’ve ever met. Even if you’ve never “met”.

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Without your editor you are toast.

Maybe less than toast.

You’re just one slice of bland bread among dozens stacked in front and behind you and all the way down the shelf from side to side.

Your editor lifts you out of the endless mass and puts a fire beneath your feet—or whatever body part is molded to the anchor that’s producing your fairly vapid, stale, lifeless literary efforts. They then carefully tease out the aromatic notes, the visually enticing imagery, and the tantalizing flavors of your story while expertly identifying the exact dressing you need, applying a perfect layer of topping that will make the meat of you shine.

Yes, one must thank one’s editor profusely, and all your lucky stars if you have a truly divine one. And then eat, because just writing about editors and their skills makes one unreasonably hungry.

Your agent—should you have one of those as well—is also on the list for high-priority praise. They are the sleuth who, when first presented with your writing, siphoned out the thread of ability that wove itself in and out of the tapestry of clunky words you put down on paper. They are the individual who gets a first look glance at your work before bravely putting their name to an email that is then cast widely out into the pool of editors who are fishing for something new the public is hungry to bite on.

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Or they are the one who picks up the tab at a gulp and go lunch where they pitch your work to those same bleary-eyed editors in hopes of convincing them to take on the task of giving up another night’s sleep in favor of reading one hundred thousand of your best and shiniest words.

Don’t forget the copy editors. These folks examine your one hundred thousand words, parse them, and then reconstruct them into more appropriate linguistic elements that will have true value to the reader. They will leave you dumbstruck with awe to realize that there are individuals out there in the world who truly understand all the principles and rudiments of grammar. They should be given many basketfuls of cookies for their efforts and patience.

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The marketing department, the art department, the line editors, the assistant editors, and publicists—where does one begin? Each of them, inundated with so much work and so little recognition, really should have a small shrine erected in their names.

So I have.

I’ve built a large altar in a separate room in my house—a temple where I’ve placed magic stones, a dozen candles, tiny false gods, myriad pagan symbols, and any other sorcerous talisman I can collect for my ritualistic moments of devotion and homage. It is a room filled with smoky incense and funneled in melodramatic and lamenting bagpipe music. It is the best I can come up with to replace what I believe they all probably truly deserve over my feeble prostrations: a cruise.

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I just don’t make enough money to make that happen. Sorry.

But you really should see the altar I’ve set up for you guys. It’s amazing.

And scares the hell out of the cat.

And lastly are the people who truly know you. Like—know you know you. The ones who had to read all those diabolically dreadful first drafts. The folks who see you drinking three-day old coffee and eating mac and cheese that you made for an end of school potluck last month. The family members who have had to learn to wash their own laundry, make their own lunches, write their own college essays, and attend their own parent-teacher conferences because you were “just finishing that last sentence,” or “editing that final paragraph,” or passed out on your keyboard.

Speaking on behalf of many writers, we know who you all are, and are so incredibly surprised to look up and discover that not only are you not in the house where we were certain we last spotted you, but are now living in another, entirely different city from us and have taken all of our pots and pans with you.

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We thank you too. Except for the theft of our housewares.

Lastly, as the orchestra music swells over our words, we thank our fifth-grade teachers, or librarians, or fairy godmothers. It’s that one individual who told us we had promise, we had potential, we had possibility.

It’s that one special person who started this whole domino effect of thanks and recognition: the one who gave us that first nod of acknowledgment.

So to all those sage and wondrous mortals—whether they see you as a product or a parent, family or a friend—the thanks are endless and the gratitude unfathomable.

Now it’s probably time to acknowledge the fact that there is no food in the house and the cat litter seriously needs to be addressed. Life goes on—even after The End.

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~Shelley

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

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

The Foot-Slogged Journey from Zero to Hero

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

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

Or we could go with Google’s second definition:

Another term for a submarine sandwich.

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

Most of these heroes I conjure up myself.

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

Something magical emerges from something quite ordinary.

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

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

BANG!

He saves the day.

Amen.

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

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

The Hero’s Journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airpane.

Yeah, not a typo.

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

Airpane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awful.

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

Yeah, it was appalling.

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

My daughter inquired about inoculations.

“Yep,” he said. “Plenty of needles.”

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

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

Except I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t want to read a space story.

She wanted to be a space story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Shelley

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

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

Class (And Glass) Warfare

Growing up in Wisconsin, my mother’s most prolific advice, which was usually offered up at least once a day during what felt like the presence of nine months’ worth of winter per year, was this: Don’t forget to dress in layers.

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If memory serves, these words were likely uttered as much a reminder to herself, during the span of one full decade, where the poor woman tried to live with a biologically unbalanced hormonal heating and cooling unit housed within her own body, as to the rest of us, pointing to the fact that we lived on the perimeter of the frozen tundra. You were usually either outside, where one could occasionally entertain yourself by spitting icicles waiting for the morning school bus, or inside, where woodstoves were cranking out such an impressive amount of heat, most people’s homes could easily double as a sweat lodge.

But for my mom, I do believe the idea of recalibrating her settings to some sort of acceptable functional state was as elusive a finding as locating the Holy Grail—it’s mythological, tons of movies have been written about it, and some of the fight scenes still have us doubling over with laughter when recalling them.

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Back to the idea of layers.

It really had me thinking lately about how complex we, as human beings, truly are. Depending upon the situation, it’s not unlikely that we rarely show—or know—who we claim to be. And uncovering that which is camouflaged can either be as mouth-wateringly exciting as digging into that triple decker hot fudge banoffee pie parfait, or as painful as peeling back an onion, where the whole endeavor, although necessary to accomplish that life-sustaining ritual we call dinner, will have you weeping and bitter over the caustic exercise.

To illustrate, as per my usual methods, I will use examples from all that’s within arm’s (and eye’s and ear’s) reach around me.

I’m a writer.

I live in (or rather get my rations from) a town where you cannot swing a dead cat without bumping into another resident’s published book.

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You cannot order a cup of coffee at the counter without hearing someone behind you utter the phrase, “Well, with my first novel …” And the introductory expression, “My therapist says,” has long been replaced with its shinier version, “My critique group pointed out …”

I think you get my point.

We are a community of book-bosomed logophiles whose end-of-year financial ledgers reveal we’ve contributed the same number of pennies to the local coffeehouse for liquid sustenance as we have to the library for our overdue book fines.

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But there are writers and then there are writers.

I have heard my town’s writerly residents humorously described as usually belonging to one of two strata of the classic French pastry, the Napoleon, or the mille-feuille. You’re either like the puff pastry—where you’re flaky and half-cracked, and people make a wide berth of you because you’re temperamental and difficult to work with, or you’re the pastry cream custard—where you’re likely too rich for your own good, you find yourself spread out too thinly, and everyone wants a lick of you.

Together, we are the elements that make one kickass memorable mouthful, alone, we are broken down into the ingredients that most physicians warn you to stay clear of in order to maintain optimum health.

My town loves to separate itself into these definitive, identifying tiers. Do you do yoga or yoga?

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Translation: Do you attend a class where the Native American flute music is often jarringly interrupted by the high-pitched feedback loop of a plethora of hyper-sensitive hearing aids and everyone breathes a sigh of relief no one threw a hip during the hour? Or do you attend a class where the temperature on the room’s thermostat is a topic for debate for the Intergovernmental Panel as to whether it may be a contributing factor to climate change and people leave the studio utterly amazed at just how much anger they’ve been storing in their thighs?

Here’s another one. Do you eat health food or do you eat health food? Translation: Do you shop at Whole Foods, or do you buy half your food from the myriad closet-sized natural food stores in town and forage the rest of your meals from within the cracks of concrete parking lots and roadside ditches—and of course only harvest the edible, invasive species that likely deplete the earth from its over-reaped holistic nutrients because we have to feed the earth as well as ourselves?

It can be tough to be “authentic” in this community.

Of course, there’s also the level of success one has achieved that stridently separates the massive cluster of word-slingers in my village, and that was made indisputably evident the last time I hauled my empties down to the local recycling center a few days ago. It can be a sobering and illuminating realization of where exactly you stand in the accomplishment stratification when elbow to elbow with someone whose prosperous wordsmithing has them dumping out a couple of wooden crates full of bottles previously filled with Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer Cristal whilst I am unloading a cardboard box full of empty Two Buck Chuck.

It probably wouldn’t sting so badly if my neighbor’s raised eyebrow of acknowledgment didn’t also silently smirk and say, “How’s the book comin’, kid?”

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Makes me think I should probably take my mom’s sage advice and keep a few extra sweaters on hand. They may be useful to pass out along with the myriad icy stares I give in return to that unspoken question.

~Shelley

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

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

Carved in Stone: the Joys of Choosing an Epitaph

I have uttered one phrase so many times within the last few years it has become as familiar to me as my own name, except it’s usually followed by a giant sigh or a wide-eyed look of panic. It is:

I have a deadline.

Currently, it rattles off the tongue as regularly as one might say, “I have a cold,” or “We need milk,” or “I didn’t mind giving that second TED talk, but the third one was a bit of a bear.”

You get my point.

It is mundanely routine.

I think most of us are well acquainted with the concept and, in fact, find some form of it or another weaving itself throughout myriad ordinary situations in our lives.

Whether you’ve got a fixed time to show up for work, or class, or the meeting, or you’ve got only so many minutes before the bus pulls away from the curb, or the plane pulls its wheels from the runway, deadlines surround us all.

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The homework is due, the test will begin, the doors will be locked—just a few more of the many self-imposed timed boundaries we find ourselves floating within. And I’m pretty sure most of us have experienced the star-bursting, lung exploding moments where we realize we have fallen below the waterline and are now drowning in The Great Sea of Overdue.

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My workspace is small. Purposefully so. Simply to induce that same calming feeling that miraculously occurs in newborn infants when you swaddle those suckers up like a human cannoli. There is no space for flailing, injurious arms, no room for every assignment to be on display, and not enough expanse to encourage the lying down beneath my desk for a quick mid-day kip or the body collapsing posture of giving up altogether.

In fact, much of the space beneath my desk is occupied by assignments that can be ignored until next month and will serve me better acting in the position of foot ottoman.

Paper is everywhere. Attached to the papers are brightly colored sticky notes with due dates on them.

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Calendars are taped to the walls. Deadlines are highlighted in neon colors or sometimes old stickers from when my children were much younger and thought that a decal from the bank or the grocery store was akin to finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. Most of them say things like eat your vegetables, or put a penny in your piggy bank and have nothing to do with the D-day for the copy editor of my latest manuscript. But still, I think I’d rather see a picture of a head of broccoli

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than a picture of the copy editor with a bubble coming out of her mouth saying, “There is so much wrong here I don’t know where to begin.”

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Nuff said.

Some deadlines are not hard deadlines, but usually, only the ones that do not apply to my efforts. People with a lot more heft to their job descriptions get to blur the edges of their dates, whereas mine tend to show up with blaring sirens, a photographer to witness my failure, and enough guilt to ensure my therapist will be able to upgrade his seat on his next flight for the cruise I also paid for.

One of these days, I’d like to know what it feels like to be someone like Mother Nature, who, when I hold up my calendar to the sky and reveal the thirty days of time elapsed since her agreed upon announcement of Spring, will simply blow me a raspberry and create yet another hard freeze that shrivels even the meritorious efforts of the hardiest of daffodils.

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I assume once you get a taste of that kind of power, it’s pretty impossible to imagine handing it back. Perhaps it’s best I stay on this side of the fence. For here is where I make my tiny miracles happen. And I’m serious about the fact that some divine intervention is needed, because usually finishing some deadline assignment within a manuscript does not come without some serious hours on my knees, looking skyward, and promising to give all future royalties–should there be any–to some worthy cause.

I’m guessing that will end up being the electric company, but if there’s any leftover it will go into the fund to replace my continually dwindling supply of sticky notes and neon colored highlighters.

I suppose if I’m going to be honest, I have found a couple of areas where deadlines are flexible. Booking that annual dentist appointment—because he’s expensive and visits are time-consuming, plus there’s one area in my mouth where I can still chew food and not feel pain, so things must not be that bad. Visiting my optometrist—because ditto to the first two parts, plus I can still drive just fine as long as I cover my left eye and don’t get distracted by the unpredictable arrival of tunnel vision in the right one. And the replacement of cat litter. One just simply needs to recalibrate one’s definition of breathable air.

I’m pretty sure that due dates and deadlines will be the status quo for an indefinite amount of time—at least for me, that is. If things go the way I hope they do for the remainder of my life, I will continue to pump out books that will be not only life-fulfilling but life-sustaining.

In fact, I’d probably die a happy woman and consider my life well-lived if my tombstone’s epitaph read:

Shelley Sackier

Deadline

Deadline

Deadline

Flatline

 

~Shelley

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

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