Friday, January 21, 2022

A Remarkably Unique Whisky


It should surprise no one that a blog titled Wild Haggis Studio might reference single malt whisky (there is no "e" in Scotch whisky as there is in all other types of "whiskey").

Glenfiddich, one of the most famous single malts, has started a series of "experiments". My wife bought me a bottle of Experiment #4 for Christmas, a label titled Fire and Cane.

I decided to review the whisky on the Glenfiddich web site after reading how diverse opinions were.

As a lover of single malts in general and Glenfiddich in particular, my wife gambled that I would enjoy this experiment, and she was right. Admittedly, I already had a fondness for peat flavor which not all do. This is warm without the harsh kick of some of the more peaty whiskys. The rich smoke surprised and delighted me. Once the whisky opened up, more flavors and aromas emerged so that I savored a migration from the opening smoke to the final suggestion of a sweet finish, a lightness on the tongue more than a sugary flavor per se. Overall, the whisky presents a tantalizing and unique complexity that enlivens the taste like the myriad instruments of an orchestra combining in a symphony, some loud and bold, some quiet and sublime. I am tempted to spend the last half hour of each day beside a fire, reading Burns with a glass of Fire and Cane.




Thursday, January 13, 2022

Black and White Outdoors


The year was 2001. We had recently moved to the North Carolina mountains after leaving Atlanta. An Atlanta friend from the real estate development business called to invite me and my family to join him, his wife and three children rafting on the Upper New River in West Virginia. Robert (not his real name) was eldest son in a prominent family, attended private schools, graduated from Princeton, then from Harvard with an MBA. He is a smart man, and he is black.

This was many years before the recently prominent threats and killings of innocent blacks that have dominated the national news, but he knew how pervasively prejudice still reigned in the South as well as elsewhere. He thought it was time for an outdoor family adventure to raft whitewater on the New River and spend the night beside the river, camping and paddling, cooking over open fires, pooping in the woods au naturel. Nevertheless, as a black man in the South, he was reluctant to expose his family to whatever risks might linger among the denizens of the West Virginia backwoods, abandoned mining towns, and riverbanks. He wanted his family to have allies they could trust.

At the time, I thought his worries about wilderness threats from white guys with guns was a bit melodramatic, but I am white and can still hear the banjo in “Deliverance” when I wander far off well-trodden trails in areas of conspicuous poverty. I can speak southern or hillbilly fluently but personally have had unnerving encounters in the remote hollers of Appalachia.

We rafted a flooded New River with muddy water washing out most of the significant rapids. Our daughters and sons bonded as if they had known each other for years. Our guides -- all white but not all local -- were engaging, cheerful and playful with the children. Chris on the sweep oars in the equipment barge (big raft piled with gear) shared his Walkman earphones with our young sons so they could rock out the rapids to the sounds of the Grateful Dead under a rainbow-colored umbrella. The sun shined, the river cooled, and food cooked over fires and in cast iron Dutch ovens just tastes better than the same food at home. A long day of fresh air and paddling feeds the hunger that makes any meal more flavorful. Sleeping in a tent after conversations around the fire tended to be deeply restful, the misty mornings accented by the aroma of fire smoke, coffee and bacon.

As we left the river in the outfitter’s bus, my son fell asleep with his head leaning on the shoulder of an attractive young female guide fifteen years his senior. The other kids likewise slumbered in spite of the noisy whine of the bus rolling down the highway, windows open to the summer heat, back to the base camp, the end of a fine trip.

Later that summer, Robert and his family stopped by our log cabin for lunch and a visit. Then he motioned to me to follow him to his SUV. He had a nearly flat tire.

“No problem,” I declared. “Just stop at the big convenience store/service station you passed on the way up the gap. Good folks and they’ll have you fixed in a jiffy. We use them all the time.”

Robert’s face portrayed an anxious hesitation. “You mind going with me?”

“Not at all, but they really are good people.” I thought I knew why Robert was concerned about the rural mountains where there are few blacks (even though Gladys Knight had a home just a few miles south of our cabin). “Let’s head on down before we eat.”

As he drove the winding mountain road back to the highway, he told me what had happened to him that very morning. After picking up one of his daughters from summer camp, he noticed that his tire was leaking badly. In Brevard, center of an area famous as the home of ten thousand summer camps (I still do not know where they hide them all), he pulled into a gas station and asked if they could fix the flat. Not only was there no service to be found at that service station, the language voiced by one of the hillbilly pump jockeys was clearly antagonistic and racist. Moreover, he ignored Robert even while Robert made it clear that he could wait and was not trying to rush the work. In the smog of tension, Robert discussed the situation with his wife, Susan, and they decided they could make it fifteen miles to our home and plan from there.

Needless to say, his treatment dumbfounded me. It was not because racism surprised me; I had witnessed plenty growing up in a rural area where KKK billboards still marred the roadside in the not-so-distant past. But Brevard is a tony village with an arts college (mostly music) near liberal Asheville, a town that embraces everyone from billionaires to junkies. Still, I reminded myself that I am not black and can never see the world through those eyes and experiences.

The good old boys, local mountain folk, at the County Line wheeled Robert’s SUV into a bay and promptly repaired the leaking tire with smiles and solicitude, not a shred of passive aggressive racism among the bunch. We thanked them, left a decent tip in the industrial-size plastic mayonnaise jar and paid a few bucks for the work. Back at the cabin, both families gathered around the picnic table beside the cabin under the black walnut tree for an alfresco lunch. Life was good sitting at the table, talking and laughing with friends, recalling fun moments from the rafting trip.

Soon after our rafting trip, in the course of my wife homeschooling our children, our son was studying the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for black equality. The text mentioned how black people had suffered discrimination. Our son asked his mother, “What are black people?” In no way did he connect the phrase with the family that had rafted and camped with us.

We had avoided speaking of people in terms of race or skin color. Therefore, he had never thought of his trip on the New River with a black family as anything other than camping and paddling with friends. Sadly, it had become time for him to understand how the world thinks about race and how people have been mistreated for their color, their beliefs, their associations. At least he had several years of utopian ignorance about superficial differences among people.

The next year, Robert called again to see if we were up for another rafting trip. Definitely. At that point, our children ranged in age from six to eleven with our son and daughter the youngest and oldest respectively. Another family joined the group for the trip. They were white, easy-going and showed no prejudice or misgivings about their rafting companions. Their daughter immediately joined the other children in playing on the river beaches and splashing in the water.

In the course of several rafting trips over the years, I have found that raft crews and trip members in general tend to form quick bonds of camaraderie. Maybe it is the common risk of running whitewater, maybe it is the long hours floating a remote river with a break for a simple make-it-yourself sandwich lunch, or maybe it is the opportunity to tell tales of outdoors daring that would seem too much like boasting if shared out of context in the workplace. Most participants lose their inhibitions and scream through the rapids like teenagers on a roller coaster at Six Flags. Pure fun. Combine those actions with the full exposure of being wet and dirty in swim trunks and t-shirts, no showers, using an ammo can (boom box) for a toilet and having no running water other than the river itself, and people recede into their more native selves. Binding with others is one way to avoid what might embarrass some on Main Street.

The second year, there was no flood, the water was reasonably clear, the rapids fresh and bold with white water waves tumbling over themselves. We ran the fast water in rafts and duckies, taking a dunking or ten along the way.

Back at the outfitter’s base, we gathered for a group photo, all members of the group mixing with the others, no one clinging to family or race or social standing. Another fine trip for everyone.

[It is tragic that the 21st century has not only failed to bring understanding and equality (though, arguably, there has been some improvement), but incidents of violence based principally on prejudicial biases have become more common (or more commonly known). During the COVID pandemic, an Asian-born close family friend, an American citizen since birth, has been subjected to cruel and hostile comments in public. Despicably, our society has not come far enough to embrace the equality of all people as people regardless of differences in the color of their skin or place of birth. In addition, too many people remain fixated on political affiliation even though the two parties are sides of the same coin, both seeking advantage for their own interests over the best interests of the citizens they pledged to serve.]


Sunday, January 9, 2022

Pecan Pie for Breakfast

    Dessert need not be limited to postprandial indulgence. The same sweets taste as good in the morning for breakfast. Frozen chocolate chess pie, rich fudge brownies, blondies, date nut cake, layer cakes, key lime pie, all flavors of cheesecake, etc. With coffee or hot tea. My sister-in-law has a neighbor who bakes the entire neighborhood block a pecan pie each for Christmas. (NOTE: how you pronounce “pecan” defines your regional origins.) I demurred a few weeks ago after a rich garlic-drenched pasta sauce in lieu of a slice with my coffee at breakfast the following morning. Ice cream was not included but could have been. 
    As happens more and more as we age, a serendipitous connection revealed that the baker was the wife of an old friend from my dismal banking career, a decade with few positive highlights of which her husband was one. A friendly and decent person with integrity, qualities in short supply at the top of our management pyramid back then. 
    As witness to the evolution of corporate emphasis on stock performance and quarterly earnings over any long term strategy of building value through customers and employees, I watched most of the top executives worry more about their personal financial rewards than any other single factor. One young state president boasted that he spent more than 60% of his time managing up, stroking the egos of those to whom he reported, those who would decide his financial future. In one incident, his actions cost the bank $50 million, but he was promoted. In another incident, he was a key member of an internal team who advised the bank to spend more than $150 million on a software system that never worked as intended. Again, managing up served him well, and he suffered no consequences for telling the holding company executives what they wanted to hear. (A former partner of the consulting firm that the bank paid to create the system later admitted to me that it had been a widespread scam by the consulting firm with multiple banks paying for a product they never received. With executive egos too arrogant to admit, much less expose, their ignorance and folly, the consulting firm continued to pluck more gullible geese.) Monthly results mattered more than experience or wisdom. And all employees were disposable. 
    The baker’s husband was a victim of the callous and short-sighted human resource decisions, choices that eliminated the more talented employees to reduce the perceived threat of people with more sound judgment than those empowered by their positions to make major decisions. The husband had been a top performer and was well-respected in his regional market, but he was terminated as he neared early retirement age. He probably made “too much money” in the eyes of those who measured their own success by how much of the pie they kept for themselves. 
    After a devastating period of unemployment (it has become harder and harder over the past two decades to recover a career once you are fifty or so), he found a position with a bank in another state. Living in an apartment away from his family for months at a time, he at least had work and an income, his self-image partially restored. But you never forget that people with whom you worked for years, people who professed to be friends, tossed you to the curb like the daily garbage. No one deserves such treatment. 
    His experience is one among tens of thousands if not more. Corporate America values greed above all else, money as the sole measure of success. Valuing employees, customers and shareholders has evaporated with the platitudes of 1990s management theory. All three exist only to enrich the top of the corporate ladder, the few self-important deceivers who cling to the rungs with one hand while clawing and kicking others off. CEOs no longer know how to recognize talent, so they default to the employees willing to do anything to make a buck and push ahead of their peers. Greed and more greed. There can never be enough. Cheating is rewarded when it is successful, ethics be damned. As compared to monetary results, loyalty and camaraderie are meaningless within the corporate hierarchy.         Billionaires are a relatively new phenomena. Yet America has millions living in poverty. Why are we as a society not embarrassed to have a term “working poor”? How is it possible that people work more than one job and still struggle to pay their rent and feed their family? How much money can a billionaire spend in a lifetime? Sure, some of them brag about their charitable foundations, but what difference have those foundations made? The foundations exist to glorify the founders, not to benefit society as a whole, not to make a measurable difference in the lives of those who struggle hardest. Evidence? The number of (working) poor continues to increase along with homelessness. A family foundation is now more than ever a badge of elitism among the wealthy. Along with private jet fractional ownership, multiple homes and the most expensive cars (and maybe a yacht thrown in for good measure), the rich check off the essentials of being seen on the wealth pyramid and, even then, envy those who have more. 
    The wealth gap does not mean that those who make the most money should not be rewarded for honest effort. It does mean that those with more money than anyone could ever spend without colonizing another planet should feel a moral obligation to improve the lives of those who have the least despite their hard work. People valuing people as people. People seeing greed as a trait in conflict with social harmony and coexistence to condemn and avoid. People seeing value in the human qualities that favor community and mutual assistance ahead of competing for personal gain along the road to the top of the wealth pyramid. 
    Greed will always be tempting, but unselfish values have the durability to remind us what enriches life and relationships. One true friend is superior to and more rewarding than a pocketful of cash or burgeoning brokerage account.