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Wise-Ass 101 or How I Found My Voice.
I don’t know how they know these things, but when my brother was born the doctor told my mother he would grow up to be very tall. When I was born he told my mom I would grow up to be a wise-ass.
In hindsight it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I recently realized the truth in something a wise man said to me many years ago. That man was Mr. McCracken, my seventh grade science teacher, and what he said was, “Carter, you’re a wise-ass. You always have been and you always will be.”
You know what a wise-ass is, don’t you? He’s the guy who always has the snarky answer – the smart-alec, the class clown, the wisenheimer. McCracken had me pegged on the first day of class. We engaged in many battles of wit, but to level the playing field I fought with my right brain tied behind my back.
Little did I suspect that our science-class warfare would have a profound impact on my life and my career in wine so many years later. I started down this road to wine appreciation, and ultimately the road to my wise-ass epiphany, the night my wife announced at dinner, “Tonight we’re going to try a bottle of Macon-Lugny.”
I thought, “A bottle of what? I’m not drinking anything called make-a-loogey.”
I studied the bottle and being the astute observer that I am, declared, “Hey, this isn’t the cheap Portuguese rosé we usually drink.”
“Haven’t you heard?” she said, “As we mature our tastes become more sophisticated. It’s time we started drinking cheap Chardonnay from France!”
I was fascinated by the experience and was soon exploring more wine with repulsive names from far off places. I read voluminous works on the subject, attended countless wine tastings, and amassed a cellar full of Premier Cru Bordeaux. (FYI: Premier Cru is a French classification term and does not refer to the best employees on a cruise ship.)
One day while perusing our credit card statement my wife remarked that my wine hobby would probably cost less if I just bought a liquor store. So I left my lucrative Manhattan partnership, cashed in my 401K and bought a wine store in Ridgewood, New Jersey. I knew nothing about running a retail business; I was simply an avid wine enthusiast with a belly full of ambition … or maybe it was Amarone.
I soon learned the old adage is true; it’s easy to make a small fortune in the wine business, providing you start with a large fortune. And even though I’ve earned a decent living in the wine trade, I could never be accused of being under the affluence of alcohol.
I attained a Higher Certificate with distinction from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and became certified with high honors by the Sommelier Institute of New Jersey. If you haven’t already figured it out, sommelier is a French term that means “drunken know-it-all.” Now that I think about it, all of my friends must be sommeliers. Today, some thirty years after it all began, I think it’s safe to say that wine is in my blood. In fact, just last night this was confirmed by a California state trooper.
When I began work on my much anticipated (or so I naturally assumed) “Guide to Wine Appreciation” I learned my writing was captivatingly dull. I was reminded of the sage advice of Fran Lebowitz who wrote, “Very few people possess true artistic ability … If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.” Three weeks and ten pounds later the feeling did not pass and I returned to my keyboard.
I found myself engaged in a grueling struggle between a ghostly wine scholar perched on my right shoulder, and a wisecracking, preteen wise-ass on the left. Like a dueling angel and devil these two personas slugged it out whenever I sat down to write.
The erudite sommelier in me would report, “To combat phyloxera, Vitis Vinifera vines were grafted onto American rootstock.” The adolescent wisenheimer in me would counter with, “Rootstock may have saved the great vineyards of Europe, but it’s more commonly known as a three day festival of love and music.”
My well-intentioned friends told me, “Your first duty as a writer is to find your voice.” I’m still trying to learn what the second duty is (more commonly known as number two). “Find your voice and words will pour out like warm Schlitz at a monster truck rally. Your message will come together like day-old grits at an Oklahoma rest stop. Pages will accumulate like broken-down Chevys at a demolition derby.” I decided it was time for action so I immediately stopped hanging out with rednecks.
After looking for my voice on the pages I had written all I wanted to find was a pillow. The only thing that kept me awake was that mischievous 12 year-old voice whispering cynical comments in my ear.
As I labored over the keyboard I found myself daydreaming of my escapades in McCracken’s classroom. I vividly recalled the first day of school and how he pontificated on the merits of teaching seventh grade. He said his was a rewarding job if he could reach just one student, if he made a difference in the life of just one child, if his classroom prepared just one of us for the real world. I gathered my books and stood up to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” He demanded.
“I’m going to the cafeteria,” I replied, “since you only plan on teaching one of us.”
My witticism stirred the attention of Caroline Hufnagel in the front row, but McCracken didn’t appreciate my cynical charm and it earned me a chair in the corner for the remainder of the class. Incidentally this seat offered a better angle for studying Caroline Hufnagel’s health and anatomy.
Eventually the subject matter moved on to the digestive system. McCracken explained how our stomach was like a furnace. It burned the fuel we ate to produce energy. The parts that couldn’t be used were like the ashes in a furnace which our bodies discarded. You would have thought I had learned to keep quiet by now, but that little voice was persistent. I raised my hand, and when he could find no one else to call on McCracken reluctantly asked, “Yes Carter, what is it this time?”
With mock sincerity I asked, “When our body discards the ash, does it go out through the ash hole?”
You know some people just don’t have a sense of humor. That crack cost me three days in detention and dashed any hopes I had of marrying Caroline Hufnagel.
Later, McCracken pulled me aside and uttered the words that would eventually transform my life. “Carter,” he said, “You’re a wise-ass. You always have been and you always will be.”
Sometimes it takes years for words of wisdom to sink in, and as I reminisced about Mr. McCracken and what he said to me so many years ago I realized, I had found my voice. It just so happens, my voice is the sarcastic voice of a seventh grade wise-ass. If you’re out there Mr. McCracken I want you to know that you did reach one student, you did make a difference in the life of one child, and your classroom did prepare me for the real world. You were the stone that sharpened my wit and honed my sarcastic writing approach so many years ago. When I finally accepted that fact, when I finally embraced that truth, I became the snarky writer I am today.
Today when I’m writing and the wisecracks are freely flowing, my wife Caroline may pause to read over my shoulder. “You are such a wise-ass.” she usually says. “You haven’t changed a bit since we met in McCracken’s class.”