Sunday, September 25, 2016

My past finally catches me

File this last week under "You just can't make this stuff up."

A few days earlier, my cousin — whom I'll call Deb — posted a throwback Tuesday picture of herself on Facebook from nearly 50 years ago. It was an image of her as a flautist in the Liberty (Bethlehem, Pa.) High School marching band. The Grenadier Band.

Standing with her in the photograph was a bandmate, whom I'll call Nanette. I didn't think twice about the picture for a while because, you know, it was pretty innocuous: just a couple of high school chums smiling for the camera. Cute.

Until a little bell started ringing in my head. Wait a minute, it chimed. You went to school with a Nanette. Elementary school. Stevens School, in Fountain Hill. First grade.

Nah. Not possible. So I private messaged Deb, asking her if Nanette ever lived in Fountain Hill, a neighboring community of Bethlehem where I grew up.

Why, yes she did, replied Deb, who is still in contact with Nanette. You're kidding me. The chime became a gong. The only reason that Nanette popped up in my mind at all is that she's perhaps the only person named Nanette that I ever knew.

And I knew her way back in first grade. Sixty years ago.

Consequently, my memories of her are kind of spotty. They might be the first memories that ever took hold in my brain, which explains why they now linger somewhere in the shadows of my synapses and neurons. What I do remember is going to a birthday party at her house. I think. It might have been the first social function I ever attended that included girls. And there was chocolate cake. Why do I remember that detail? I know why. Chocolate cake was important to me then.

Still is. Holy cow.

I have since submitted Nanette a friend request on Facebook, but she has yet to respond. She probably thinks I'm a stalker, but that's OK. I understand. I'd be leery of me, too.

The fact that my cousin is a conduit for all this makes this story even stranger because Deb and I pretty much have just reconnected our own family ties after nearly 50 years or so of invisibility. After my parents and grandparents passed away, I thought all I had left from my family were my brothers.

Not even close. Now I've learned there's a whole extended family of cousins and their children floating around out there. It's a comforting epiphany.

The story would be amazing enough if it ended here, but no. There's more.

On Friday, I was playing around on Facebook when I noticed that I had a friend request — not Nanette — from a guy I'll call Richard. Clear out of the blue. I thought and thought hard about this until it occurred to me that I had gone to school with a guy named Richard back when our family lived in East Hartford, Conn.

Fifth grade. Get outta here.

Richard and I lived just a block or two away from each other. Richard introduced me to Avalon Hill war gaming, and we'd spend countless hours at his house defeating Hitler's Fortress Europa or Napoleon's Waterloo with dice and elimination charts. You know. Normal kid stuff.

To this day, I still have several Avalon Hill war games collecting dust in my closet, now replaced by computer games.

Anyway, I accepted his request and we are friends again.

I asked him how he came to find me and he explained that he somehow tripped across a blog I had written that's hiding out there in Internet land. He knew almost right away that I was me (a concept that I'm still exploring) and put in his request.

So now I'm trying to put this week into perspective. It's hard to get past the "Wow" factor here, but when two blasts from the past rise up out of the mist in the same week, it kind of makes you think. Karma? Kismet? Koincidence?

I don't know. I'm kind of hoping there's not that many long-ago girlfriends out there...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A moment

The other day one of my colleagues at work pointed out to me that the high school class of 2019 — this year's freshmen — is more or less the first class of students not yet to have been born when the brutal horror that is Sept. 11 occurred in 2001.

I let that one rattle around in my head for a moment. It was for me, at once, both a profound and an obvious thought.

I guess the thing that knocked me off stride was the fact that 9/11 happened 15 years ago. Really? It seems like yesterday.
It was a gorgeous Tuesday morning. Autumn was coming. I was already in my work station at The Dispatch, and had been for several hours. The clear blue September sky that we saw in North Carolina that day enhanced the entire eastern seaboard, reaching to lower Manhattan as well.

Then a fellow worker, reading off the Associated Press wire, announced that an airplane apparently had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.

I didn't think much about it at the time. I thought maybe a little Piper Cub or something like that had clipped the building, and went on with my job. There was precedent: I remembered hearing stories about a B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building in a heavy fog during World War II. It was all just very odd and didn't seem to make any sense.

But as the morning stretched on, the news worsened. When the second tower was struck, it was immediately clear this was no accident. There was video: a jet passenger plane dissolving into a ball of flame upon impact. Instant death.

Then the Pentagon was attacked. The morning was never going to end. We learned the plane had been hijacked. Yet a fourth plane, also hijacked, had crashed in Pennsylvania, headed to Washington DC and perhaps either the White House or the Capitol.

No more flights were allowed to enter the country. There was speculation that any suspiciously rogue aircraft still in the sky would be shot down. With their passengers.

 Oh my God.

The one image (of many) that's seared into my brain came later that morning. We'd finished deadline and most of the reporters were gathered around the television in the editor's office. We were watching the chaos of the burning buildings when suddenly, but as if in slow motion, one of the towers collapsed in on itself. Where a majestic building once had been there was now a pillar of smoke and debris.

I have come to regard this day as our generation's Pearl Harbor. Like the Class of 2019 in relation to 9/11 now, I wasn't yet born when the Japanese attacked. But I have depended on the oral, written and photographed history of that event to build my understanding of the moment.

Understanding the moment. It was a challenge for us then. And it's a challenge for us now.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My ear for music

In a couple weeks Underhill Rose will be in Lexington, where they will perform at High Rock Outfitters, one of their favorite venues.

This time, when they sing, they'll be recording tunes for a live CD album. Awesome.

I'm going to have to find a way to contain myself. I usually like to sit on the front row where I can let their music envelop me like some kind of a comfortable blanket. Who ever thought a banjo and a harmonica could be so evocative? Or that an upright bass could be so foundational? Or a guitar so sweet?

Or harmonies so heavenly?

So I'm going to have to shut up. Sometimes, sitting up front, I can catch their eye, or point to them after a nifty riff, or applaud, or shout out "You go girl!" as I once did as Eleanor weaved her way through a solo banjo bit.

The last thing anybody wants to hear is me croaking something on their CD.

With that in mind, I just hope I don't feel compelled to sing along. That's because somewhere along the way, I've been cursed. I love music. I love the way an instrument can reach into your soul and stimulate the fibers of your being. I love lyrics wrought with thought and meaning, or that can create a picture with the palette of colors within your mind.

The curse is that I can't sing. I can't sing a lick. I can't sing a note. At least, not in tune with anything musical.

Nor can I play an instrument.

I don't know how this curse came to be. My dad played both the piano and the trumpet. Mom had a wonderful alto voice. When I was young, around kindergarten, my parents tried piano lessons on me, but the discipline of learning music never took hold. I tried the trumpet a few years later and that was an even worse experience. I was, figuratively, shedding my musical scales.

Clearly, I didn't inherit the Play Music gene. I inherited the Play Games gene.

Then came the Sixties and suddenly transistor radios where bringing us great music everywhere. I tried to sing along, but as I learned, one note only goes so far. So I hummed. Try humming to Sgt. Pepper.

To this day, with Sirius in our car radio and tuned in to Sixties on Six, I am swept overboard by great music. Just yesterday, while Kim was in the post office, I was singing along with Chad & Jeremy's "A Summer Song." It's a tune that evokes a mystic chord within me, transporting me back to 1966 and high school and girl friends and all that is good in my nostalgia.

But when Kim returned to the car, she turned the volume up. You know, to drown me out.

I hate sitting on my hands when live performances put my entire being in rhythm. But the women of Underhill Rose are also my friends, and I don't want to offend them. So if sitting on my hands is what it takes, then sitting on my hands is what it is.

At least I can hum.

•  •  •

Underhill Rose will perform at High Rock Outfitters, located at 13 S. Main Street, Lexington, on Sept. 17, starting at 7 p.m. Admission is $10.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Closed captioning

I've probably never depended on the closed captioning runners on my television screen more than I do now during this political season.

No, it's not because I've learned how to turn down/off the sound whenever a candidate speaks (although doing that might save my sanity).

But every morning, when I work out at the YMCA, I'm occasionally in front of a muted television screen. And there, before my very eyes, were the actual words allegedly coming out of the speakers' mouths running across the bottom of the monitor.

Sometimes I wonder how this technology works, because it's not always perfect.

For example, one day I was reading "leg is later" when I realized the intended word was "legislature." Well, did the auto correct suddenly cut in? Or cut off? I don't know.

The other day, I was watching a story about the earthquake in Italy when the CC crawler told me rescuers were "pourless to do anything." Hmm. I can almost see the logic in that one, except that I'm powerless to explain how.

Even this morning, I was watching a story about a Southwest passenger jet that lost one of its two engines. Because of the skill of the pilots, the plane landed safely, with the passengers giving the pilots "aorund of applause." Well, that was a simple spelling error. I've managed thousands of typos like that in my journalism career.

Then came a story about the immigration issue, especially that part where one of the candidates wants to remove "thousands of illegal grimmigrants." Well, no wonder they're grim. They're threatened with removal.

Sometimes you just don't know where the CC is going. Somebody was telling one of the candidates to "stake out your volalues." What? Do you mean values? Volatiles? Valuables? What?

I'm not quite sure how closed captioning works. Not that long ago I had an image of some guy sitting in front of a television screen in some broadcast booth furiously typing away the spoken transcript he was hearing into some kind of encoding device. Presto, seconds later, we can read (sort of) what the speaker is saying on our TV screens.

I thought this because sometimes, on the monitor, as the closed captioning is being typed out, it will erase a word — like "leg is later" — letter by letter and start over until it gets it right. Surely only a human can recognize their own error, right?

Then I thought, No, we live in an incredibly technological era. Surely the closed captioning device is voice activated. That's why we get all those synonymic typos.

But then I read this after a Google search: "Most programs are captioned in advance of transmission, but the nature of some programs, such as live news broadcasts, requires real time captioning. For real time captioning, a stenographer listens to the broadcast and types a shorthand version into a program that converts the shorthand into captions and adds that data to the television signal."

Yikes. So there really is a guy locked in a room somewhere furiously typing away, like a court stenographer, on some kind of an Ultra Secret Enigma machine.

Jeez. Makes me wonder if he's a former journalist.

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, rhythmic ribbon dancing or synchronized swimming, 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.


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.