October, when I stopped reading

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Well not really – but I only finished three books, Kim, Forbidden Flowers, and From Dictatorship to Democracy, almost all at the beginning of the month, and I now feel guilty for having wasted a month without turning more pages.  But perhaps I needed to take a break from cramming my head in order to yearn to learn again, and perhaps I got busy.

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In 2000, Patrick, Becky and Ben came to stay with me in San Diego; as a thank-you for letting them stay, they got me a bottle of duty-free Chivas Regal 12-year-old Whisky.  I brought it up to college and it sat on my shelf.  I thought it looked sophisticated.  It wasn’t until maybe February or March that I opened it, and, one day, I forget for which occasion, I decided to start drinking it.  Knowing nothing, I poured a quarter of the bottle into a giant insulated coffee mug, and carried it to the commons in front of the dining hall, where I sat and sipped.  A few minutes after starting, this guy Sonny came by – he was a rockabilly punk who was good-natured but a bit annoying.  He wanted to talk to me about Student Senate stuff – I was president of the Senate then – and after a while, he looked at me and said something like, “Are you drinking?”

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“What are you drinking?”

“Chivas Regal.”

“Can I have some?”

So we went back to my room, poured him a jug, and finished the bottle that afternoon.

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After he graduated, he moved near me in San Diego, and we started hanging out a lot.  He seemed to order only two drinks: Johnnie Walker Red and Soda or, on occasion, Wild Turkey.  I preferred the Red and Soda, and, after a while, we got fancy and started ordering Johnnie Black.  One day, a guy heard us ordering it; Sonny was in the Marines, and so the guy, being patriotic, bought us two Glenfiddichs, on the rocks.  We sipped them politely, then, when he turned away, just poured them into our Johnnies to make them drinkable – whatever the cache of a single malt, they tasted horrible to us.

I drank Johnnie Walker Black or Red and Soda for years.  Later, when Sonny was getting married, I showed up to the wedding as one of the groomsmen; it was me, James, Jim, Big Jim, Shane (Sonny’s brother) and Shane (Erin’s brother).  And all of us had forgotten to get wedding gifts.

“I have an idea,” I said when we were all out and Sonny went off somewhere else.  “Let’s get a bottle of every liquor we’ve ever drank with Sonny, and give it to Sonny and Erin as a group gift.”  I thought it would be easy, because it could only be three bottles.

“Great,” everyone said.  I got out my notebook to make a list.

“James, what have you had with Sonny?”

“Sonny only drinks Gordon’s London Dry Gin and Tonic, or Wild Turkey,” James said.

“What are you talking about?” Jim said.  “He only likes tequila or Wild Turkey.”

“When have you heard him order tequila?!?” Big Jim said.  “Sonny only drinks Tullamore Dew or Wild Turkey.”

Around the table we went, and each person was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only thing Sonny liked was either their favorite liquor or Wild Turkey.

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It was only later, after Sonny’s brother Shane got so drunk that he passed out in an alley where Sonny miraculously found him, and then Shane couldn’t give the best man’s speech and I had to make one for him, and he almost fell off the stage at the church, and we’d spent something like $400 and purchased twelve bottles of liquor and carted it to the wedding and gave it to him, that that we realized: Sonny had kept a mental tally of what other people drank, and adjusted, like a chameleon, to whatever they liked, and he only ordered what the other person preferred, and if he was with two or more of these special people, he drank Wild Turkey so he didn’t offend either of their tastes.  The only reason he drank Johnnie Walker with me was because it was cheap, readily available, and he’d seen me drinking whisky that day on the Mounds, and the only reason I drank it was because he kept ordering it, and so it was my drink of choice, and still is, just by this weird fluke that I’ve never been able to fully explain, and how many of our tastes and preferences and our lives are shaped by pure chance, by flukes, by a smile from a stranger or an advertisement in a magazine or a millisecond choice to swipe left or right.

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Sometime in 2008 or 2009, to celebrate an event long ago forgotten, I bought a bottle of Glenfiddich 12.  I brought it home, opened it, poured a bit, and was prepared to hate it.  A sip…

Incredible.  It wasn’t as smooth as the Johnnie Walker, not nearly, but it was delicious, and where before I couldn’t really taste the difference between whiskies, after years of drinking only two blends, I could easily differentiate a single malt.  It wasn’t better or worse; I didn’t understand why it commanded such a premium price.  But it was good.  Really good.  And different.

Maybe a year later, I was at an alumni mixer and met a guy named Knut.  He was a scientist, and shared with me his dream of one day owning a distillery.  I told him of my whisky odyssey, and he said, “Actually, that’s a really good way of learning about liquors.  Most people can’t tell the difference between blends or single malts, and they just buy single malts because they’re more expensive and people think they should be better, but…they’re not, not really.”  He explained that single malts might be more distinct, but weren’t to everyone’s tastes, and blends were almost inevitably smoother because they were blended for broad flavor profiles, and so people who said single malts were smoother than blends were probably ignorant and couldn’t be trusted.

We kept talking, and there was a mind meld, so I’m not sure how this idea came about, but I think credit must be shared.  We decided to have a party – a Canadian Whiskey party – where everyone chipped in $20, and we would buy a bunch of different bottles of some genre of liquor – a vodka, say, or scotch, or cognac, or bourbon – and we would have a big dinner, and Knut would give a lecture about what makes a Canadian Whiskey a Canadian Whisky, or a vodka a vodka, and then we’d do a tasting, and everyone would get a tiny amount of each one – from the cheapest we could find to the most expensive we could afford – and then they’d keep notes of what they tasted and liked, and then it would be open bottle, since everyone would have chipped in the same amount.  We’d buy cigars, too, and smoke them at my house, and then we’d drink, and everyone would go home, and Knut and I would split whatever was left over.

So we did that.  Once a month.  For five years.

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It was one of the greatest achievements of my life, those parties.  They were legendary.  At the end we were holding them, on occasion, in a Frank Lloyd Wright house that my friend Paul owned; sometimes we’d set up logs in the back yard and, after fifteen different bourbons or gins or absinths, we’d get out a tomahawk and challenge people to sink it into the logs from six paces, or we’d set up targets and use a blowgun from various angles to hit them, or we’d hand out boxing gloves and let people hit the bag.  Once, we threw it in a Masonic Temple, and a pianist came up from Pittsburgh, and Lou led us all in a stirring rendition of Piano Man.  We had people bring first dates and fiances and new wives and husbands or newly single friends looking for a rebound, and a Cleveland native might be sitting next to a transplant and suddenly they were making plans to go canoeing or skydiving or sailing.  Once, I brought back eleven bottles of rum from Mauritius, which I liked to think was the largest private collection of Mauritian rum in North America.  And, when she flew over for our second date, Alice brought over rare earthenware bottles of Genever from London for a Genever party – bottles we couldn’t get in Ohio; on our next date, we were married.

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But October.  Meredith came to visit on a Friday; it was her first international trip, and she got her first stamp in her new passport when she flew into Edinburgh.  We found her sitting on a bench at the airport and then started driving north, north, north.  We got to the hotel, checked in, had dinner, and then went to bed, and it was only in bed that I remembered that one of my year goals was to visit a distillery – any distillery, it didn’t matter which.  In bed, on my back, I realized that I was about to visit eight in one day, over the course of the Dramathon, an off-road marathon through the Speyside valley.  It started at Glenfarclas and ended, appropriately, at Glenfiddich; I ran it 38 minutes faster than I’d run Berlin, and wasn’t nearly as tired at the end.  I would have run it faster, but everything was so beautiful, and I kept stopping to take pictures.  Alice and Meredith were there to cheer me on, and then, after I’d crossed the end, we walked into the Glenfiddich gift shop.  There, on a shelf, was a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 year whisky, and as Alice and Meredith looked at bottles and glasses and casks, I turned my head and started crying – partly from fatigue, I think, but also because I suddenly felt how far I’d come, how strangely my life has twisted and turned and how much more magical it has turned out than I ever could have dreamed.

Meredith stayed for a few days, then went back to Cleveland on Wednesday; on Thursday, we flew to Paris.  We bought ink, and paper, and coffee beans, and socks, and cloth, and wine, and soaked in as much of the city and its delicious pastries as we could.  At the end, over a beautiful red blend that made me think of my friend Tom – blended red wines always do – I came up with consumption goals.

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  • I want to use a bottle of fountain pen ink and a stick of sealing wax in the next year.  The reason: this means I’m writing a lot by hand, and a lot of letters, and spending time communicating with the people I truly love.
  • I only want to drink coffee from freshly ground beans.  This means paying attention to where the beans are coming from, and grinding them by hand with my Hario grinder, and focusing on quality.
  • I want to replace my boot heels six times a year – one new pair every two months.  This means I’m walking a lot.
  • I want to burn at least two boxes of candles a year – not hard to do in the long Edinburgh nights, but I would only really do this with Alice over dinner, or with friends, which means social time.
  • I want to use at least a bottle of Bick 4 leather moisturizer every year.  This means I’m taking care of my leather goods – paying attention to quality, and nourishing my things, and making sure that I buy things worth taking care of.

I’ll be coming up with more, but this is a start.  Lifestyle-driven consumption.

And that was the end of the month.  It was a good month.  If the point of this blog is to leave a record for my children that one day they can look back on and learn about me from, it was an important month, a representative month, and I have to say that I am stunningly happy with the way things have turned out so far.

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