Thursday, June 21, 2018

Paul Simon in concert

OK, here's how it all went down:

Somewhere around noontime on Tuesday we got a private message from a friend of ours on Facebook with an unexpected question:

Would we like tickets to the Paul Simon concert that night at the Greensboro Coliseum?

Hmm. Let me think about that for a min... OK. Sure.

Who gives away tickets to a Paul Simon concert? Turns out, my friend got them from a friend who couldn't go. My friend also couldn't go. So after a few more Facebook PMs to nail down the details, she came to our house after lunch, and we had the tickets in hand.

For free. OMG, as they say.

Can you imagine...???
It had been years since we've been to a concert that didn't feature Underhill Rose or the Blue Eyed Bettys. So we weren't quite sure how to act.

Earlier in the day, I consulted the coliseum seating chart online and learned we were in the upper level, far end. Armed with that knowledge, I dug up my mini binoculars that I use to cover high school football games.

We were set to go.

We arrived at the coliseum about an hour or so before the scheduled starting time and promptly looked for our seats. The last time I was in the coliseum for a main event was probably about 10 years ago, when I last covered an ACC Tournament. The place has been renovated since then, but one thing that remained the same was the steep climb in the upper deck. We really were in the nosebleed section in Row R.

But, hey. Free tickets. Not complaining. The one concern we had was watching some of the other geriatric fans more geriatric than us struggle to get to their seats while climbing the steps. (Geriatric? Paul Simon is 76 years old. Let that one sink in). Some stopped to catch their breath along the way because, you know, we were 15,000 feet above sea level (Or see level, if I must).

An hour before start time, our line of sight at 15,000 feet above see level.
 While waiting for the concert to start and watching the crowd amble in, it occurred to me how lucky we were to be there. We were going to be in the same building, sharing the same HVAC as Paul Simon, perhaps (arguably) one of the four most iconic songwriters of my generation (in my mind, the others are Lennon & McCartney and Bob Dylan). Songs with titles like "America," "Homeward Bound," "Scarborough Fair," "Mrs. Robinson" and "The Sound of Silence" are indelibly planted in my brain (sorry).

And then the concert began. Simon opened with "America", backed by a remarkable 16-piece band that helped support him through the numerous genres of music he explores. The 25-song setlist included some Louisiana zydeco ("That Was Your Mother"), reggae ("Mother and Child Reunion"), eclectic ("Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War"), South African influence ("You Can Call Me Al") and soft folk rock ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," which had a totally different instrumental intro so that I didn't recognize the song until he started singing it).

His voice, at times, lacked some of the depth of his youth, but the familiar timbre was there and you could never mistake who was singing.

Only five songs were from the Simon and Garfunkel catalogue ("America", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Homeward Bound", "The Boxer" and "The Sound of Silence", and the last three were in the encore, along with "Kodachrome"). So if you climbed all those steps in the cheap seats for some S & G, you might have been slightly disappointed. Truth be told, I kinda missed Artie not being there and I hate that their feud continues at this point in their lives. Seems silly.

This is Simon's farewell tour. He seems remarkably fit for his age and vocation (he even did a little zydeco shuffle dance move) and he performed for nearly three hours without a set break.

I was glad I brought my binoculars because even though there was a huge TV screen behind him for those who couldn't see the stage well, our seats were situated precisely where our line of sight to the screen was obstructed by the huge drop-down speakers mounted above the stage. Standing in at only 5-foot-3, Simon is already hard enough to see even when you're up close.

But, hey. Free tickets. Not complaining.

In October, Billy Joel, 69, will be appearing at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem. I'm available for free tickets for that one, too.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Uh-oh. Talking in my sleep...

Most mornings, somewhere between my deepest REM sleep and early consciousness, my cat, Halo, jumps up on the bed, and then settles onto my chest. She kicks in her soft purr motor.

She wants to be fed. It's how she brings me out of my best sleep of the night and into reality.

Or near reality.

Because apparently, the other morning when she was on my chest, I started petting her. And talking to her.

"Awww, how are you Debbie?" I said. "Awwww, Debbie, are you a good girl? You want some food? Awww, Debbie..."

I'm in bed-head consciousness. I know there's a 15-pound cat on my chest. It doesn't quite filter that I'm calling her Debbie. Yet.

"Who's Debbie?" asked my wife, wide awake at 3:45 in the morning.

"What? Huh?"

Well, that woke me up. This is how I found out I was talking in my sleep.

OK, OK. Time to give you some deep background here.

Yes, there once was a Debbie in my life. But that was 43 years ago. She was the girl I was dating at the time. I thought I was in love. I thought we might get married. We even looked at rings. I think she liked the diamond that looked like a heart, although it might have been pear shaped. I can't remember. Maybe it'll come to me in a dream some night.

Anyway, the relationship never panned out. She ended it. She's the reason why I left Pennsylvania with a broken heart. She's the reason I'm in North Carolina.

But why was I calling my cat Debbie 40 years later?

I don't know. Maybe it's how the subliminal mind of a 67-year-old male works when in sleep mode, and a long suppressed Debbie finally bubbled to the surface, like swamp gas. I don't know.

Kim said that she didn't wake me because she wanted to hear more, but apparently, my conversation with Halo/Debbie ended when I offered Halo/Debbie cat food for breakfast. So there are no ghosts in my closet.

Conversely, I keep hoping to catch Kim in mid-dream some night, but all she does is snore.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

My Southern belle

While I was watching television the other day, Kim purposefully came into the den with a card for me to sign.

Usually, these are birthday cards (more on that in a moment). But this was a Thank You card. She writes a pleasant, sincere and well-constructed note in them and signs it "(blank) & Kim" whenever we need to thank somebody for showing us a kindness they committed toward us. It's my job to fill in the blank with my own name, in my own handwriting.

"You are just sooo Southern," I tell her, not paying much attention to the words falling out of my very mouth. And sending Thank You notes may not even be a Southern thing as much as it is the correct thing to do. It just feels what I think is Southern to me. Maybe it's because this is the second Thank You note I've signed this week.

And it feels Southern to me because Kim is a Southern girl, born and bred right here in Lexington, and this simple act of correct etiquette, Southern or not, is how she was raised. She sends out Thank You notes for parties we've been invited to and attended, for gifts that have shown up on our porch, for dishes and desserts that have been given to us for no particular reason.

Sooo Southern.

"Well," Kim tells this Yankee from Pennsylvania, who surreptitiously steals the silverware when nobody is looking, "You didn't have to move 500 miles if you didn't want to marry a Southern girl."

I could go in several different directions here, but suffice it to say, point well taken. She occasionally tells me off like this with a soft, lilting and compelling accent that makes me smile.

"Ah don't hay-ave an ak-say-ent," she argues, adding all those extra syllables along the way, and I melt.

She never met a birthday she didn't like (except her own), so I am constantly signing birthday cards, too. Whenever we go shopping, we have to stop somewhere to buy a birthday card or two. She knows when everybody's birthday is, including the birthdays of my friends, much less her own. I don't know how she does it. I think she has a Rolodex in her brain.

The other Southern thing she does is fix meals for friends in distress. I mean, the other day a friend of ours recently had knee replacement surgery, and Kim whipped up a Key Lime pie for him. Several years go, one of our neighbors had an extended hospital stay, and he got a chicken pie. Another neighbor brought our cable and wifi back to life, and he got a lasagne.

The thing is, these are all the comfort foods that I enjoy but can't have because we're on never-ending diets. I'm seriously considering doing bodily harm to myself to see if I can wrassle up some of her world-class lasagna. Haven't had any of that in years. (Although, back when we were dating, I suffered a high ankle sprain while playing basketball. I was treated to Dagwood sandwiches for a week. I milked that one for all that it was worth. I think that's when I asked her to marry me).

Like I said, I'm not sure Thank You notes and comfort meals are exclusively Southern. I don't remember us Yankees running around when I was a kid doing nice things for each other, although I'm guessing we probably did. We were, after all, good church-going Moravians.

But there's something about the way Kim goes about all this that just feels right, that's taken decades to hone – no, a culture to hone.

And she's making me put the silverware back.


(blank) & Kim

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Foul ball?

With a career in sports writing spanning more than 40 years, I like to think I know a little something about the rules of the games we play.

Well, sure. I grew up watching baseball, football and basketball, so I'm more familiar with those sports than, say, for example, soccer or lacrosse.

And to be sure, I'm particularly familiar with baseball. Growing up, that was THE sport. When I first started writing for The Dispatch, I even carried around a handbook-size copy of the official rules of baseball, published by Wilson sporting goods. I was ready.

Consequently, I thought I knew the game – until Friday night.

I was covering the HiToms at Finch Field in Thomasville. A member of the wooden bat Coastal Plain League (CPL) designed specifically for scholarship college freshmen and sophomores, the HiToms were playing a doubleheader against Gastonia. I was to cover the second game. Both games were scheduled to go seven innings instead of nine, a nod to speeding up a long night when doubleheaders are involved and teams have to travel by bus to get to their next game the next day. Almost all minor leagues observe 7-inning doubleheaders. It makes sense.

Anyway, I arrived at the ballpark at a time when I figured the opener would be close to finished. The trouble was, the first game was delayed an hour by a passing thunderstorm, so when I settled into my seat, the game was tied at 1-1 in the sixth inning.

The HiToms scored three runs in the bottom of the sixth, which I figured would be enough to win. But, baseball being baseball, Gastonia tied the game with three runs in the top of the seventh.

And Thomasville failed to score in the bottom of the seventh, forcing the game to extra innings. Oh, boy. A long night just got longer. My 11 p.m. deadline was in jeopardy.

Except that the game turned to the international baseball rule book, which has a provision for a tiebreaker when a game goes to extra innings.


According to the rule, the team at bat starts an extra inning with runners on first and second base, with no outs. They are considered to have reached base on error, but the so-called "errors" do not count against a pitcher's earned run average, which I guess makes sense. I guess.

As it turned out, the HiToms got out of the eighth inning with no damage, and then scored the winning run in the bottom of the eighth when Gastonia screwed up on fielding a sacrifice bunt. The HiToms won 5-4.

But I'd just seen something I've never seen before. A tiebreaker in baseball. It was like watching sudden death in slow-motion. Let that one sink in for a minute.

On the one hand, this was a good thing. An extra inning game in a doubleheader can have you eating hot dogs in the ballpark at 3 a.m. In theory, you could be be playing a baseball game until tomorrow.

I know. It happened to me. I once covered an American Legion game between Lexington and Concord that went 21 innings.

On the other hand, I think my baseball sensibilities were highly offended. More than 48 hours later, I'm still shouting to myself, there's no tiebreaker in baseball. There's no crying in baseball. C'mon.

I guess I'm just an old baseball purist. My baseball sensibilities have been under assault for decades, starting with expansion (to my mind, there should be only 16 major league teams, eight in each league. More teams just dilute the talent pool. Oh, wait. The talent pool is now worldwide), and continuing with AstroTurf, domed stadiums, interleague play and the designated hitter rule.

There's a lot that's happened to baseball since 1955. I'm not sure all of it is good. Meanwhile, we're playing three-hour games because batters constantly step out of the box after every pitch to scratch themselves, adjust themselves, or admire themselves. Nobody's seriously addressed those issues yet.

On the other other hand (I have three hands), I guess I should applaud the CPL for trying to be innovative. The international league tiebreaker rule (does it apply to Olympic baseball, I wonder?) does speed up the game. The CPL also allows only five warm-up pitches for relievers when entering a game, five warm-up pitches for all pitchers during the two-minute between-inning breaks, and coaches are allowed only six visits to the mound per game. So the CPL is actually a great platform to experiment with improvements.

I'm just not sure a tiebreaker is one of them.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Far out, man

Back in 1969, the closest I ever got to Woodstock was to think about it. I mean, I was 18 years old at the time, fresh out of high school, and the idea of going to a live, outdoor music festival with 100,000 like-minded people was compelling. I lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and Yazgur's farm was only a couple of hours away.

But I never went. Although I was pretty much immersed in the hippie lifestyle at the time (or so I thought – I had shoulder-length hair and wore bell-bottom jeans with button flies), I couldn't quite bring myself to go.

Me graduating from Hippie College, 1973. Note hair.
 It was just as well. As it turned out, more than 400,000 people showed up to sleep in their cars, or on beds of straw, sometimes in the rain, hiking miles through impossible traffic jams to listen to great music. I would have been eaten alive.

 But all these years later, I still carry a tinge of regret for missing out on a definitive (and reachable) moment of popular culture for my generation.

Until yesterday, that is, when Kim and I went to Hippie Fest at the Rowan County Fairgrounds in Salisbury.

All right, all right. Please contain the giggles. Instead of 400,000  people, there might have been 4,000. Great music was performed by people you never heard of. Plenty of people who were in their 60's and 70s strolled the grounds, popping into boutique tents to consider buying love beads, mood rings or tie-dyed T-shirts in an effort to recapture a faded past – or lost regrets.

Flower power...
 There was some cool stuff to see, including about 20-25 iconic VW Beetles and buses. One guy was selling electric guitars he made out of gas cans (or anything else he could find). Going Up Country, I guess.

There were performers on stilts; a bubble machine kept the kids mesmerized (me, too, for that matter); food trucks scented the air with grilled onions and funnel cakes, thus taking on something of a Barbecue Festival atmosphere (Food trucks, I'm sure, would have been greatly welcomed at Woodstock).

There was a small performance stage where musicians who were not even gleams in their yet-to-be parents' eyes back in 1969 sang songs from the era, and that was cool. Made me think there was some legacy being passed on, even if it was on a small plot of muddy grass in Salisbury.

Bailey Rogers belts out 'Me and Bobby McGee.' Wow.
 (Side note: I took a picture of the stage, not knowing that former Lexington resident Bailey Rogers was performing an a cappella version of "Me and Bobby McGee" at the time. She was fantastic. We'd just met her several weeks earlier when her family was in town to visit friends in our neighborhood. We had no clue she had this kind of talent. Like, wow, man).

And speaking of muddy grass, I have to point out there was no hint of reefer to be sniffed anywhere, just in case you were wondering. There were no marijuana tents, no LSD depots. I'm guessing the only pills that were popped with this crowd were probably Ibuprofen.

I did have a little concern about the weather. We've been having rain day after day for more than a week, with more in the forecast. And, indeed, the skies were overcast once again as we left Lexington and headed to Salisbury.

I kind of wondered if we were caught in a shower if we'd throw our clothes off, like in some of the pictures I saw of the Woodstock generation, where scores of people unabashedly bathed in cow ponds. But naked septuagenarians is probably not a good visual. In any case, it never rained in the 90 or so minutes we were there. You can only take your memories so far, I guess.

In the end, we had a pretty good time.  The ebb-and-flow crowd was manageable; people were courteous to each other; music of several genres (including eastern Indian and Native American Indian) were on display. It was nostalgic.

I saw what I came to see, and it put a smile on my face.

Far out.

Kim leaves Hippie Fest in her VW bus...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

For the birds

One of the things handed down to me from my mother, no doubt through her DNA, was a fascination with bird watching.

I'm not a dedicated birder. I don't go out on weekends tromping through tick-infested fields or climbing impossible mountain trails, wearing binoculars and pith helmet, to track down some elusive species that only James Audubon was able to document.

On the contrary, I've set up a metal post on my backyard patio, where four bird feeders hang within easy view of my kitchen window (which is where our hummingbird feeder is attached). I can sit back in the comfort of my home, beverage in hand, watching birds compete for a place at the feeder.

Mom used to do this a lot. Sometimes she had feeders that had suction cups so you could attach them to the window, bringing the birds even closer to you. Except that the suction cups didn't hold forever and usually left permanent rings on the glass. A trade-off, I guess.

I'm content to use the feeder tree. Usually, we fill the feeder with wild bird seed, which is enough to attract the assorted wrens and sparrows on a regular basis.

A couple weeks ago, as the result of a store promotion at Wild Birds Unlimited in Winston-Salem, we won a free meal worm bell (Mmmm. Meal worms). I hung it on my feeder tree, and almost instantly, we had bluebirds (Sialia sialis). I hadn't seen a bluebird in years.

I also had a square meal worm cake (yummm), which I inserted into the cake holder, and Bingo!, we had catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis). In the meantime, our faithful wild bird feeder was still attracting the common finches and chickadees.

Suddenly, I wondered if word was getting out that the restaurant was open. Soon enough, the occasional bird I could not identify started showing up. I had to look at my copy of "The Birds of the Carolinas" to identify the tufted titmouse (Baelophus bicolor) that appeared. Then a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) arrived. This is a fairly large bird that you would think would dominate the feeder, but he seems to get along well with others.

One day, I was working in the yard and saw a Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). No, it wasn't Brooks Robinson.

I once saw an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), a true blue bird if ever there was one.

The birding was getting crazy. One of our feeders is filled with nyger, which almost exclusively attracts goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). These are comical birds. Our feeder is designed to where they have to hang upside down to peck for their nyger, and it's funny to watch. At first, I thought upside down was an odd way to view the world until I decided maybe it's the only way to see the world these days. Goldfinches actually might be on to something.

I have to say, robins are still some of my favorite birds. I was weeding the garden the other day, tilling the ground with my trusty mattock. Two robins (Turdis migratorius) landed in the freshly turned soil, not more than 10 feet away from me, which I thought was particularly bold for a bird. They always come to dinner dressed in their orange vests, black tops and white eyeliner. Classy.

It's been pointed out to me that robins are actually carnivores without teeth. They don't do feeders, but go after berries, insects and worms instead.

I do have one concern: we live in an area where birds of prey sometimes show up. I hear the occasional owl, and every once in a while, I'll see a sharp-shinned hawk patrol the sky. The songbirds and wild birds usually skedaddle when the hawk shows up.

I'm sure I've left out a bunch of birds: cardinals are abundant and once in a while a blue jay thinks he owns everything. Mourning doves, for some reason, think they can hang with this crowd.

All in all, it's pretty entertaining stuff, and I guess I have Mom to thank for my avian interest.

So, thanks Mom.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Leaking like a sieve

It was supposed to be another calming trip to the beach house, which my wife and her brother inherited, just to make sure everything was OK. You know, because the place is about 45 years old and things happen. Especially when it sits in salt air 24/7/365.

We'd already made previous repairs, including a serious leak underneath the house a year or so ago that forced us to return to Lexington on the same day we arrived at the beach. That was fun.

This time, when we arrived, we noticed some of the vinyl siding was starting to separate on the east side of the building. OK, we can live with that. So we unpacked the car and turned on the electricity. Yep, the air conditioner was still working. Whew. Lucky us. It was already 85 degrees outside.

Then I went streetside to turn on the water main

"Oh, no. Bruuuuuce," wailed my wife, who was standing in the carport of the classic two-story beach abode featuring a knotty pine interior.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing: water gushing onto the carport from under the house; water flowing down the side of the house of the lower apartment. Torrents cascading like a waterfall from the ceiling of the carport. Water everywhere. I only wish I was exaggerating here.

"Call Tom," I said, "I'll turn off the water."

Tom is our professional fix-it guy, who's done excellent work for us in the past. He arrived within the hour and assessed the situation. He said he'd be back the next day with an assistant.

In the meantime, Kim and I took a room at a nearby hotel – $142, including tax.

The next day, after breakfast and running a few errands, we found Tom busy with repairs. He thought he found the source of the leak. He turned on the water. It wasn't leaking where he'd fixed it. But the house had other ideas. It now leaked in a different location.

The entire day went like this, chasing leaks, making repairs. By late afternoon, we thought we'd caught the last leak – until we turned on the water. Yep. New leak, new location.

Apparently, the water in the house is running through 45-year-old thin gauge copper pipes that don't fare well against the salt air. The corrosion was profuse. Tom was replacing the copper with PVC tubing.

But we'd had enough for the day. Tom said he'd be back as soon as he could, but I hope he takes Sunday off. No hurry now.  We left for home after 32 hours at the beach