Looking back on a half-century of life well wasted, I am truly shocked at how many of the things that kept me up at night did not amount to a hill of beans. Not that they didn’t matter or weren’t consequential in some way, but in how the things I worried myself sick about seemed to just disappear in recollection. Looking back, there are only a handful of times that stick out as those critical moments when I chose to go left when I could have gone right and ended up on a new path. It’s funny how it all seemed so important at the time only to have those crises fade into obscurity, evaporating like fog in the morning sun of hindsight. I fear I have spent too much time sitting on the end of the runway worrying whether my decisions would help me slip the surly bonds of earth and soar or crash and burn on the symbolic ash heap of my personal history. So with a nod toward that aeronautical metaphor, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Brace Position.

This drink was created in 2016 by Scottish bartender Grant Murray of Scotch and Rye who used it to win the United Kingdom’s Cherry Heering National Cocktail Contest. This is an inspired riff on the classic Aviation that caught my eye with a scotch whiskey washed ice technique that reminds me of another Aviation variant I love, the Scotch Violets. Murray says he was inspired to use a smoky scotch to put a local touch on the Aviation base before he realized, “Aviation and smoke don’t mix…in the most literal sense! If you sniff smoke in an airplane, brace yourself. And if you brace yourself for my drink, you’ll enjoy it.” I don’t know if I’m ready for what is to come, but I am truly excited to try this complex twist on a classic cocktail.

Grab your tins and pop in some artisanal ice along with 1/2 an ounce of Ardbeg Ten Year smoky Islay Scotch. Stir this well to coat the ice and strain out the remaining scotch. I like to catch it in a shot glass for personal use later. That done, pop in 1 1/4 ounce of Botanist Islay Gin, 1/2 an ounce of Cherry Heering, 1/3 of an ounce of Creme de Violettes, I chose Rothman & Winter, 1/3 of an ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice and 1/3 of an ounce of simple syrup. Shake well to the beat of “Learn to Fly” by the Foo Fighters before straining into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo Cherry and lemon wheel on a pick before serving with a little humility.

This is right up my alley. I have always been a fan of the Aviation, but find it a little too floral sometimes. Going with the more complex, sweeter Cherry Heering instead of the usual maraschino liqueur grounds it in a really lovely way and that hint of smoky Islay scotch hits me right in my feels.  It adds a depth that improves on the source material without betraying its roots. Really nicely done, all the way around. It is no wonder this one took to the skies to rise above the competition.

It’s been a challenging time, seems like January always is, which got me to thinking. How often do we find ourselves in brace position, waiting for that impact that will change everything? I think the modern term for it is anxiety. I know I am there far too often of late, poised between fight or flight wondering what is going to happen next. It reminds me of another “critical” moment in my life; one of those choices that truly mattered and changed things. I was a teenager in the mid-80’s, recently plucked from a mostly feral existence living it up in South Florida, skipping school and hanging out on the beach to be dropped into small town life in rural Tennessee. I had long hair, beach bum clothes, a bad attitude and an even worse sense of entitlement. I’d lost my identity when they took me out of the sand and was really having trouble dealing with the culture shock. Since this was the height of the Miami Vice era, I was labeled as a drug dealer pretty quickly, even though I had never even been offered drugs until I moved to this small town, but I did not care enough to defend myself. So, I leaned into being anti-social when I wasn’t fighting authority. Naturally, this meant I spent more than my fair share of time either in the office or facing suspension, when I bothered to show up. I had practically dropped out at that point, though my mother had no idea I wasn’t going to school anymore.

Like most of the important moments, I don’t recall how I got there, but I found myself in the office of the guidance counselor for the umpteenth time being asked to explain some transgression. I was all worked up about some perceived slight and, per my modus operandi of the time, I was ready to have a big confrontation and storm out, choosing both fight and flight was kind of my thing. I remember sitting there stewing, just waiting for the moment when my outrage would be most effective. I rolled my eyes, I fiddled with my leather jacket, I even remember, pulling her ashtray across the desk and lighting up a smoke, what can I say it was a different time; then when I was ready to storm out she asked me, “Who is it you miss so much?”

I just sat there, astounded. I remember thinking about how I should walk out those doors and never come back. I remember the dangerous ideation of thinking how I could pop a bunch of pills and then they would all be sorry for how they treated me. I remember the rage roaring inside of me, wanting to scream at her, to punish her for touching my pain. Then I made the cardinal mistake of looking up. My hate-filled eyes met hers and all I saw was compassion. Someone who truly saw me, saw my pain and even though I was just a kid, someone who valued me, someone who cared even though she did not have to. Against all my instincts, I did not fight or fly, I simply gave in. I surrendered and was vulnerable and I cried and cried. Through sobs I told her how it felt to be moved away from my life. I told her about the best friend I had left behind who was the first person I felt like knew me for who I was and loved me anyway. I told her how it felt to be trapped between the person I was and the part I was playing everyday to try to fit in or not fit in, depending on your point of view. All of it just came rushing out and when it was over, she still saw me, still valued me. She respected my pain and my feelings, even if I was being overly dramatic. It was honestly life changing. There were lots of stumbles along the way and I am still working on some things, but that moment turned me from the road I was following and set me on a better one. She took me under her wing and got me involved with the Scholastic Team, drama and other academic pursuits. Four years later, I would be a “respectable” student, an officer in many organizations, a cub scout leader and would graduate voted “Most Likely to Succeed” on my way to my choice of college educations paid for by Scholastic Team scholarships; none of which would have been possible if she hadn’t stopped and shown a rude, smartass kid that he mattered. She gave that kid that the rest of the faculty had written off as a lost cause, the space and grace to make a different call and it changed my life. To this day she remains a trusted mentor and dear friend. Choosing to stay there in her office and admit that I was hurting was one of the hardest things I had done up to that point and it made all the difference.

Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Teenaged me would never have been able to understand that. Adult me, gets it, but still has trouble putting it into practice. So, this week, when I backed myself into a corner ready to fight or fly, I felt that fear. That almost overwhelming desire to retreat into myself, mistaking  anger for strength. I was once again disarmed with love, kindness and validation; I was seen, just like that day in Mrs. Bradford’s office. Seen and loved, in spite of my insecurities. I was not prepared for that. I had not braced for the impact. It is hard to be loved so fiercely. I hope I never forget that again and that we all can remember to show up and be seen. Sometimes having the courage to stay makes all the difference. You stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.