Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

When Ginger was a baby, my stint as Vice President of Marketing at Open Systems came to a close. We needed insurance while I was between jobs, so Maggie went back to work and we agreed I would stay home with Ginny (which was what we called her then). How she went from Ginny to Ginger is a story for another day.

The movie, Mr. Mom, starring Michael Keaton, had recently come out. His character, Jack, is fired from his job and his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr) goes back to work and they switch roles. I thought, “Hell, why not? How hard could taking care of a single child be?” Maggie wasn’t fully on board initially, but then she warmed to the idea as she saw how enthusiastic I was to give it a shot. Soon, she was heading off to work at Control Data Corporation, while I remained at home and took care of Ginny. What an amazing opportunity for a Dad and daughter to bond. She was coming up on birthday number 1; she was perfect without exception and life was great.

Before relating the events that occurred, let’s get two facts clear from the start. The first is how long this lasted: In my mind, and whenever telling of this story, it always seemed to me it was about a year. Looking at the timeline more carefully, I found that no more than 3 months is more likely the right number. Well, it sure seemed a lot longer to me! Second, I was a very involved Dad before this point. We did the pre-natal birthing classes together, I was with Maggie during labor and delivery, and the first to hold baby Larsen after she was born. Once we got Ginny home, I was an equal partner in feeding, bathing, and changing diapers. Well, most of it — I didn’t do laundry or meal preparation. That was about to change.

How to start the process with Maggie gone and Ginny and me at home, alone together? Well, my primary objective was to get organized. This house needed a makeover and I threw myself into the task. The initial focus was Ginny’s closet and her clothes. As a first child, she’d been the recipient of a massive amount of clothes gifts from family members and friends. Add in a big gap in children for our family and we ended up with piles of hand-me-down baby clothes on top of all the new stuff. I emptied every clothes drawer. Her garments were washed and neatly folded and returned to the bureau for safekeeping. Once this was complete, I was loath to see any of her fresh, clean outfits get dirty, so most of the time, Ginny wore a diaper and T-shirt. I found, if I turned the t-shirt inside out before her mother got home, I could get an additional day with a shirt before it needed to be laundered. Thankfully, we were on the disposable diapers kick already.

The next step for this homemaker in creating and customizing his workspace was to organize the kitchen. In one day I removed each single item from each cupboard and drawer, laying out the pieces across the kitchen table, dining room table, and other flat surfaces. Then, after cleaning everything, including the cabinet interiors, all the stuff was put away. The kitchen now conformed to my new, well-studied, and optimized layout. Each plate, fork, bowl, pot, and frying pan was precisely where it should be, although not where Maggie thought they should be, but it was my kitchen now. Part of the problem with this turned out to be an exquisite design. It was simply so good, once everything was put away, I didn’t want dishes and glassware to ever come out again. I began serving meals on paper plates and using plastic ware. “Mess up my kitchen?” Not on your life!

In my defense, my career mirrored this behavior precisely. In my 40’s I finally figured out where in the business world I operated best, and it was as a builder. I loved early-stage companies, deciding on the direction, refining value propositions, constructing a profitable model, and then creating the plan and executing it. I was very good at that and loved doing it. It wasn’t work for me. I once said, “If you want a bridge built, you should hire me. But once it’s built, if you need a toll collector, or someone to paint and maintain the bridge, get someone else.”  Once a business is up and running, the key people are in place, the bugs worked through, the unknowns are all known, I’m ready to move on.

After these key household goals were accomplished, which occurred in only a few days, I turned my attention to my daughter and made sure I was getting her out for regular walks and excursions around the neighborhood. We lived with a lot of other young families and so running into other homemakers was unavoidable. Eventually, I was invited to a “Coffee Klatch” get-together. Wow, what an eye-opener that was.

Having not been here before, I let the 8-10 mothers do most of the talking, which was mostly about their kids progress and done simultaneously. “Lyle is so advanced; his doctor says he’s never seen a boy at 10 months who can crawl as far and fast as he does.” “My precious little Kathie is much more advanced, she was trying to put a dress on one of her dolls, and she’s only 7 months old.” “Little Buster is so ahead of the other boys in his daycare, the teachers told me they’ve never seen a kid drinking from a sippy cup at that age.” I was amazed: every one of their kids was in the top cohort, the upper 10% or in some other way, in the most advanced group ever – longest, heaviest, most hair, earliest tooth, motor skills, etc. Eventually, they noticed I hadn’t chimed in and tried to get me to open up. I was initially reluctant, but realizing you couldn’t have a top end of the scale without a bottom end, I told them in light of what I’d been hearing, there was no doubt in my mind, Ginny was clearly retarded. I went on to say, “I think she’s in the bottom third of everything they measure kids on. That said, I do think she giggles well. She really is very good at giggling – oh, and laughing, too. Damn, she can laugh extremely well. I was thinking she might be further along in laughing than some other kids and while I think it may be her strongest capability at this point, I have to admit, it seems pretty much the same as other kids her age.”  Hard to believe, but I never got invited back to another Coffee Klatch event.

But those mothers took their revenge. They began squealing on me to Maggie. They would snitch and inform on me about every little infraction as if it was catastrophically horrible. “He was out jogging, and he had Ginny on his shoulders, she was bouncing up and down, I swear to God he was about to drop her.” Or, “He was pulling her in the wagon and she wasn’t wearing a jacket, scarf, mittens or hat. She was so cold her lips were turning blue.” Fortunately for me, while Ginger was learning to speak, she wasn’t yet speaking in sentences or even making much sense when she did speak. Don’t get me wrong, she was delighted to try and say new words, but typically did not appear to know what they meant. As a result, she became the star, go-to witness in my defense and I called her to the stand whenever needed. When confronted by Maggie with the latest horrifying tail of something unfitting I’d done with our daughter, I’d look at Ginny and ask, “Did Daddy and Ginny have fun?” and I’d throw my hands up in the air and make a funny face. Ginny never failed to throw her hands in the air too, and giggle and laugh. This nearly always got me off the hook. We made a great team and none of the charges ever stuck.

The day I got into the most trouble began innocuously enough. I had turned a room into an office directly across from the nursery, with a desk and wall consisting of 3 large bookcases. It turned out the room was too small for the bookcases. I decided to move the bookcases out to the family room, which was much larger and would accommodate them easily. Studying the task, it seemed simple. Reach in, grab both sides of 8 – 12 books from a shelf, take them into the family room, and pile them on the floor. Once the bookcases were empty, have Maggie help me move them to the family room and then reload them. Easy.

But what to do with Ginny in the process of the book moving? No worries, I set her up in her bouncy chair so she could sit, play, and watch me as I made the move. After a few trips, the number of trips I was going to need to make began to dawn on me. So, with each new load, I began expanding the number of books I would take, squeezing my arms together more and more tightly. Soon I’d exhausted the lower shelves on the far left bookcase. Bringing in a 3-foot step stool from the garage, I could reach the top shelves. Putting my hands on either side of a pretty good length of books I slowly moved them off the top shelf. As soon as I turned around on the top step of the stool, the books collapsed in the middle and fell to the floor with a loud crash. Even before they landed, I loudly yelled “Oh Shit!” Ginger looked up at me, looked down at the mess scattered across the floor, and as clear as a bell, said, “Oh Shit, oh Shit, oh shit.”

God was I in trouble. Now what? I picked up the fallen books and put them in the other room. Standing in the doorway of the office, I looked at the shelf from where the accident had occurred. Sensing Ginny’s eyes on me, I got back up on the ladder, feigned grabbing another full armful, turned back to her, and said, “Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, shoot!” enunciating perfectly, to make sure there was no mistake in understanding, and slowly turning my head from side to side in a look of dismay. Looking up at me with a twinkle in her eye from her bouncy chair, as clear as a bell she said, “Shit, shit, shit. Oh, Shit!”

Ginger and Uncle John Gravley, at about the time this story takes place.

I’m not sure how many days it was before I got nailed, but it wasn’t many. Maggie was putting something away in the kitchen and she bumped a cup from the counter onto the floor. Ginny, sitting in her high chair, looked at her and triumphantly said, “Oh Shit! Oh shit, oh shit.” I was out on the deck, but heard Maggie call, “Steve, you better get in here, right now.” Yeah, I was toast. No witness to my defense this time. I told her the whole story and she reluctantly forgave me, but not before reminding me how impressionable young brains can be.

I loved my 3 months or so playing Mr. Mom and believe Ginny and I did bond in some special ways. Caring for her was an important task and I always took it seriously. There was never a point I put her in any real danger, although I’m sure I did things most first-time mothers might not do. But mostly I remember the two of us laughing a lot and having fun.

Dad and Ginger, dropping her off at Kenyon College. One of these two could not stop crying.

Yeah, but do you have a finger from a dead pirate?

Our home in Pasadena had become the “go to” spot for Thanksgiving (and occasionally Christmas) for Maggie’s sister and the Stickney family. We loved having Diana, Joe and their children around, and Ginger was in heaven with all her Arizona cousins on her turf.

I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it didn’t percolate in my brain too long, before I knew I had to attempt to pull it off. I was already pretty high up on the “crazy but fun uncle” scale when it came to my nephews, Robert and Isaac and to a lesser degree, Andrew as he was still pretty young with Maria just thinking I was weird. They’d seen all my magic tricks and played with the remote control truck I’d purchased. We’d gone hiking with the wagon and played every trick you could think of on the dog, a sweet female Rottweiler named Heidi, who just adored children. In 1990, Robert was 10, Maria was 8, Ginger 6 and Isaac was 4. Perfect ages for what I had in mind.

At the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, I began sowing the seeds. “Did you know?” I asked, “One of my great uncles was a pirate?” I elaborated on my pirate uncle’s exploits, telling them about buried treasure and walking the plank. The adults’ eyes rolled back in their heads, but they played along and didn’t call me out, although they no doubt suspected I was up to something. The kids had lots of questions about pirate life and I was happy to spontaneously oblige, making up answers to their questions. When dessert was served, I slowly and gently set the hook. “You know, my uncle gave my dad a memento of his days on the high seas. It’s a finger from a dead pirate. My dad gave it to me. I don’t know where it is now, maybe in the garage, but it’s a real sight to behold, a genuine, actual finger from a dead pirate.” Then I said no more.

Robert, Maria and Isaac, Ginger on the right, around the time of this event

Soon Robert asked, “Uncle Steve, do you think you could find the dead finger from the pirate and show it to us?” All the others chimed in, “Yes, yes, could you find it, please, PLEASE, Uncle Steve?” I said no, I didn’t think so. It had been many years since I’d last seen it, so I was pretty sure it was lost. And I let it go.

When our mid-day Thanksgiving dinner finished, the children went back to playing, but I could hear them talking about the dead pirate finger. Fifteen minutes wouldn’t go by before one of them would bring it up again and soon they were all after me, “Uncle Steve, can you at least go and look for the finger?”

At this point in the story, I need to bring you into a bit of the preparation. The day before, I’d emptied out an old sliding box of matches and filled it with discolored cotton balls I’d dirtied up using brown shoe polish. Then I’d cut a finger-sized hole in the bottom of the box, so that when I put my finger in the bottom of the box and held it with that hand, I could slowly slide the lid of the match box back using my other hand, revealing my finger, laying on top of the dirty cotton balls. Well, of course, my finger wouldn’t do as it was, so just before agreeing to go and look for the pirate finger, I went in the bathroom and poured iodine onto the middle finger of my right hand. Iodine rather convincingly turns a healthy finger yellow, brown and dead-looking.

Carefully keeping my now gross-looking finger out of sight, I went rummaging in the garage for this lost box containing the finger. The kids were all crowded around me, as I opened drawer after drawer but finding nothing. I kept up a steady dialog of “Well, I’ve not seen that thing in years, I’m almost certain it’s lost.” They kept saying, “Keep looking, Uncle Steve, it has to be here somewhere!”

Finally, I opened the bottom drawer of my ancient tool bench where I’d hidden the old matchbox. “Ah, there it is,” I said, pointing to it. They all recoiled in horror. I suspect they believed we wouldn’t actually find it. I pointed at it and said, “Who wants to pick it up?” They all began to scream, yell and jump around in place, saying “No, no, you pick it up, Uncle Steve. Show us, you show us the finger!” So, I reached down into the drawer, carefully using my body to cover inserting my groady-looking finger covered in dried iodine into the box. When I turned around, the box was in my right hand and I was gripping the sides with my left. “Well, I hope it’s still in here,” I said as I began extending the box towards them. The young ones hung back, but Robert and Ginger leaned forward toward the box, but not too close.

As I slid the cover off the box, there was the horrible looking finger. Truth be told, it looked gross. They all recoiled and held back at first, but then slowly edged closer for a better view. I showed it around, let them all get a good look. They gasped and screeched with simultaneous delight and revulsion. Finally I said to Robert, “Do you want to touch it?” At first he screamed “No, no, no….” but then when his little brother Isaac said, “I’ll touch it,” Robert decided he would do it first. Ginger and Maria were horrified. They wanted nothing to do with this dead pirate’s finger, but they couldn’t stop staring at it. I held the box out to Robert as the others gathered close around and behind him. He slowly moved forward, looked at it, and then very carefully began to reach out with his arm and hand, one quivering finger tentatively extended to make contact with the dead pirate finger. When Robert’s finger was just an inch from the finger in the box and every kid’s eyes were glued to what was happening, I quickly raised my finger up toward Robert’s raised finger – the dead finger had come alive!

You can’t believe what happened next. Robert perfectly mimicked the way the cartoon coyote would jump up, turn around in mid-air and then frantically begin spinning his feet, while not going anywhere. Finally Robert’s legs got traction and he shot out of the garage, screaming at the top of his lungs, his brother, sister and cousin racing behind him. I’ve never seen such a group of panicked children run so fast. They shot out our long driveway toward the street and didn’t stop until they were nearly out of sight of the house. The rest of the adults came out of the house to see what the commotion was all about and found me collapsed in laughter on the front steps with the kids half-way down the driveway, white as sheets.

Creating experiences which instill memory treasures in the minds of my nieces, nephews, kids and grand-kids will always be one of my favorite things. I hope my nephews remember this little trick and use it appropriately when their own sons, daughters, nieces and nephews are old enough for it. It sure was fun for me.

Ginger and Heidi in the driveway where this all happened.

Finding the Best Single Malt Scotch in Scotland

many castles in Scotland

In 1994, we lived in NY and decided to try a home exchange. Agreeing to exchange our home just north of NYC with a family living in Scotland required reaching a compromise on our trip objectives: for Maggie, it was seeing castles, churches, and tartan fabrics. My goal was to discover the best scotch whisky distilled in Scotland and to not be overwhelmed with castles, churches, and fabrics. Spoiler alert: the trip was a success.

In 1994 the Internet was no big deal. There was no Airbnb and VRBO did not exist. However, a well-functioning postal-oriented alternative called the International Home Exchange not only existed but had evolved an effective process over 20-30 years. The calendar was a key driver and it worked like this: First, you became a member, paid your annual fee, and completed a one-page information sheet on your home. It was a form that allowed for a single house photo and restricted information to details such as the number of bedrooms, size, features, and interesting sights that could be easily visited in the area because a month or so after the deadline, a booklet was mailed to all members. The publication contained several hundred pages of homes available for exchange that year – one page per home. They were arranged by region, with sections for Europe, the USA, Asia, Africa, etc. After pursuing the listings, members were encouraged to send letters to a half- dozen or so homes appearing to be a good fit. A tornado of letters crossed in the mail and soon, your mailbox was filled with letters from people wishing to exchange their homes with yours.

Unlike the very limited data you could publish in the book, the “pitch letters” that were put together to entice someone who had a home where you wished to stay had no limits. As a result, the half-dozen letters we sent out included 6-8 gorgeous photos of our New York home, all of its attributes and conveniences, clothes washer and dryer, microwave oven, dishwasher and televisions as well as train schedules into New York City and the many enticements there.

One of the first letters we got was from a dentist, his wife, and two teenage daughters who wanted to exchange their home on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland with our home in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. Before saying yes, we spent a long time agonizing over another wonderful letter we received from a couple in South Africa. After including highly illustrative photos of their beautiful estate and describing many interesting activities, they admitted they had none of our highly automated appliances such as washing machines, microwave ovens, and other modern conveniences. Besides, there was another real downside they confessed would only be fair of them to disclose. They wrote: “Unfortunately when we go on vacation, we also take that opportunity to give our staff on the estate that time off as well. So, we will be leaving you with a bare-bones staff consisting of a cook, one housekeeper, two drivers, and a yardman. Everyone else will have the time off.” Wow, that place sure sounded like it could have been fun. However, we finalized an exchange with the Scottish family.

When our son Eric had been so sick, Ginger had grown accustomed to living with her cousins in Phoenix. The Stickney family was as much her family as ours. Knowing how she and our nephew Robert, who was four years older than she, played so well together and thinking they would keep each other entertained during the trip, we invited Robert to come to Scotland with us. Then, of course, we worried that all Maggie and I would be doing was babysitting, so we extended an invitation to Ginger’s favorite babysitter in the whole world, Melinda Wood from Los Angeles, to join us as well. The house had a plethora of bedrooms and lots of places to play outside, so we weren’t worried.

We learned that most Home Exchange people coordinated travel so they crossed in the air and never actually met each other face to face. Since we were new at this and nervous about turning our home over to strangers, we arranged to pick our visitors from Scotland up at the airport the day before we left, took them out to dinner and then brought them home with us, all spending a night in our home before we left for Scotland the next day. It worked fine, and we did not anticipate any problems after meeting them, although our suspicions that the liquor cabinet might be somewhat depleted when we returned, were spot on.

The dentist’s home in Scotland was clean and nice. While older, it was quaint and cozy, exactly the sort of house you’d expect for that country – comfortable, warm, and friendly. They’d put vases of cut flowers throughout the home to welcome us. The yard and gardens, on the other hand, were just amazing and an over-the-top experience. Situated at the end of a long driveway, the house was surrounded by flower gardens, walking paths, beautiful trees, and patios. In addition to the house, there was a separate garage and a stable and corral for a horse. Our hosts had arranged for a neighbor to come by daily to care for the horse and a young man who worked as a gardener on the property was quick to introduce himself, indicating he would be around every third day, or so, to mow, weed and manage other yard related activities. Besides everything in the home, the homeowner had left keys to the family’s late model Volvo station wagon and instructions for using it, such as being sure to fill it with diesel, not gasoline.

Soon our days were filled with all the sorts of things tourists do in Scotland. As I suspected, visiting the Edinburgh Castle didn’t put a dent in Maggie’s desire to see more castles. Compelling options to her included all the classics not far from where we were staying – Stirling, Craigmillar, Lauriston, Balmoral, Glamis, Dundas, Dirleton, Eilean Donan, Dunnottar, Midhope, Cawdor, Tantallon, Culzean, Inveraray, Urquhart, Dunrobin and Duart Castles. I so feared having to see them all.

Fortunately our ground rules called for visits to scotch distilleries, not just castles and churches. My first distillery visit was to Glenkinchie Distillery, right near Edinburgh. This was a fortuitous place to start on several levels. It turns out, when it comes to scotch, the taste is very different depending on where the distillery is located. There are five distinct geographic scotch flavor regions in Scotland. The Lowland scotch distilleries are the closest ones to Edinburgh and one of the most famous is Glenkinchie. It’s also the scotch to which many scotch drinkers and scotch aficionados get their start. Lowland scotches are famous for being gentle malts with notes of grass, ginger, apple, cinnamon, and toffee with an occasional citrus edge. They’re light, breezy and easy to drink. So, this was a terrific place for me to begin my quest to find the best tasting Scotch in Scotland and my education on single malt scotches. The tour was great and I loved the 12-year-old bottle of Glenkinchie I brought back to the house.

Although I was just beginning, it was apparent I would need help, and so I stopped at a liquor store in Edinburgh. I filled the proprietor in on my quest to discover the very best scotch in Scotland and asked for his help. While we had an entertaining conversation and I left with 3 half-bottles of presumably great scotches to try, I began to feel that relying on shopkeepers may not be a winning strategy.

Late that afternoon I ended up having a conversation with the gardener for the property. Having a couple of bottles of new scotch in the house, I offered him a glass and we sat on the patio after he’d finished his yard duties. We had a “wee dram” as I learned more about his life. My Scandinavian aunties would have described him as a “strapping young lad.” He was medium height, wiry, and strong with deep blue-eyes and curly dishwater blond colored shoulder-length hair. His life, as best I could make out through his thick accent, involved maintaining the gardens of a half-dozen or so homes in the area, playing “football” with his mates, going to the pub to “lift a pint” once or twice a week and staying on good terms with a number of “fair lasses,” along his gardening route, not all I came to believe were unmarried if his nods and winks were properly understood.

Before our conversation ended and we’d finished our third glass of scotch, I had outlined my mission and tested his willingness and qualifications to join me in my quest. Requirements of him would be straight forward: he’d need to commit to spending several evenings during the next couple of weeks with me, sampling the spirits I would bring back to the house, and aid me in selecting which one was the ultimate, best-tasting, most-delicious scotch of them all. Perhaps unremarkable in hindsight, I found I needed to expend very little persuasive energy to gain his agreement. So, now I had a plan and an expert assistant. I was ready!

Scotland “taste” regions.

Our first overnight trip from Edinburgh was to Inverness. The kids wished to see the Loch Ness monster, Maggie had a list of a fabric shops, castles and churches she wanted to visit along our route and I could see our trip would take me through the Highlands and into the heart of the famous Speyside distilleries – The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Macallan Estate and perhaps the Glenmorangie Distillery if we had the time. In our two days, in addition to castles and churches, we got to visit The Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. We also did a quick stop at Aberfeldy in the Highlands on the way up. We did not go on tours in all of them, but we did visit each gift shop and came away with a bottle or half-bottle and, occasionally a special cask strength bottle when it was available.

These whiskies, east of Inverness, along the River Spey, are full of fruity, nutty flavors and are less peaty than some scotches, so again, good for beginners. They’re very distinctive with a classic, rich, oaky flavor that becomes almost creamy with almonds and spice on the palate after you swallow.

The two areas where I had to be content with just buying an example bottle were the Island Scotches and those from Islay. Islay, in the far south, is land pounded by the elements all year long. Whiskeys from that area can be medicinally smoky and heavy with peat flavors. Brands like Laphroaig, Arberg, Bowmore, and Bruichladdich are the ones you hear the most about. While appreciating their complexity, I did not find I liked them as much as the Speyside and Highland scotches.

Our route to visit Loch Ness and the distilleries.

The northern island scotches like Talisker from Skye, Jura, and Highland Park also had an intense smoky flavor that didn’t instantly appeal to me. The salinity of the sea brings out the minerals in the peat. It leaves the palate feeling of warm spices, orange peel, heather, and honey. While they are clearly from this area, they are also unique and each island produces an unmistakable flavor. Only 3 bottles made it into my unscientific final testing group from the Islands.

I am certain, if I’d continued to drink scotch beyond the ten years or so after our trip, my tastes would have developed to the point at which I would have enjoyed these more complex, peaty or smoky scotches. I’ve found that true of most dedicated single malt drinkers. Once one of these scotches gets a hold of your palate, not much is going to satisfy you other than that one scotch.

Once back to our place near Edinburgh, I lined up my bottles on a long bar, with a stack of 3X5 note cards. Pouring a “wee dram” of one of the bottles into a glass, I would head out on the patio, sip the scotch, watch the kids climb the large tree in the back and record my tasting impressions, slipping the cards under the appropriate bottle when switching from one scotch to the next. Every few days my new gardener friend would join me and we’d sit together, tasting and testing, debating and arguing, admiring, and ranking, often times, late into the night. Can you imagine a better time?

One day the gentleman taking care of the horse caved to Ginger’s persistent requests to ride the horse. He finally agreed he’d let her sit on him, which she did. Take a look at the photo below. The man holding the reigns is over six feet tall. This was one very big horse.

Most nights we ate at home, meals Maggie prepared after trips to the grocery store. Occasionally, we’d go out for a pub meal (ever tried haggis?), but we worked hard to keep expenses low. Our budget had allowed us one, super-nice, fancy meal on the trip. After getting recommendations from the locals, we headed about twenty miles out into the countryside to find a restaurant within a castle. It was beautiful and fun. The dining room was nearly the size of a good-sized barn with exceptionally high ceilings. We were seated on one of the raised platforms that ringed the dining area and had a great view of the inside of the castle. After being given ample time to examine the menu our waiter came to take our order. The kids ordered first, then Maggie ordered the rack of lamb. I said I’d have the pepper steak and instantly felt a kick under the table. Maggie leaned in to me and whispered, “Order one of the lamb dishes.” I raised my finger signaling our server to wait, but couldn’t find a lamb-based offering that appealed to me, and so went back to the steak. Maggie leaned over and said quietly, “Okay, but I’m not giving you any of mine.”

When our meals came, I found my steak had come not from a slaughtered steer, but instead had been acquired by taking the bottom of someone’s old boot or shoe and serving it on my plate, covered with a thick sauce full of pepper. Maggie eventually relented and extended her fork with one nice sized bite of lamb on it for me to taste. It was exquisite and not because it was such a contrast to what was on my plate. This bite just melted in my mouth with a burst of flavor. After tasting it, my mouth began to water. But all I had on my plate was the bottom of someone’s boot. No ordering error since has ever come close to the horrible mismatch of these two dishes.

On the way home, as I verbally kicked myself, Maggie gently explained that beef was not a big thing in Scotland, and they were much better at lamb. How had I missed this? The kids listened in the back as she explained that so far on our trip, there was ample evidence of sheep everywhere, but cows, not so much.

The next day, on our way to Inverness, we had barely gone a half-hour when Ginger piped up from the backseat. “Hey, Dad, what are those puffs of white up on the hills? Are those little tiny clouds? Oh, oh, wait, I know what they are, Dad. They’re sheep!” Everyone in the entire car began to laugh hilariously – except me, remembering my shoe leather from the night before. Less than an hour later, approaching a small town we passed a sign urging us to slow down as there was a sheep crossing ahead. Again from the back seat: “Did you see that Dad? A sheep crossing sign! Not a cow crossing, not even a crow crossing? It’s a sign to slow down for sheep!” Again the car erupted with laughter as I thought of my “steak.” Let’s just say, for the rest of our trip, every possible way to make a joke about cows and sheep led to raucous laughter.

Eventually, the day of reckoning came. Our glorious trip with its perfect weather – it hadn’t rained once — was over. We were leaving Scotland the next morning. We’d spent the day packing and getting the house in perfect order for the owners for when they would come home. We wanted to be sure it was in better shape than we’d found it. We learned later from the Home Exchange company that this compunction was not unique to us. Most everyone makes this same attempt.

But I still had a major issue. Too many half-full bottles of scotch and while I had clearly developed some favorites, no single one had emerged as a clear winner. Fortunately, my assistant was scheduled to show up that night and I knew he was committed to working the problem with me until the early hours of the morning, if that was what it took, to find a winner.

The champion emerged sometime after 2 AM. We were both bleary-eyed, never having considered spitting between tastes. We’d whittled it down from the top ten candidates to just three scotches sometime after midnight. We both agreed any of the three could easily justify a claim to the title. But we knew we were not done – the rules clearly stated we needed to arrive at a single winner.

We went back and forth for another hour over the three finalists, comparing notes of this and that. No clear winner. Just as a well-reasoned and articulate argument was made to crown one the best, an equal number of good points would be made for one of the others. And then my young Scottish friend held up one of the glasses, looked at it through bloodshot eyes, smiled warmly and said to me in his deep accent, “Don’t cha know, if it was my best girl, naked, right out of the bath – or a bottle of the Macallan, I’d have to go with the Macallan,” and he took a sip and looked at me, and I knew. We were done. I’d found the very best Scotch in Scotland, I had a great story, and had a better understanding of a true Scotsman.

Tragedy and Comedy: Oh, So very close

laughing, crying masks
In high school, my daughter Ginger was cast in a theatrical presentation of the Sound of Music. She threw herself into the two roles she played, greatly enjoying all the rehearsals and tasks associated with getting the production ready for an audience. After opening night, she had issues with her performance and came to me, asking what she should do. Finally, a problem with which this father of a teenage daughter might actually be able to help! Because you see, I understood her problem and also knew how to fix it. The same thing had happened to me.

When I was a senior at Mayo High School in Rochester, MN, I was cast as Tom Wingfeld in the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie. Tom is a crucial character in the play, acting as both narrator and protagonist. It is one of the most iconic stage roles ever written. A good many famous actors have given it a go, including Kirk Douglas, Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, Christian Slater, and Joe Mantello. While my performance was never in the same league as a professional actor, I like to think they may have wrestled with one of the same issues I had with the part.

The play is heartbreaking and any actor worth his salt should have the audience in tears in his final soliloquy. In these final lines, Tom’s character says farewell to his mother and sister, saying he’s left home and will never return and asks his sister, Laura, to blow out the candles. Here is Tennessee Williams, writing these remarkable words and lines that will catapult him from obscurity to fame.  Rehearsals went well, the actors all knew their lines and the production crew, headed by assistant director Pati Knappe, was ready. Into dress rehearsal, we went. After weeks of closed rehearsals, here was our chance to perform in front of an audience for the first time. Our Director, Dwain Johnson, cautioned us to work with the audience, pause when they reacted, or laughed. I heard him but didn’t absorb the message.

It began in the middle of the first act. People were laughing at some of my lines. I was furious. This play was not a comedy, it was serious and tragic. I began pushing my lines forward when I felt them starting to laugh, to keep them quiet. During intermission, Mr. Johnson got us together for a brief pep talk. To me, he said, “Steve, you’ve got to understand, comedy and tragedy are very close together. If you want them to cry during your final soliloquy, you need them to laugh with you first.” I wasn’t sure what he was saying but knew he understood more about it than I, so I took his advice and began working with the audience, allowing them to laugh and even enjoying it when they did. My soliloquy went fine.

Our two live performances were on Friday and Saturday nights. Before opening night, Director Johnson gave us a pep talk and in it, elaborated on our experiences in dress rehearsal. He explained, no doubt for my benefit, that when looking at the expansive line of human emotions, most people see one end anchored by hilarious laughter and the other end in tragic weeping. “But it’s not like that at all,” Johnson explained. “The fact is that when you look at this vast range of emotions, laughing and weeping are together at one end of the spectrum, and indifference is what is at the other end. So, if you want to get the audience to cry, get them to laugh first. Moving them from laughter to tears is a short distance, and it’s easy.” I remembered what he said for those two performances and for the rest of my life. So, when my daughter asked me how to fix her stage problem, I knew what to tell her.

Maria, Baroness Elsa Schräder and Captain von Trapp

Ginger’s problem was a bit different. In the Sound of Music, Ginger played Baroness Elsa Schräder, the fiancé to Captain von Trapp. The Baroness, after being introduced to the children, begins to see how much von Trapp’s children are attached to Maria and suspects the Captain may harbor feelings for Maria as well. She deviously maneuvers to get Maria out of the way and finally orders Maria back to the convent. Ginger confessed to me, “Dad, I can really feel the audience when I’m doing this and they don’t like me at all – so I’m trying to do my lines right but I’m also trying to be nice at the same time, and it’s just not working. See, the audience doesn’t know it yet, but in the next act, I make everything okay because I tell Maria that the Captain really loves her, and then I leave.”

Oh, what a perfect set up! Not just by the playwright, but perfect for this particular dad/daughter moment. I explained to her the comedy-tragedy line but painted it in love vs. hate terms. I explained that love and hate were very close together, with indifference at the other end. And, if she sincerely wanted the audience to love her in the second act, she needed them to really, really hate her in the first. The solution to her problem wasn’t to try to get the audience to take it easy on her in the first act, it was to throw herself into the part and get the audience to completely despise her. The degree the audience would come to love her in the second act was in direct proportion to how much they hated her in the first.

Just like I trusted Mr. Johnson, it seemed Ginger trusted me. She nodded and said, “I’ll try that.” At the performance that evening, I watched in awe as Ginger threw herself into making the audience dislike her. And boy, did she nail it. Near the end of the first act, when Ginger’s Baroness Elsa character banishes Maria back to the convent, I heard the woman seated next to me involuntarily hiss in hatred toward the stage. The distaste the audience was feeling toward this character was palpable. I was thrilled.

When intermission was over, the second act commenced, and the scene came where Baroness Schräder bowed out with dignity and caring, telling Maria that Captain von Trapp truly loved her.  I didn’t have to look over at the seat next to me to know. Yes, the woman was in tears!

But Ginger’s part in the production wasn’t over. After her final scene as the Baroness, she went backstage, got out of the wig and fancy dress the Baroness wore, because she had another part to play. She donned a costume and funny wig with large pigtails sticking out both sides of her head, taking on the role of the woman who would refuse to leave the festival stage after her act was finished, generating gales of laughter and round after round of ovations, giving the von Trapp family time to slip away. This character generated tons of laughs, no doubt a relief for Ginger.

But the best part for me was at the end of the play. When the curtain call came up, Ginger first took applause for her role as the festival performer, an audience pleaser even though it was a non-speaking part. But the real fun came when she removed the silly pigtail wig and revealed herself to be the actress that had also played Baroness Elsa Schräder.  As her father, I am thoroughly biased and non-objective, but I swear to you, the amount of applause for her went through the roof!

Epilogue: When people think of theatre, the two-faced mask is one of the oldest and best-known symbols illustrating comedy and tragedy, happiness, and sadness.  The symbol dates back to Greek mythology and has represented creative arts for decades. But to me, I always see it as those two very similar emotions, so very close together, and so far away from indifference.