Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sounds of the season

"Oh, for crying out loud," I thought, grumbling as I pulled myself away from the television, not wanting to be interrupted from James Madison's tight football game with Northern Illinois. "Who's ringing my doorbell at this hour, in this weather?"

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

So I reluctantly got off my sofa, padded into the living room and opened the door.

There stood my across-the-street neighbors, TJ Strickland and his wife, Christie, and their two precious – or is it precocious? – young children, Ellie and Jackson. Ellie might be 5 years old. Jackson might be 3.

The Stricklands bring the neighborhood some holiday cheer.*
They started singing to me. They were singing "Silent Night."

I melted like butter for a sugar cake. It's not often you get Christmas carolers at your front door.

I smiled as the Stricklands were singing, and they smiled back. When they were done, Kim came to the door. She had been on the phone with a neighbor, but when she heard the singing on our front porch, she came to see what it was all about.

"Oh, there's Kim," said Christie, and the next thing we knew, they were singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

And they were pretty good, too. Even their kids knew all the words, which to me was impressive. And maybe precocious (Jackson added to the effect by wearing an oversized Santa hat). They all sang on key. Wow.

When they were done, we had a brief, happy chat with them, and told them how good they were and thanked them for coming to our house. Kim hugged everybody in sight because that's what she does, while I pretty much stood flatfooted with a silly grin on my face because that's pretty much what I do. Too bad we didn't have any eggnog or wassail to share with them. That would have made it perfect.

We did suggest they go to a neighbor's house – the one Kim had been on the telephone with – and off they went to spread the spirit on an otherwise cold, damp night.

As it turns out, the Stricklands did show up on a few more porches that night, singing the songs of the season and spreading their good cheer.

Every once in a while I might remark and write about what a special neighborhood we live in, of how the sidewalks and alleys bring us closer together, of how we socialize, commune and commiserate with one another, openly sharing our joys and sorrows. I've never seen anything quite like this in a neighborhood before and the experience can be humbling.

And fortunate.

Yes, I think I see it now: Our neighborhood is our Christmas gift to each other.

Merry Christmas, Stricklands. And Merry Christmas to all.

*Photo by Amy (or Jim) Horn.




Sunday, December 8, 2019

Getting carded

One of the things I really enjoy about the holiday season (other than sugar cakes and Christmas cookies) is getting Christmas cards.

One of the things I really try to avoid during the holiday season is addressing and mailing Christmas cards.

I guess I just don't have the patience it takes to sign, address and stamp the 50 or so cards we send to our friends, family, co-workers and, in some instances, annual acquaintances.

There's still plenty of Christmas cards that need to be signed...
 (I use the royal "We" here. Because Christmas carding has become such a torturous obligation for me, Kim is the one who really does all the work. When the first week of December rolls around, she makes sure we have Christmas stamps on hand. The cards were already purchased months earlier so we're not caught off guard when the season rolls around. She has a handy check list nearby to make sure we haven't forgotten anybody, or that we don't send one family two or more cards. Kim is my hero).

The one assignment Kim has given to me is to write short notes to my brothers and my two oldest and dearest friends inside the Christmas cards we send them. I don't mind doing this, although I have noticed that my handwriting has really deteriorated over the years. I used to have beautiful penmanship, especially for a lefty, since my words didn't slant in the wrong direction and I mostly was able to avoid lefthander smudge.

But now, it seems, all that is a distant memory. I find myself leaving out letters. Each line of my personal note usually tracks uphill or downhill, and I don't know why. I dot not only i's and j's, but occasionally e's, y's and c's. It's like I can't help myself. Maybe there's some medication for that.

Anyway, I feel bad about my lousy handwriting. It's embarrassing.

In the old days, when I was younger (How is it we were "younger" in the "old" days? I'm approaching septuagenarinism – shouldn't these be my "old" days now?), I not only enjoyed getting cards, but sending them off, too. There was a time when I would Scotch tape each card we got to a door frame in the living room, where the tree was. It was a unique and colorful way to decorate the room.

I know I'm sounding Scrooge-like, but I'm going to bet I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'm going to bet that if you're a boomer, and because time seems to fly by faster the older we get, it seems like we just finished addressing all those 2018 cards. What, it's here again? I just sent you a card.

I'm not sure when Christmas carding began. Some suggest it's the invention of Hallmark, but it seems it's actually a Victorian custom that began in England around the 1840s (see here).

I know, I know. You're thinking, "Well, if that's how he feels about it, I'm not sending him one next year."

Please, don't feel that way. I still enjoy getting cards. It's tradition, and I love tradition.

There, I just solved my own problem. Next year, Christmas carding will be a labor of love.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The eatin' season

It's here.

Thursday's turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie have hardly been digested and yet Kim already is making plans to bake up some Moravian sugar cakes as Christmas rapidly approaches. She's right on time – today is the first Sunday in Advent, which means that the Eating Season has arrived.

Can Christmas cookies be far behind?

I love Kim's sugar cakes. Although she herself is not a born-and-raised Moravian, she married one. And ever since I can remember, sugar cakes have been the staple treat for the holidays. Nana Kessler used to make them as if on an assembly line, and her daughter – my mom – occasionally made them, too, although she was really the Tollhouse Cookie Queen.

Yummmmmm....
But I cannot remember a Christmas without sugar cakes, even if it meant getting one or two from Dewey's Bakery back in my bachelor days.

Early in our marriage, Kim got hold of an actual Moravian sugar cake recipe from an actual Moravian, and life has been good ever since. Well, good for me, anyway.

The recipe was the old, traditional one (probably dating back to the mid-1700's) that required mashed potatoes and yeast, which meant you had to wait hours for the yeast to rise before baking actually happened. It was a time consuming process that meant she had to be on a high-priority mission to make these things, usually six to eight of them. Making and baking them pretty much wore her out.

But last year, while on an errand, we unwittingly stumbled into the Old Salem Bake Shop at the Marketplace Mall in Winston-Salem, where they offered packages of Moravian sugar cake mix. A mix! And it's the real deal. The Bake Shop features a high-end commercial bakery in the back room, which mass produces its confections for the historic Winkler Bakery in Old Salem, just a couple of miles down the road.

We had hit the Moravian bakery mother lode.

So we bought a package and Kim was able to bang out four sugar cakes from the mix. And they tasted great. It was like a Godsend (and just in time for Christmas. Imagine that) for Kim.

And like an unexpected gift, our kitchen smelled just like a bakery during this very efficient process.

So this year, we bought two packages of sugar cake mix.

Which now begs the question: What am I going to do with eight sugar cakes? (Hint: I actually have a pretty good idea...).

•   •   •

The eating season isn't just about sugar cakes.

There will be neighborhood parties to attend. And parties with co-workers. And family gatherings. We already attended a Friendsgiving foodfest last night, which I guess is another excuse to eat more stuff just hours after Thanksgiving. We've already bought our Mrs. Hanes cookies, so...

The eatin' season, indeed.


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Mr. Rogers

If the truth be told, I never really got Fred Rogers.

I guess I was simply too old. When Mister Rogers' Neighborhood first appeared on television in 1968 (and continued on for an astounding 33 years), I was already 17 years old. I wasn't part of his target audience. To me, Mister Rogers was just another hokey, talking-down-to-children TV personality on public television primarily geared to the Tinkertoy and Raggedy Ann crowd, and I could have cared less.

I was more into Sergeant Saunders and Adam West's Batman, if you really want to know.

And yet...

Oddly enough, I didn't come to appreciate what Fred Rogers' career was about until after his death in 2003. My respect for him skyrocketed when I saw a now-famous clip of him testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, where he changed minds and virtually single-handedly saved funding for public television in an era when Congress was inches away from cutting the funding in half.

And Rogers did this in 1969, when he was still relatively unknown outside of Pittsburgh.

Wow.

So you know I just had to see the new movie, It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers (it turns out that just before the movie was released, it was discovered through Ancestry that Hanks and Rogers are actually sixth cousins. Can you say Karma?)

Be forewarned. The movie is not a biopic about Fred Rogers. Rather, the story actually outlines the relationship that develops between cynical Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod (played by Matthew Rhys) and Rogers. In the end, Rogers made a sincere impact on Junod's life, which he detailed in an Esquire cover story titled "Can You Say...Hero?" (Here is the piece. It's 10,000 words long and peppered with F-bombs, but it might help to illustrate the essence of the movie for you. See here.)

I don't know what else we can say about Tom Hanks as an actor. I consider him to be the Jimmy Stewart of our era who can play just about any character. Witness Philadelphia. Or Forrest Gump. Or Saving Private Ryan. Or Big. Or Apollo 13. Or so many more. His talent is wide and encompassing, dedicated and sincere, and apparently limitless.

In this flick, he gives an appropriately understated performance, perhaps because the storyline really centers around Junod (whose name is changed to Lloyd Vogel in the movie). Hanks is really in a supporting role, and to my mind, it's worthy enough for his third Oscar. But that remains to be seen in what is turning out to be an incredibly worthy movie season.

My one complaint about the flick is technical. Most of it is filmed in muted lighting. I don't know if it was done that way to set mood (most likely), but the effect is to make the viewer work a little bit harder. It's already a thinking man's movie, layered as it is with ponderings and observations. So be it.

Two spoiler alerts, but I don't think they'll reveal too much:

There's a scene in the movie where Fred Rogers takes the subway home. The train is filled with a diversity of children coming home from school, and when they recognize Mister Rogers is a passenger in their midst, they spontaneously break out singing the Neighborhood theme song. I thought it was a little much.

But then I read Junod's Esquire piece, and guess what? It actually happened. Goose bumps.

Then there's the scene in the movie where Rogers and Vogel are in a restaurant, and Rogers asks the writer for a moment of silence to reflect on the people who loved him into being. Uh huh. But Rogers actually did that in accepting his Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997.

Watch. And weep.



That's Fred Rogers for you. I think I get him now.



Friday, November 22, 2019

Ford v Ferrari

The names are certainly familiar, even if you're not particularly into endurance road racing: Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Carroll Shelby. And maybe even Ken Miles.

All four names pop up prominently in the highly entertaining movie Ford v Ferrari, which follows Henry Ford II's (irreverently known as "Deuce" in the movie) desire to knock off perennial champion Ferrari in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans road race during  the early to mid-1960s. If successful, it's a way to make the otherwise staid Ford Motor Company into something sexy for the post-war Baby Boomers who are about to buy, umm, sexy cars like Mustangs and Thunderbirds. It's all about the bottom line, you know.

The real Ken Miles (left) and Carroll Shelby at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
So the obnoxiously controlling Ford (played by Tracy Letts) hires confident whiz kid Shelby (played by Academy Award winner Matt Damon) as his car builder, who in turn hires the maverick Miles (played by Academy award winner Christian Bale) as driver extraordinaire and head technician.

That's pretty much the plot gist of what is actually a mostly true story.

But the flick is more than a movie about auto racing. It's a story that explores, in turns, friendship, corporate interference, family, failure and success.

Consequently, the performances of Damon and Bale are especially deep, rich and character-building. Nuances are noteworthy, right down to the gum chewing. You feel like you get to know these guys as they get to know – and trust – each other. You are drawn into their world and you don't necessarily want to get out.

A Ford Mark II GT40 looks fast even while sitting still.
 And their world is remarkable. The early 1960s portrayed here coincides with the space race of NASA's heyday. The car builders, trying to find a way to eek out an extra RPM or two from their 4.7 liter Mark II GT40s, use slide rules and Scotch tape more than they do computer gigabytes. It's a remarkable era of car engineering coupled with the need for speed.

And because the movie is a period piece, you're going to enjoy seeing all those what are now classic cars tooling around in the background. Trust me. I once owned a 1966 Wimbledon white convertible Mustang and this movie got me misty-eyed – and more than once.

Although the running time approaches two-and-a-half hours, time flies by, which might not be the case if you're watching Frozen II or Arctic Dogs for 152 minutes. And while it's not all about auto racing, as I've already explained, the last half hour or so takes you to the 1966 Le Mans, virtually putting you in the cockpit with Miles, downshifting and accelerating through S-turns, hairpins and straightaways.

The movie can be exhilarating and breathtaking all at once. You might find yourself cheering, if not actually gripping the arms of your theater seat, just to hold on. Blame the compelling cinematography.

You might even find yourself downshifting.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Not bad for gov'mint work

Well, I guess it could have been worse.

With less than a year to go, Kim and I decided to put the wheels in motion to get our Real IDs. You know, the little star that goes in the upper right hand corner of your driver's license that, by the October 2020 deadline, will officially allow you to fly domestically, enter federal buildings, nuclear power plants and God knows what else – ABC stores and college football games, maybe. You never know any more in this incredibly complicated and paranoid world of ours.

Anyway, that meant Kim needed to get a certified copy of her birth certificate and marriage certificate (as proof of name change). And that meant we needed to go to the Davidson County Register of Deeds in the lower level of the courthouse.

Oh-oh. I could see trouble on the horizon. Bureaucracy bubbling in the basement.

But, no.

We walked into the office, told the clerk behind the counter what we needed, and within 10 minutes, we had the documents in hand. Holy cow. I almost passed out.

Then it was my turn.

My quest, unlike Kim's, was going to be a little more problematical. I'm not a native North Carolinian. I was born in Pennsylvania. My certified birth certificate no doubt is moldering in a filing cabinet somewhere in Quaker officialdom. Maybe in Harrisburg. Maybe in Philadelphia. Maybe even in Scranton. There's no telling.

I was born in Allentown, in Lehigh County, which is located about an hour north of Philadelphia, an hour south of Scranton and an hour east of Harrisburg. Based on Kim's experience, I logically made a phone call to the Lehigh County Register of Deeds and explained what I needed.

The nice lady on the other end of the line told me that in Pennsylvania, you have to go through the Pennsylvania Department of Health to get a certified copy of a birth certificate. Well, so much for logic. She gave me a Web site and said to follow the simple instructions.

Oh-oh. There's no such things as simple instructions. Especially online.

My only other choice was to make my third 500-mile trip to Pennsylvania this year to physically show up and request a copy of my birth certificate, so I decided to go with the online option. I found the page I needed on the PDH site and went to work.

Actually, it was three online pages. The first page was the actual application. The second page required a credit card payment of $47, and the third page gave mailing instructions – and a request for a check for $40 (I wanted two copies at $20 a piece).

Huh? Two payments? I was confused. But I couldn't get from one online page to another without completing the previous page.

So I printed out my online receipt and snail-mailed it with my application, explaining that I'd already paid for it with a credit card. I sent it all off and waited my 10 business days.

About two weeks later I got a letter from the PDH, saying they were unable to process my application because the required $40 fee was not included. They also pointed out that Pennsylvania's only authorized vendor is www.VitalChek.com, not VitalRecordsOnline.

For crying out loud. Except that I was a little more colorful than that. Bluer, actually.

But it was the unauthorized VitalRecordsOnline that was on the PDH page. I hope they got that straightened out.

When I got my credit card statement a day or two later, it turned out my payment went to a Vital Records in Madrid, Spain.

This required me to cancel my credit card and get a new one, otherwise somebody in Spain was going to use my card to purchase bullfighting equipment and whatnot. A hassle, to be sure, but a necessary hassle.

In the meantime, I tried calling one of the phone numbers on the PDH site to let them know an unauthorized payment plan was on the second page of their site, but all I got was a recorded "Your phone call is important to us," etc, etc, and then a few minutes later a notice saying my wait time was 91 minutes for assistance and I was 31st in line. I was angry, but not that angry, so I hung up.

I mailed my check for $40 and hoped for the best, wondering when am I going to make time to drive back up to Pennsylvania?

That is, until my birth certificates arrived in the mail a few days ago.

Well, that was easy. Now to get the Real IDs taken care of...










Sunday, November 17, 2019

Midway

For a World War II history geek such as myself, I could hardly wait to see the movie Midway, which was released in theaters about two weeks ago.

Midway tells the incredible true story of one of the key turning points of the war in the Pacific during World War II, in which the United States Navy's air arm sank four Japanese aircraft carriers in a single day (June 4, 1942), just six months after Pearl Harbor, and forever thwarted Japan's ambitions for territorial expansion.

The real history of the battle almost defies belief.

On one level, it's a story of a military intelligence coup and how the United States managed to break and interpret Japan's codes as a prelude to the attack on Midway Island, an atoll in the Pacific within reach of Hawaii.

On another level, it's a story of sheer dumb luck as American torpedo bombers and dive bombers locate the Imperial Japanese Navy and attack the massive fleet in an uncoordinated assault while low on fuel.

Let me add here, in an historical aside, that the American torpedo bombers were antiquated TBD Devastators, which were slow, ungainly and obsolete before the war even began. The Devastators attacked the IJN carriers at wave-top level and drew the attention of the Japanese fighter coverage. It was suicidal. At least 34 of the 41 torpedo bombers were lost, and not a single torpedo (scandalously defective weapons early in the war, at best) scored a hit. Just a handful of American airmen survived the attack.

But with the Japanese air cover drawn low, the American dive bombers appeared unmolested at just the right moment minutes later, from two different directions and from 10,000 feet, to fatally hurt the IJN carriers. Thus, the sacrificial torpedo bombers served a valiant, if unplanned, purpose.

The reason the damage was so severe is that the Japanese were in a quandary, trying to decide whether to arm their planes with bombs for a second attack on Midway Island, or with torpedoes to attack the now revealed American carriers. Consequently, when the American dive bombers arrived, the Japanese were rearming and refueling their aircraft on the fight decks and hangers as the bombs were falling. To say the blow was fatal seems somehow inadequate. Several thousand human beings – even if they were the enemy – perished on shipboard infernos. The Japanese could never replace the experienced seamen and aviators they lost that day.

Anyway, back to the movie.

The flick depicts two real life Midway heroes, Lt. Cmdr. Wade McCluskey (portrayed by Luke Evans) of (scout-dive bomber group) VS-6, and Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) of VB-6. Both actors give creditable performances with sparse, understated scripts. They tell the story, and that's all they need to do, because the story is more than enough.

From what I could see, the movie was pretty much historically accurate, which delighted me. The only thing I had to compare it to was the original Midway (1976), which featured an all-star cameo cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, James Coburn, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum. That movie was ruined by an unnecessary and unrealistic romantic subplot, not to mention stock World War II combat footage of aircraft that weren't even present at Midway. Oh, my.

I had just one minor complaint about the current Midway. Instead of stock footage depicting combat, the movie uses computer generated imagery (CGI), which is spectacular. It means that aircraft like the SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless dive bomber are accurately portrayed right down to its rivets. You can't ask for more than that, especially since any of those surviving vintage planes are now found in museums.

But CGI also lets a director like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) take some license. There are scenes of aircraft flying below tree-lined boulevards in Hawaii during the attack sequence on Pearl Harbor, which I'm pretty sure didn't happen. There are CGI explosions galore and more tracer bullets and anti-aircraft bursts in the sky than seems possible. But if the overkill (pun might be intended) is meant to seem harrowing, well, then, point taken.

Having said that, combat blood and gore are minimal – nothing like the realism we saw in Saving Private Ryan.

On a side note, the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes gave the current Midway a critics' score of 42 percent, which is horrible. But the audience score is 92 percent from a field of more than 6,500 viewers. I'm guessing the viewers were probably all history geeks. Geeks know what they know.

The Battle of Midway is remarkable history. If you happen to be a history nerd, then you might want to read "Shattered Sword – The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway" by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully (2007). It's very readable and it just might be the definitive work on the battle.

•   •   •

I might be on a movie review rampage in the next few weeks. I've already done a review of Judy, about the final months of the life of actress Judy Garland. I'm now eager to see Ford v Ferrari, which has already commanded a feature story in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, and perhaps soon after that, I want to see Tom Hanks' turn as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

It's not the holiday season for nothing.