Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Save Yourself from Toxic Novels

We all know that literature can rot your mind. Or was that candy corn? Regardless, many people don’t know that books are literally dangerous, particularly new releases. Here I examine my new novel, Aftershock, for cholera, plague, St. Vitus Dance and other conditions. All in the name of keeping you safe.

Your Writing Niche: Does it Mix Well with Whiskey (and Chocolate)?

I made sure to close the drapes so the neighbors couldn’t see

Update: here’s the published piece: Whiskey and Chocolate: Collaborators, Colleagues,Comrades

Many freelance writers have written compellingly of how finding a writing niche—SEO, senior health care, inbound lead-generation for hiking sock companies—can provoke a steady stream of assignments and income. There are some persuasions: you understand your clients—and their audience—more clearly, your facility with the language and arguments of the narrow discipline becomes sharper and sharper, and as a specialist, you can often charge specialty fees.

I’ve mentioned this before, that because my brain has lobes that tingle over the oddest variety of subjects, I’ve never been inclined towards a niche or a specialty. In the past couple of months, I’ve written pieces about viral marketing techniques, Hawaii, rock and roll, house-sitting, the vulnerability of fictional characters, and issues facing independent contractors.

Thus, niche-less I am. But, that’s not to say I don’t have some distinct interests. One of them is spirits, meaning booze, hootch, firewater, grog—you know, the sauce. I enjoy looking at it in bottles, and out of bottles. I perk up to its piquant aromas. I like the mad-scientist aspect of mixing it with today’s wealth of natural infusions, bitters and botanicals that supply tang and lift to cocktails.

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

It took me a while (probably because of that drinking) to realize that there’s an audience for those interests, even for those subhumans that think Jaegermeister is something to drink, rather than a wood refinisher. So, in the last couple of years, I’ve sent out my share of queries to various publications on various intoxicant ideas, and I’ve published pieces in magazines like Whisky Life and Spirits (now defunct), Draft, and Wine Enthusiast.

One of the most recent tippling magazines I’ve worked with is Whiskey Wash, which is bathed in all things whiskey. After I wrote a few country-specific whiskey histories for them, they invited me to work up my own queries, one of which resulted in a fascinating interview with a professional “nose,” who works with distillers to refine their products in very exacting ways.

But my latest assignment was sweet. Literally. They accepted my pitch for what high-end chocolates might pair best with three kinds of whiskey (straight whiskey, bourbon and rye). So this past Friday night my pal-so-gal Alice and I nibbled, sipped, and nibbled and sipped again. My, was it fun. For hours, I forgot that our president-elect is a misognynist, racist, First-Amendment-mocking orange gasbag.

Pitch Until They Itch

Useless political commentary aside, my point in this is that some freelancers aren’t comfortable, or not interested in establishing a niche for their work. Some might take years of generalized commercial writing to find a niche, which they then lovingly settle into. And some, like me, might write about a whirling world of things, but might also find a way to take their special interests into their writing.

Oh, not to make it sound TOO easy: I’ve sent lots and lots of queries to lots of magazines on a crazy range of spirits pitches. The bulk have been turned down, but that’s freelancing. Enough have been accepted to keep me pitching anew, as any freelancer should do as a matter of course.

Oh, and I’ve tasted some interesting booze too. I’m not sure when the chocolate & sauce article will run, because I haven’t written it yet. That’s for the next day or so. But it will be up on Whiskey Wash soon, and there’s even some chocolate and whiskey left over.

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

[Oh, and a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kraazy Kwanzaa and Freaky Festivus to all!]

Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins

BurningGuitar

Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!

A Writer’s Gratitude Tastes Like Pumpkin Pie

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: djwtwo via Compfight cc

There’s a lot of good to say about gratitude. Even though gratitude can seem like an industry these days (books! blogs! speeches!), and that making a gratitude list at Thanksgiving time can seem as creative as Cool Whip, expressing gratitude is still one of those things that can lift your spirits.

Gratitude can let you realize that your lot in life is a lot, not a less. Gratitude can connect you to people and to yourself. It can even make you healthier. It’s great to be grateful.

This gratitude post has two voices: one is my writer’s voice, and one is my wise guy voice. They are both grateful, though their approaches are different. Not all of the items on my writer’s list are writerly, and not all of the items on my wise guy’s list are wise.

Writer:
I am deeply grateful that my mom has moved into assisted living and retained her warm spirit, and even increased her vitality since she had to leave my boyhood home. And grateful as well for the good health and spirit of my siblings and of my sweetheart, who are all doing pretty well.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that my mom never found out about all of the illegal, dangerous and downright stupid things I did as a kid. (Though she thinks she does know them all; mom, you would call the cops even now.)

Writer:
I’m grateful for my own health, which though it’s tilted at a few windmills this year, it’s righted itself without collapsing altogether.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the antibiotics that recently saved me from the gut-clenching bacteria I brought back from Myanmar tasted like jellybeans. [Note: you can choose to believe wise guy remarks or not.]

Writer:
I’m grateful to have good old friends—some from more than 30 years back and even some more than 40 years back—whom I still see and talk to, though not often enough.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that most of my old friends make more money than me, because I can make a tidy list of the borrowing I’m going to do in my later years. And I’m grateful that my newer friends don’t know about all those things I did as a kid. [See above]

Writer:
I’m grateful that I finished two books this year, one a novel yet to be published and one a self-published nonfiction work.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that the writer guy above finished that novel too; it only took eight years.

Writer:
I’m grateful for books in general, and just for being able to read. Books have been the spur to my imagination for as long as I can remember.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful that with today’s memory, I’ve forgotten pretty much all the bad books I’ve ever read. And that I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten some of the good ones as well.

Writer:
I’m grateful for life itself, which I too often forget is an impossible gift.

Wise guy:
I’m grateful I can find shoes for my large feet. In fact, I’m grateful to have feet.

Writer:
Thank god for mashed potatoes. And bourbon.

Wise guy:
I’m glad we can agree on something.

Gratitude does change my attitude.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you out there!

Hate Yourself (and Your Writing) Later—This Is Time for Congratulations

This thumb's for you (give yourself a hand)

This thumb’s for you (give yourself a hand)


Writers, being creative types, have some very creative means of disliking themselves. “Nah, I really didn’t nail the end of that story.” “Why should I bother to write today—everything I write is crap.” “He/she is so much better of a writer than me. What’s the use?”

I can say with authority that those are the kinds of things that writers think, though they don’t always express them so bluntly. I see varying slices of those self-souring comments on many of the writing blogs I frequent, in biographies I’ve read (of very successful writers, mind you), in conversations I’ve had at conferences and in person. Writers have acrobatic means of torquing their writing temperaments into cowering self-reproach.

What they don’t have is much talent at giving themselves a round of applause.

Of course it’s good to keep yourself honest, review your materials with a critical eye (even two eyes), probe for weaknesses with the intent to strengthen. And there are times when that “hmm, this isn’t what it could be” review of your work is credible, and even motivational. But at some steps on your writing trek, it’s time to drop the stick and go completely carrot: praise yourself.

C’mon, you can do it.

Self-Praise? How Novel

My motivation in writing this is to tell you to eat more tasty carrots (I like mine frosted) and ditch more self-reproach sticks. My trigger in writing this is that last week I finished a novel I’ve been working on (and often not working on) for eight years. I have to swallow when I say this, because my reflex so often when discussing my writing is to declare that it’s poop, but I had an anti-reflex this time: I think it’s pretty good. [I see you suspiciously eyeing that “pretty”—yes, still I must qualify, but hey, it’s progress.]

There’s no predicting the publishing route I’ll take with this book, but right now, I don’t want to look at the road back or the road ahead. I simply want to take satisfaction with finishing something, and given myself a clap on the back. (And in about 15 minutes, a martini.)

Writers, give yourself a break. There’s plenty of time to give your writing the gimlet eye. But pledge to yourself: the next time you finish a book, a story, a paragraph, even a cussedly fine sentence, tell yourself you done good. After a while, you may even start to believe it. That good feeling might even prompt you to write another good sentence, and yet another.

Congratulations!

Cranky in Hawaii? Tree Yourself/Free Yourself

Yeah, this tree's big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Yeah, this tree’s big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Who’s got the skills to be cranky, virtually anywhere? Paris, Bali—maybe even in Hawaii, in those isles of warm, fragrant breezes and aloha? Yeah, baby. I can become pettily petulant, no matter what cushion of clouds. Not that trivial confessions might be of use to you, but that their lessons can have an impact on your writing.

The stage: I’ll be house-sitting at the very tippy-top of the Big Island with my girlfriend for the next month. It is not ugly here. If you’ve spent much time in Hawaii, you know it’s like having a mild massage (those tropical trade winds exchange strain for ease) at all times. Add in some rum, and it’s hard to even muster a credible curse about the government.

But because we just arrived, and had to get some clue as to where we were, what was there, and how to get to other promising theres, the fact that we got stuck with a clunker of an under-the-table car rental (one that threatened to leave us in-between theres without ever starting again) was a blood-pressure pumper.

So we had to jaunt over from the northern nape of the island to Hilo, across the magic mountains to the east. And then fuss at length over the oft-confusing details of where to meet to exchange the car, which car to get in exchange and when—details that changed multiple times over the course of a couple of hours. So instead of being happy in Hilo, with its beautiful bay and good people-watching, we were sweaty, frustrated and most un-Hawaiian.

Enter Banyan, Stage Center
However, small-minded humans are no match for nature. Waiting for our dithering car-rental person to finally show up at one of the multiple times/places we were supposed to meet her, we saw across the way from us a big public park, with astonishing trees. One of them is the “geeez, how big will I be when I really grow up” banyan tree pictured above. Under it we sat. Applied those tropical warm breezes in its sweet shade. Breathed.

Oooh, good medicine. That fixed it—really. The wait for our rental didn’t seem like a big deal anymore; neither did the fact that we had to roll back over those mountains—fantastic views!—on the dazzling Saddle Road without having much chance to stop, because we had to return home to free our house-sit dog from its crate, before it could phone its owner about our abuse.

Get to the Writing Already
This is a lesson I already know, but because my mind is a damp, leaky thing, I forget: when your brain is boiling with internal argument and naysaying, take it outside. When I am frustrated with my writing work, clutching the keyboard all the tighter has never worked. You can squeeze a sentence’s throat so hard that no emergency syntax attendants can ever revive it.

Take the writing for a walk. Find a banyan tree. Heck, if you’re not in Hawaii, a nice oak will do. Plunk your bottom down and rock in the arms of some sweet breeze. Cranky in Hawaii (or in Poughkeepsie) no more. Finding a way out of your writing is the best way I know to find your way back in. (That is, until I forget again.)