Sunday, December 10, 2017

Christmas presence

This was Kim's idea actually.

I didn't know what I wanted to write about for today's blog, but whatever it was, I wanted it to be seasonal.

"Why don't you write about the kind of toys you got for Christmas as a child compared to what kids are getting today?" she suggested.

Hmmm. Not bad. Seasonal. Nostalgic. Current. Kim has always been my best editor. This one had potential.

The funny thing about most of the Christmas toys I got as a kid...I don't remember asking for. Remember, we're talking mid-1950's here, so I was probably asking for things like Red Ryder BB rifles (I never got one for fear of shooting my eye out) or Hopalong Cassidy pistols and holsters (I did get a Lone Ranger set of cap pistols, including a really bad red cowboy hat with white stitching — but no chaps).

I vaguely remember going to Hess's Department Store in Allentown, going up to the third floor and sitting on Santa's lap (uh-oh). That's where I got to ask for stuff.

Remember Tinkertoys?
I think my first bicycle (with trainer wheels) showed up at Christmas, even though it was winter and there was likely snow on the ground. Curiously, I actually don't remember asking for a bicycle, but maybe I did.

Other toys I never asked for turned out to be classic. Santa brought Tinkertoys one year, and that was of some casual interest for me. I'd build these creations that had no resemblance to reality and then ask my parents how they liked the airplane I just made. Yeah. Tinkertoys.

In the same vein, there were Lincoln Logs. I can't tell you how many cabins I built. They all looked the same.

Slinkys. Play-doh. Super balls (these were the toys my dad got into). Turns out there was a limit to how many times I could watch my Slinky walk down the stairs. Or reproduce the newspaper comics on my Play-doh before I maniacally stretched them into absurdist art.

Or plastic cinder blocks?
There were also plastic snap-together building blocks — they may have been a variation of Legos — that looked like cinder blocks. I'd put together something that looked like a one-room house, deconstruct it, then put it back together again. That was fun. For a while.

 I think that was the year I got a battery powered Remco Bulldog army tank that shot plastic shells. I created war scenes with my building blocks, then have the tank crash through the war-torn house, just like in the news reels I saw of World War II, which had ended just a decade or so earlier.

I don't know if there was a theory of child rearing behind these diversions. Both the Tinkertoys and the building blocks suggest the development of imagination, hand-eye coordination and creativity.

It was all pretty vocational, looking back on it. Maybe I could have become a carpenter or a brick mason. But I became a sportswriter instead, even though I never asked for a typewriter. Clearly, something went horribly wrong.

Looks real, huh? I refought World War II with this toy.
 The army tank could have sent me into a military career and the Lone Ranger pistols could have directed me into law enforcement (or cattle herding). I don't know.

Kim and I don't have children of our own, so our gift buying is limited to a couple of nieces. That usually has meant jewelry or personal grooming items. Girl stuff. Hard for me to relate.

But just looking around me, it appears kids today are getting iPhones and computers and other electronics that I could have never imagined back in my childhood. The skills needed to operate these devices are the skills they'll need in the real world, so in the end, I guess nothing has really changed.

We're still getting lost in the fun of it all.

What gifts didn't you ask for?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Fitness phase

For the longest time, I had it in my head that the only two places in town to get some serious exercise done was the J. Smith Young YMCA and Accelerate Fitness (previously Forum Fitness) on Talbert Boulevard.

When I say "serious," I mean the works: the weight machines, the free weights, the exercise machines (like treadmills, recumbent bicycles, etc), Zumba and yoga rooms and personalized service.

I was actually a sporadic member of The Forum for a while. I even bought a book to show me how to use the machines and chart my progress. I wasn't intent on becoming muscle bound — I just wanted to be able to open ketchup bottles. 

I'm sure there might have been other places around, but I just never saw them. The Y and the Forum were the high profile outlets. I'm sure somebody could have been working out in a small cubby hole in some strip mall or in a church basement or perhaps even pumping iron on their front porch.

Then, two years ago, I turned 65 and that made me eligible to join Silver Sneakers, a program offered by the Y along with my health care provider. I don't pay a penny out of pocket. Just sign your name and start sweating. It's a great deal.

Almost as soon as I joined the Y, things started happening around town (I'm not implying that I had anything to do with that). The old Farmers' Co-op on First Street was being updated to house the state-of-the-art City Fitness and that was causing some excitement with the workout crowd.

About the same time (maybe earlier), CrossFit Hog Town opened (I get the idea behind identifying Lexington with hogs, but it still paints a picture for me of overly corpulent people roaming the streets looking for barbecue). Anyway, CrossFit was operating out of a small facility on Church Street and is now in the process of moving to its brand new building on South Main, which no doubt will increase its exposure.

A few months ago a rumor floated around town that a Planet Fitness was coming. And, indeed, work is underway at its Plaza Parkway location just off Highway 8. In fact, I got a flyer in the mail yesterday letting me know that I could join Planet Fitness for 25 cents down and $10 per month. Wow.

Suddenly, Lexington was becoming the capital of straining grunts and groans. Not bad for a city with a population (according to the 2010 census) of 18,931. The rapid appearance of all these calorie burners would suggest that not only about 17,000 of us need to be doing jumping jacks, but there's a real market for it.

Curiously enough, about the same time all these exercise meccas are going up, so are some new bakeries. Huh?

We already had iconic Fancy Pastry, but within the last two years — about the time of Lexington's fitness explosion  — we not only got a Bagel Shop, but Red Donuts. We also picked up a bakery called Sinfully Delicious, which is almost directly next to Fancy Pastry. And now I see where there's another bakery getting ready to open on North Main Street, opposite a convenience store/gas station that offers Dunkin Donuts.

That's not to forget the near frenzy we had in Lexington of finally getting a Chick-Fil-A a month ago.

 I don't know. Maybe Hog Town works after all.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Beatles

When Ron Howard's "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years" first came out in theaters a year ago, I had every intention of seeing it.

But for some reason, I never did.

Then a friend on Facebook issued a general alert to make sure not to miss "Eight Days a Week" on PBS last night. I set my DVR, but even in the middle of my college football frenzy, I ended up watching the program in real time as it aired.

Oh my gosh. It was like shedding 50 years. I was suddenly 13 again and back in the seventh grade.

And almost immediately, I was astounded by the footage, much of which I'd never seen before. As a longtime Beatles fanatic, that's not an easy thing for me to say. I've read most of the books. I've seen most of the documentaries. I've got the Beatles on vinyl and on CDs.

But this was different. Much of the footage was in color (colour?). The audio coming out of my TV was surprisingly sensational. The commentary was fresh and new.

If the truth be told, I almost missed the original Beatles party. Yeah (yeah, yeah), our family watched their highly hyped debut on The Ed Sullivan Show that cold February night, and laughed at their hair and wondered what the world was coming to. Dad was into barbershop quartets and mom was into show tunes. I was in transition.

But when I went to school the next day, my world had changed. Girls (I was just discovering them) could talk of nothing else. I think I was jealous. Clearly, the Beatles were a girl thing. I didn't know it yet, but this was a looming paradigm shift in my life.

Then it turned out that a girl I liked liked the Beatles, too. So we listened to them on her record player. My toes kept time. I listened to the lyrics. The seed had been planted. They were all over the (transistor) radio anyway, so I was hearing their new material as it was being released. By high school, I was no longer buying Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass albums. The first Beatles album I bought for myself was the White Album. I spent the next year or so catching up and hoping that no one would notice.

"Eight Days a Week" made me feel like I was still catching up, but it also brought back some great memories. I think I spent most of the night with a silly smile on my face, keeping time with my toes and listening to the lyrics. Again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

This one is just for fun:

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I noticed one of my friends had posted a picture of George Harrison's original lyrics for "Here Comes the Sun," which happens to be one of my all time favorite Beatle tunes.

"Cool," I said to myself, having never seen that picture of the lyrics before. It looked like it had been written on personalized stationery — even though I knew full well that it had been written in Eric Clapton's garden — and I was amazed by how few crossed out words there were.

It looks like this:

(Click on picture to enlarge)
 Sometimes inspiration is just nearly perfect, I guess.

I was also surprised by how simple the lyrics were. It's amazing how something so uncomplicated can translate into such a great song.

Anyway, I went ahead and googled "Here Comes the Sun" to find out anything else I could about the tune. I was led to Wikipedia.

Yes, it was written in Clapton's garden. Yes, it was written in April, 1969, after a particularly harsh English winter. Yes, the song helped establish Harrison as an accomplished songwriter, right up there with Lennon and McCartney.

Then I got to the part about the song's musical structure.

Holy smokes.

It read something like this:

"The song is in the key of A major. The main refrain uses a IV (D chord) to V-of-V (B chord) progression (the reverse of that used in "Eight Days a Week" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"). The melody in the verse and refrain basically follows the pentatonic scale from E up to C♯ (scale steps 5, 6, 1, 2, 3).

"One feature is the increasing syncopation in the vocal parts. Another feature is the guitar flat-picking that embellishes the E7 (V7) chord from 2:03 to 2:11, creating tension for resolution on the tonic A chord at "Little darlin' ". The bridge involves a ♭III-♭VII-IV-I-V7 triple descending 4th (or Tri-Plagal) progression (with an extra V7) as the vocals move from "Sun" (♭III or C chord) to "sun" (♭VII or G chord) to "sun" (IV or D chord) to "comes" (I or A chord) and the additional 4th descent to a V7 (E7) chord. The lyric here ("Sun, sun, sun, here it comes") has been described as taking "on the quality of a meditator's mantra". The song also features extreme 4/4 (in the verse) and a sequence of 11/8 + 4/4 + 7/8 (which can also be transcribed as 11/8 + 15/8) in the bridge, phrasing interludes which Harrison drew from Indian music influences. In the second verse (0:59–1:13) the Moog synthesizer doubles the solo guitar line and in the third verse the Moog adds an obbligato line an octave above. The last four bars (2:54–3:04) juxtapose the guitar break with a repeat of the bridge."

Suddenly, I'm wondering if that's what was really running through Harrison's head as he was writing the tune. It reads more like a scientific equation for a trip to Alpha Centauri. I always figured a composer strummed guitars or pounded keyboards to coax the song out of his head until he found what sounded good. What do I know?

Maybe the Beatles really were geniuses after all.

Although I know next to nothing about music except how to listen to it, I've often been fascinated by the songwriting process and how songs are created and arranged. One of these days I may ask one of my songwriter friends about this and how the process works for them. I hope it involves guitar frets and not logarithms.

In the meantime:

Sunday, November 12, 2017

LSB reunion

The best thing about any reunion is seeing the people that you interacted with all those X number of years ago.

Ahh, there's Martha. My goodness, how her hair has changed. And there's George. He's put on a few pounds over the years. And remember Paul? He was always so quiet, but he sure tore the place up last night. Didn't know he could dance like that.

That's how most reunions go, it seems.

But last night was a little different when nearly 100 former employees of Lexington State Bank gathered upstairs in the main dining hall of Yarborough's Restaurant for no other reason than to get together again.

Some reminders of what once was.*
 The primary focus was to celebrate and remember the LSB years (1949 to 2007), when the local business was truly a local institution, helping to drive and grow a predominantly blue collar community. So mostly former LSB employees, like my wife, who worked there 31 years, filled the hall. A few NewBridge Bankers like me — I worked there six years as a part-timer — managed to sneak in for some beef tenderloin and fried mushrooms, as well as the memories. (LSB became NewBridge Bank after a merger with Greensboro-based FNB Southeast in 2007).

So for an hour or so, people mingled and reminisced, laughed and cried, hugged and embraced. It was pretty cool.

Bob Lowe, the longtime chairman and CEO (for whom my wife was the administrative assistant), then gave a few opening remarks. He pointed out that very few people could have foreseen how much banking has changed in the last five years compared to the previous 50 years, and it was a point well taken.

Then former bank president Frank Sherron followed with a few remarks, highlighting what it was that made LSB so special to the local furniture-making community.

"Some people say LSB is gone," said Sherron, whose father, Haynes, was the well-respected chairman and CEO prior to Lowe. "But I take exception to that."

Sherron then went on not only to recall some of the highlights of the good ol' days, but to suggest that LSB's legacy still lingers. He reached deep into the past, pointing out the bank, founded by Dr. J. A. Smith, was first located on the square next to Conrad & Hinkle. Dr. Smith, it turned out, gave away Life Savers to children as a way to promote "saving" money.

The LSB reunion brought a large turnout of former employees.*
 Then there were the stair steps at the teller line for children to climb so they could conduct their banking. The memories started to cascade: all those joyful Christmas parades; creating Christmas club savings accounts "which allowed many people to have Christmas," said Sherron; or equity lines, "which helped people start businesses, or buy homes or cars or put their children through school." Sherron also noted that LSB was the pacesetter in several United Way campaigns and that the bank also contributed to the J. Smith Young YMCA as well as other organizations for the benefit of the community.

He hit the nail on the head. Yes, LSB is long gone. What exists now is a corporate entity that has virtually consumed itself in identity-stealing mergers and loss of connection.

What remains — as evident last night — is a sense of self. A sense of family.

*Photos by Angela Sams.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Help me, I'm shrinkingggg

I had my annual physical examination on Friday, and I'm happy to report that everything checked out A-OK.

(A-OK? Who says that anymore? I guess that's a time-warp burp there. Excuse me).

Pulse? Check.

Weight? Yep.

Temperature? I'm still cool after all these years. Or hot. Depends on your point of view.

A-fib?  Constantly.

There was one disconcerting moment, though, as the assistant was putting me through my pre-physical paces. She had me step on the scale, not only to weigh me, but to measure me.

I'm 65 inches tall. That translates to 5-foot-5.


Apparently, I'm shrinking. I clearly remember that back in high school, when I was 18 years old, I was 5-7.

Look, being under the national height average for men (which I think was around 5-8 or so back in 1969) never bothered me. A non-issue. The only time I can remember being short as a liability was during my sports writing days while conducting post-game interviews in cramped ACC locker rooms. I tended to be squeezed out of the way by the shuffling gaggle of burly cameramen from local news stations, who needed to get those up close and personal shots.

Being 5-7 also kept me about three inches taller than my wife — not that it means anything. I just happen to think the difference in height is good eye appeal for a married couple. But I am an inch shorter now. Maybe that just means we're closer to seeing things eye to eye.

I asked my doctor if losing two inches in height from 18 years old to 66 years old is normal, and he suggested that it's within the realm of acceptance.

But I figure I'm doomed to shrinkage by my very DNA. My grandmother on my father's side — Charlotte — lived to be 98 years old. Over the last 10 years of her life or so, she lived in the Phoebe Home (an assisted care facility) in Allentown, PA. Every time we headed north on vacation, Kim and I would stop to pay her a visit.

And every year, she seemed to get shorter. It was an amazing thing to see.

I'm aware of the effects of gravity over the course of time, and spinal compression and any other factors that might be out there acting like a trash compactor on us, but I swear to you just as I (barely) stand here, she was less than five feet tall the last time we saw here. I bet she lost three or four inches over time.

I once kidded her that she was never going to die. Instead, one day she would just simply disappear. I think it really was a close call at the end.

So I'll just accept the cards dealt to me. There are no plans for spinal inversion therapy or hanging from my ankles in the closet. I'll just sit back, relax, and let the world come to me.

It'll be a shorter trip these days.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

So long, Salley

Maybe it's because I'm retired and had nothing else productive to do with my free time, but I became something in my old age I never thought would happen:

I became a band groupie.

My wife and I have been following Underhill Rose, a remarkably talented female Americana trio out of Asheville, since 2011.

Coincidentally, that was the year Molly Rose Reed and Eleanor Underhill — the group's founders — became a trio when they added Salley Williamson to the mix. Salley brought her harmonious third voice to the band, along with her upright bass named "Pearl", and bingo, the girls were blazing new horizons.

They made beautiful music together, what with Molly on guitar, Eleanor on banjo and harmonica (Sometimes at the same time. I still don't know how she does that) and Salley providing a steady and reliable bass line.

From left: Molly, Kim, myself, Eleanor and Salley. Sigh...
 Better yet, even though we'd see them perhaps just two or three times a year, we became friends. They knew us by name, occasionally dedicate a song to us, and once, Kim and I gladly opened our home to one of the girls for a night's lodging.

It was great times and we thought it would last forever.

But unless you are the Rolling Stones, nothing lasts forever. I knew that. Life steps in. Touring is difficult, the hours are insufferable. In addition to playing in a band, Salley is also the development and communications manager for Open Hearts Arts Center for differently-abled adults in Asheville. She also runs an active farm, raising sheep and hogs, so clearly her plate is overflowing. How she managed to play in a traveling band for six years is actually pretty mind-boggling when you think about it.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when Underhill Rose announced about a week or so ago that Salley was leaving. Their show Friday night at the acoustically perfect Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem would be Salley's last with the band. Bring Kleenex.

Nothing was going to keep Kim and myself from this concert. The girls played for two hours without a set break, effortlessly gliding from one tune to the next, stopping only to tell stories about Salley and what she meant to the team. Just before the encore, I handed Salley a long-stem red rose from Kim and myself in gratitude for the six years of joy she brought to us. I hope we were representing all of her fans.

There's one other thing to note here. About two thirds of the way through the show, the girls put down their instruments, stepped up to their mics, and sang the old blues ballad "Trouble in Mind" strictly a cappella, except for snapping their fingers to the downbeat (which also got the audience involved). I'd been wanting to hear them sing something a cappella for years simply because their hallmark harmonies are so gorgeous. And indeed, I felt like I was standing at the gates of heaven as they sang. Angels, maybe.

For the encore, they performed "Something Real," but they did it unplugged. No amps. No monitors. No soundboard. It was like sitting around the campfire. What an awesome moment. I can only hope they incorporate some of this experience in future shows for their fans to enjoy as we did that night.

It also occurred to me this would be the last time we'd hear three-part harmony like this for a while. It's not like Molly and Eleanor are putting an ad in the paper looking for an upright bassist. Underhill Rose performed as a duo two years before Salley joined, and now Molly and Eleanor will go back to their roots for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, we'll wish Salley all the best. She gave depth and breadth to the group's sound, and we'll miss her.

Where's my Kleenex?