Sunday, August 21, 2016

Games of summer

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio will end today, and presumably the United States will earn another gold medal in men's basketball if it can defeat Serbia.

As I write this blog early this morning, the United States has currently hauled down 43 gold medals and a total of 116 gold, silver and bronze, making it one of the more spectacular hauls in recent Games.

Amazingly, Sports Illustrated predicted two weeks ago that the U.S. would end up with 45 golds and 118 total medals. Wow.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick glance of previous medal counts to see how this year stacks up. In the 2012 London games, the U.S. brought in 46 golds and 103 total medals, with China in second place with 38 gold and 88 total totems.

In the Beijing Games in 2008, China led the way with 51 gold and 100 total medals, while the U.S. followed with 36 gold and 110 total charms.

And in the Athens Games in 2004, the United States had 36 gold and 101 total medals, while China had 32 gold and 63 total medals.

I think the thing that surprised me the most about those numbers was how consistent they were over the years. This year, it felt like the United States was minting gold medals left and right. But as we go into the last day of the 2016 Games, the U.S. still hasn't quite reached its 2012 gold strike total.

I've watched the Games off and on for the past two weeks, even stealing a few minutes of TV time at work to watch water polo, volleyball or badminton, which are sports you would never catch me watching if I was in my right mind (then again, I'm inexplicably a big curling fan whenever the Winter Games are on). Late one afternoon, I watched someone named Helen Louise Maroulis win a gold medal in freestyle bantamweight wrestling. She defeated somebody who'd lost like three times in the previous 14 years. I didn't even know there were women wrestlers. Didn't matter. Yay, I thought, because the USA had another gold.

There were a few down moments, of course. U.S. women's soccer goalie Hope Solo irrationally called the Swedes "cowards" after Sweden eliminated the U.S. in a shootout. Shut up, Hope. You lost. Get over it. Geez. And swimmer Ryan Lochte showing us what an Ugly American looks like after drunkenly vandalizing a public restroom and then basically blaming the host country for his actions. Shut up, Ryan. You're an idiot. Get over it. Geez.

There's other stuff outside the Olympics going on, too.

I really enjoy watching the Little League World Series because it's fun to see pint-sized ball players play the game so well.

Did I say pint-sized? One team has a 12-year-old pitcher who stands 6 feet tall and chucks a 75 mph fastball 46 feet away from home plate. I'm 5-6 and can't even see a fastball. I admire their youth as they stand on the verge of adulthood. I like their panache. I like their talent. And I love their boundless joy in victory and their humility in defeat while still in their formative years, when all of that really means something.

All in all, it's been a pretty good summer.






Sunday, August 14, 2016

My Russia problem

About the same week that the Democratic National Committee determined that Russia was likely lurking behind its email hack, I found something interesting right here on my very own blog site.

There's a page on my blog platform devoted to statistics. If the numbers are to be believed, I get to see how many readers I have at this very minute, or on any given day, or any given week, or any given month, and for all time.

The numbers page even lets me know from which country the page views originate. It does that by coloring in a country in deep green on a world map on the page. I assume the minute a viewer from a country looks at my blog, that country turns green.

I have some suspicion about the accuracy of this worldwide viewer count, but, hey, I'm an old sports writer and statistics fascinate me. I'm horrible in anything mathematical — the right side of my brain just doesn't compute this stuff — but I love calculating batting averages, points per game, or yards per carry. That's about the only math I really understand. I get it, as they say.

But a week or so ago, I was looking over the statistics page on my blog platform. For some reason, I was getting a big bump in viewership. Best as I can remember, this came about the time I wrote about my air conditioner conking out.

So I looked on the statistical map. There it was: Russia was green. And not just green, but deep green. See for yourself:

What do the Russians want?
For that week, I had something like 300 page views from Russia, and 1,175 page views from Russia for the month.

I was getting more views from Russia than I was from the United States.

Wow.

The last time I had a country seriously interested in my blog, it was France, and I had written about trying to lose some weight.

Now Russia. Interested in my air conditioning?

Because this happened about the time of the DNC hack revelation, it made me wonder if I'd been hacked by Ivan. Coincidence? I mean, do I really have a serious readership in Moscow? I have no friends or relatives that I know of currently in Russia (although I do have a brother who lives in Alaska. He can see Russia from his back porch). What else can it be? Do the Russians really want to read about my 1966 Mustang, Underhill Rose or the Blue Eyed Bettys? What other conclusion can I draw from this?

Maybe the Russians somehow are using my blog as a conduit for hacking other organizations. Now that I think about it, they might be the ones sending me text messages on my cell phone saying "How quickly can u get here. He gone now." (That would actually make me feel better if it was indeed the Russians behind it. It might be code).

Or maybe I'm being just a little paranoid about this. Maybe there's nothing more behind this than some guy in Kiev accidentally came across my blog, read it, enjoyed it, and told 1,174 of his friends about it. Yeah, that's it.

What else could it be?



Sunday, August 7, 2016

My friends put on a play

I just saw something that I can't believe my eyes just saw.

I saw something resembling muppets playing a fiddle, a banjo and a guitar.

No, really.

It all happened in a musical play called "The Tourist Trap," sponsored by The Peppercorn Theater at the Children's Museum of Winston-Salem and it was held in the cozy Hanesbrands Theatre on Spruce Street.

So it's off, off, off, off, way off Broadway.

But that doesn't mean it isn't worth your consideration.

The musical performers in this production are The Blue Eyed Bettys, who wrote the music for the hourish-long performance. The Bettys, as I call them, are a trio of talented actors/musicians who include Ben Mackel on guitar, Daniel Emond on banjo and Sarah Hund on fiddle (see here).

Without revealing the storyline too much, it's about a couple who gets waylaid by car trouble, possibly in ultrarural Georgia. The rest requires suspending — or, as I like to think, expanding— belief.

What is truly astounding about the play is the incredible logistics behind it. The three musicians play their own instruments, but do so with muppet-type puppets attached to their hands and arms. And in order to make the puppets seem real — to open and close their mouths or shake their heads — they are manipulated by humans who might as well have been attached to the Bettys at birth.

The Blue Eyed Bettys, their puppet characters, and their puppeteers.
 The puppeteers are essentially human shadows. It's constricting, it's constraining, it's claus-trophobic — and it's amazing.

"It wasn't easy and it's taken a lot of practice," understated Sarah, whose puppeteer was Bailey Gray Smith. Maria Ortiz shadowed Ben, and Cameron Newton was glued to Daniel.

I saw what I saw and I still can't believe it. How could the Bettys play their instruments? How could they sing in character? How could they move from here to there without tripping over their own personal puppeteer?

How come we don't see this type of stuff on the real Broadway?

There were other marvels. The stage sets were mobile and imaginative. The very fact that the sets were moved into position as the play continued was fascinating. It's actually a very physical production.

And the music was wonderful. If you are familiar with the original work of The Blue Eyed Bettys, the kind they perform in bars, bistros and backyards, you'd have no trouble recognizing the musicianship or the tight harmonies here. It doesn't take much for The Bettys to have their way with you once they get into your head. Literally and figuratively.

(Click here to see the puppets play instruments).

I don't mean to get too carried away by what I saw today. It is, after all, a show geared to children (although Sarah did say that it seems the adults in the audience appear to come away with more of an appreciation for the performance than the kids).

But it is worth an hour of your time. It's a lot of fun. And you won't believe what you just saw.

The play is based on the book and lyrics by John Bowhers and is directed by Harry Poster. The puppet direction is by Scottie Rowell. Other performers in the show include Karen Neitz, Andre Minkins, Hana Kristofferson, J. Andrew Speas and Simone Pommels.

The production continues until Aug. 14, with shows at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. The cost is pay as you can.




Sunday, July 31, 2016

My email probem

Sometimes it's amazing how life imitates ... life.

The other day my flip phone (I'm a dinosaur) buzzed, and I answered it.

It was a text message.

I usually don't do text messages, figuring it's a lot more efficient just to talk into the damn phone instead of thumbing alphabet characters in some kind of pseudo shorthand that denigrates everything I've been taught about grammar and spelling.

But, hey. That's just me.

Still, I occasionally get excited by receiving text messages, which I figure are something akin to emails from my cell phone. Most of the texts I get are from our young family neighbors across the street who are inviting us dinosaurs over for another porch party.

Oh, boy.

But this particular text was different. It wasn't from our neighbors. In fact, I think it was a wrong number text, because this is what it said:

"How quick can u get here. He gone now"

Holy crap.

I had to read it twice before I read it a third time. I didn't recognize the phone number of the sender. Whaa...? I read the message to Kim.

Then I deleted it. I deleted it as fast as I could. Gone. Trash can.

Except, in a sense, I couldn't delete this one. It stayed in my mind. Who was that calling? Is there some kind of an affair going on, or is it something perfectly innocent, like, I'm late, I've got a flat tire, so hurry. I decided there was nothing innocent about it at all. In fact, it sounded incredibly urgent.

The fact that the text came to me instead of its intended target is also a bit troubling. I'm assuming the intended never got the message. How does that bode for that relationship, especially if the intended doesn't get there quick enough ... if at all? The fact that I got the message might suggest the sender was overly eager and carelessly misdialed. Why wasn't the intended on speed dial? Well, that won't work because if the cell phone is found by the partner, then what is this unfamiliar-but-incriminating speed dial number about?

Man, this is complicated.

Sounds like government work.

I'd like to say this whole episode is precisely why I don't do texting because of the unintended consequences that hide camouflaged in the ether, but I'm not that smart.

Mostly, I'm just lazy. And maybe that's good enough.







Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cool it

Bear with me as I write this blog post. I might be a little crazy with the heat.

All day Friday I was looking forward to coming home from work. That's because the five-story building in which I'm employed was having its air-conditioning chillers, located on the roof, under maintenance.

And that meant our portion of the building — the "new" building — was more than just a little uncomfortable as nearly the entire country swelters under an unmoving high pressure heat dome during the third week of July.

Uncomfortable? Workers on several floors had their overhead lights turned off in an effort to reduce ambient heat. It was like a ghost town where even the ghosts were trying to cool off. Fans popped up in every cubicle or aisle.

One of my colleagues was wearing shorts and a golf shirt. Can you imagine, ever, a banker wearing shorts to work? Even PGA golfers don't wear shorts when they work. But a professional banker? "Come into my office," he explained. "It's 93 degrees in there."

Several departments were thankfully dismissed to go home around mid afternoon.

I happen to work in the windowless basement of the building. Most of my lights were off. I had two fans blowing on me all afternoon. It was survivable. But I still looked forward to going home.

But when I walked through the front door of my house, I could tell something wasn't right.

It was warm. Toasty, even.

"Oh, no," I thought to myself, and went to check the thermostat. It was 81 degrees in the house. The central air fan was running, but it wasn't cooling.

Great.

There could be several things going on here. Our system is probably about 20 years old and not necessarily energy efficient for our quaint two-story house, which is approaching 100 years old. I think our system is probably too small to properly heat or cool the 1,700-square foot building.

Or it could be that we simply need a new (flux?) capacitor. Or belt.

Or maybe there's something expensively wrong.

I'll call the repair specialists tomorrow, which means we'll be somewhere around No. 100 on their list of service calls and they might get to us by Thursday. That's fine. Kim and I have a 16-inch oscillating fan we used back in the early years of our un-air conditioned marriage, so sweating profusely in our own home will be kind of nostalgic for us (See? I am crazy with the heat). Several of our rooms also have ceiling fans, which do a good job of simulating a breeze and moving the hot air around from here to there.

So we'll make do, just like people in the South did 100 years ago before Willis Carrier changed the world: Accordion fans from the funeral parlor. Mint juleps. A damp handkerchief to wipe our brows.

Ahh, that's the life...




Sunday, July 17, 2016

Weight, weight, don't tell me

The day after I turned 65 years old I joined the YMCA, having learned that I just became eligible for the Silver Sneakers exercise program.

I needed it. I'm only 5-foot-6, but I checked in at well over 200 pounds.

Not good.

So I started my own unsupervised exercise regimen, mostly working out on two different types of low impact bicycle machines each morning.

The machines are computerized (for the lack of a better term), and before you begin each session, you enter your weight and age on the touch pad. I assume this somehow calibrates the machine to determine how many calories or how much mileage you personally burn during each workout.

On some machines, the hand grips are sensitively designed to capture your heart rate, if you need that information.

I don't know how the machines know this stuff. And maybe they really don't, but I'm believing the readouts are somewhat accurate because it's good for my psyche while I'm pedaling my butt off and the sweat drips into my eyes.

When I first started on the machines, I was tickled to burn 300 total calories in a session, which usually lasts about 90 minutes. But over time, as I got used to the exercise, I significantly increased my pedal resistance and thus my calorie burn.

On Saturday, I reached a new personal goal. I burned off 1,000 calories in about two hours. Between the two machines, I pedaled 22 miles, which might be the equivalent of riding a real bicycle to Thomasville and back again.

I cool down after each workout with 10 minutes in the whirlpool and 10 minutes in the sauna, of which the sauna, for some reason, makes me feel like I'm in Norway. Norwegian wood, I guess. Hey, I have an active imagination.

Anyway, I'm starting to get results where you can't deny the numbers. I now weigh in the 180s (which means I'm about halfway to where I want to be), and I've dropped at least one pants size.

I've coupled this daily exercise with a reasonable diet, thanks to my wife. Kim has been following her own diet plan through Slim Solutions, and while I don't do the supplements, my meals are the healthy meals that Kim prepares.

It all seems to be working.

There was a time when I once weighed 155 pounds (I was also 5-7 back then, before gravity and spinal compression got me) and wore 32s. I may never see those numbers again, but at least I feel like I'm headed in the right direction.



Sunday, July 10, 2016

1966 Mustang redux

The email startled me because it was so unexpected.

After my wife, Kim, and I finally sold our beloved 1966 Mustang convertible a little more than a year ago, we thought that was that. I mean, the car had been a good friend. We'd had it 19 years and we slowly brought it back to near factory specifications — we rebuilt the eight cylinder 289 engine, rebuilt the transmission, put on a new ragtop, rechromed the bumpers, and basically gave it a complete frame-up restoration and high quality paint job.

It was a beautiful car. So beautiful, in fact, that we were reluctant to put it on the road for fear of getting it damaged.

Consequently, it was doing no good sitting undriven in storage. So, as we entered our silver years, we made the difficult decision to downsize and sell it. We shipped it to Streetside Classic in Charlotte, an auto consignment operation who finally sold it to a buyer in ... Maidstone, Kent, England. (Please see here).


Our old 1966 Mustang, in Newcastle, with its UK license plate. Sigh.
Wow! That was cool. I never really considered it going overseas. But, clearly, it was going to have a good home. It could still speak English.

And we really thought that was the end of the story.

Until Friday morning, when I woke up and checked my emails. There was a message from a fellow named Phil, who said he'd just purchased my old Mustang from a guy in Kent and was about to drive it 340 miles north, about the length of England, to Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Whaaaa....?

Usually, I'm a little bit leery about unexpected emails. Most of the ones I get are unsolicited and they tell me they are from some financially strapped royalty languishing in some third-world nation and I can have a percentage of their embargoed treasure if I give them my checking account number.

But as Phil explained to me in his email, he purchased the car when it was put up for sale because the guy in Maidstone had hip problems and couldn't drive it.

Oh, my.

And Phil, as it turns out, owns a business called Northumbria Classic Car Hire (see here, click on "Our Cars" and then click on "1966 Ford Mustang Convertible"). He bought the Mustang (I still have to fight the urge to call it "our" Mustang) to add to his collection of 10 or so European classics that he hires out for special occasions, like weddings, parades, etc).

The Mustang now shares garage time with Jaguar E-Types, an Austin Healy, MGB's and who knows what else.

Uh-oh.
 Just to make sure of all this, I looked up Northumbria Classic Car Hire on Facebook and, presto, there were several pictures of our ... I mean, the old Mustang, already on display at a streetside car show in Newcastle. It is surrounded by happy faces who appreciate American metal.

Somebody over there has already written a blog about the car, complete with pictures (Please select "July 9" here).

Holy smokes.

I even checked out Phil on Facebook, found him, wrote him a message and put in a friend request, which he accepted. Phil is now my first overseas friend. He's already trying to lure me to England by allowing me a free day of driving in my old Mustang (Well, I did drive it for 19 years. If we go, I might ask to motor a right-handed drive Jaguar XKE instead).

My only concern in all of this is that Newcastle Upon Tyne (which is close to the border with Scotland and boasts of nearby Hadrian's Wall) is a seacoast town heavy with salt air. Mustangs were notorious for rusting (Rustangs), but I suspect Phil knows this and the car no doubt rests in climate controlled comfort.

All in all, I feel really good about all of this. The car has found an incredible new life in its iconic status, still drawing admiring glances when it hits the road, and I know it will be treated with care. It makes me smile and a little bit proud.

Kim and I celebrated its latest resurrection with a six-pack of Newcastle Brown Ale, which I'd never had before. To me, it's kind of like a little brother to Guinness. I liked it.

So cheers. Here's to the unexpected.