Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Moravian snob

The other day Kim was talking with one of her friends on the telephone.

I was in the next room, playing on the computer, and I got to hear some snippets from her phone conversion:

"Yes, I put some cream  of mushroom soup in the crockpot and the chicken tasted great."

"Our cat is losing some weight and I think we need to take her to the vet."

"Oh, Bruce is a Moravian snob."

Whaa???

That got my attention. At first, I was a little taken aback by her comment, but the more I thought about what she said, the more I had to agree.

I am the son of a Moravian minister. I'm not quite sure how the Wehrle family got there. Our immigrant Wehrles were Catholics from Germany who came to the United States in the great migration of the 1860s. They remained Catholic until my paternal grandfather elected to join the United Church of Christ. Somewhere along the way, I think he became a Moravian, a prevalent Protestant denomination in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania — particularly because the city of Bethlehem (a Moravian settlement founded in 1741) was just across the river.

There can never be too many Moravian stars.
 Dad somehow caught the Moravian bug, even though it took a while. He was a high school English teacher in the Bethlehem suburb of Fountain Hill for several years. Then we spent a year in Portsmouth, NH, when he gave up teaching to join the Red Cross. Then he went back to teaching for a few years in East Hartford, CT.

Somewhere along the way, he heard his calling to become a Moravian minister. We packed up and headed back to Bethlehem so he could attend Moravian Theological Seminary, located on the campus of Moravian College (where, incidentally, Dad got his B.A. degree). This was during my formative junior high years, and I became submerged in Moravian culture — I took my confirmation classes at College Hill Moravian Church.

Bethlehem, no doubt principally because of its Moravian heritage, comes alive at Christmas. In fact, the place bills itself as Christmas City. Moravian stars pop up all over the place. Churches conduct Moravian love feasts on Christmas Eve, with Moravian brass bands and children's choirs singing "Morning Star." And everybody eats Moravian sugar cakes.

Moravians, in fact, were/are very musically inclined (except for me. I can't play an instrument and I sing like Alfalfa). But it is said that Benjamin Franklin often visited Bethlehem because he enjoyed listening to the Moravian ensembles who brought with them the latest hits from Europe. Music is huge in church events.

How was I going to resist all that? Moravian traditions embedded themselves in my DNA. When I moved to Lexington in 1976, I lost contact with the church. This is a phenomenon with many preacher's kids. We usually go in one of two directions: we either become ministers ourselves, or we run. I ran.

Sometime after Kim and I got married in 1980, I thought it would be nice to go to a Christmas Eve service in Winston-Salem (a Moravian settlement founded in 1766). It had been years since I'd been to one. I was surprised by how moved I was by the music and the message, to the point of tears, as childhood memories revived themselves and came running back.

My Moravian DNA bubbled over. I even asked Kim if she would make Moravian sugar cakes at Christmas, using my grandmother's recipe, passed on to my mother.

I hang my own Moravian star these days. I eat Moravian chicken pie. I go to Mrs. Hanes the first weekend in Advent to buy my Moravian sugar cookies. I constantly wear an old, beat up Moravian College baseball cap that I swear illustrates my persona.

I can't help myself. So, yes. I guess I am a Moravian Snob. With a capital "M." And a capital "S."

Merry Christmas.




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas flicks

It never fails.

I always cry when Clarence gets his wings. I know the bell on the Christmas tree is going to jingle; I know Jimmy Stewart (as George Bailey) is going to be saved by his friends; I know all of this stuff is going to happen because I've seen It's A Wonderful Life just shy of a thousand times and I weep anyway.

I think I actually want to cry. I look forward to it, just like I do when I watch that scene in A Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner (as Ray Kinsella) has a catch with his dead father. Go figure.

The first time I ever saw It's A Wonderful Life must have been almost 40 years ago, and it grabbed me by the throat even then. I don't know what it is about that flick, but it makes me incredibly nostalgic for an era that I never even lived in.



Anyway, to my mind, the movie's denouement may be one of the best movie endings ever, Christmas or not. I'm tearing up just watching this clip even now.

I just missed living in that era, in fact. The movie came out in 1946, and I was born in 1951. It was Stewart's first movie since coming home as a decorated B-24 bomber pilot (he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross) for flying 20 perilous missions over flak-infested Europe in World War II.

Stewart, incidentally, made a short propaganda war film at the time to promote enlistments in the Army Airs Corps titled, ironically enough, Winning Your Wings. You can't make this stuff up. I suspect Clarence may have been Stewart's guardian angel even then.




Another Christmas favorite of mine is Miracle on 34th Street, and this is the 1947 version with Edmund Gwenn as an unforgettable Kris Kringle dealing with contemporary issues (along with Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara). I love a good courtroom drama and the scene where lawyer Fred Gaily proves the existence of Santa Claus by submitting as evidence bags full of children's letters to Santa is priceless — and brilliant.

Then there's A Christmas Story, a very humorous movie that to me is losing some of its resonance because it's repeated endlessly on a continuous Christmas day loop on TBS.

But I can relate to this flick. This is nostalgia that I actually lived. I, too, wanted a Red Ryder BB gun but was told by my parents that I would shoot my eye out. I can relate to department store Santas, to bullies in the schoolyard and to families gathered around the Christmas tree opening their presents.



I never stuck my tongue on an ice-cold flagpole, though. In a way, I'm kind of amazed there isn't a nation-wide rash of tongue-stickings (as far as I know) on Christmas day, but I have to admit, there is a temptation to try that just because it's stupid and some of us humans just can't resist stupidity. I just don't know if it's possible for a 63-year-old man to explain himself getting in that situation.

There are tons of other worthy holiday movies, most notably A Christmas Carol in almost any of its versions. I must profess a fondness for Alistair Sim's Scrooge, although George C. Scott makes me believe there actually was a Scrooge who really did live and learn. In any case, Charles Dickens gave us a great storyline.

There are others, of course. I'm not sure that Home Alone really qualifies as a Christmas movie, even though the action takes place over the holidays. I still like it, though. Christmas Vacation has its moments, but most of it is just plain silly. The same can be said for Scrooged. And don't even talk to me about Grinches or whatnot...

I guess the classics are classic for a reason.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Caught in a thought

Sometime around noon on Thursday I suddenly found myself wading through a Norman Rockwell illustration.

It was Thanksgiving Day.

And somehow, here I was, smack dab in the middle of a cozy kitchen with 16 other people, each taking our turn with polite jabs at pieces of turkey, or honey-baked ham, while loading our plates with sweet potato casserole, creamed corn, cranberry sauce and that irresistible dressing from Kim's mother's secret recipe (it's not written down anywhere).

Rockwell and I share the same Thanksgiving vision.
 I stepped to one side for a moment's reflection while the others were helping themselves to the feast and instantly I became a brushstroke in Rockwell's  famous "Freedom from Want" portrait, the one where somebody's grandparents are serving a whopping turkey to the rest of their clearly extended family.

Rockwell always considered himself to be an illustrator, not an artist, but this particular work has almost always generated such a strong emotional current for me that I can almost smell the turkey and hear the table chatter.

Illustrator, indeed.

I'd seen that picture as a child and, God help me, it's one of the first images that fills my brain every Thanksgiving since then. I don't know why. It just does.

For the first couple decades of my life, my Pennsylvania Thanksgivings resembled Rockwell's very own vision. But then life intervened. One of my brothers moved to Alaska. Another to Iowa. I moved to North Carolina. Our grandparents passed away and so did our parents. Curiously, our Thanksgivings depended on others of no blood relation.

Here's the spread with bits of the gathering. Dressing is at bottom left corner.
 So this year — and we've done this a few times before — we were invited to Kim's brother's in-laws for Thanks-giving in Asheboro. I think by the time Kim and I rolled in, there were 17 of us, which might have set some kind of house record for attendance.

I met at least three people I'd never seen before. Talk about extended families...

Anyway, the next three hours or so were a slice in time to be savored along with the pumpkin pie, and I found myself not only thankful, but grateful, too.

Thanksgivings are like that, aren't they?

Kim's mother's secret dressing recipe:

Hushpuppies from Backcountry Barbecue and Stamey's Barbecue
Cornbread from Southern Lunch.
Toast from Mayberry's in Winston-Salem
Some buttermilk
A package of Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Classic Stuffing mix
A hard-boiled egg or two
A couple of fresh eggs
A pinch of sage
A stick of butter
Celery, onion
Real cooked chicken
Chicken soup broth
A dollop of love

The hushpuppies, cornbread and toast are all leftovers from actual meals we ate at those places and brought home in to-go boxes. Mix all of this stuff together and put it in a flat pan. Stick it in the oven at the usual 350 degrees and bake until it smells great or looks like it might be done. Enjoy.






Sunday, November 23, 2014

Disappearing act

I'm disappearing.

Really. Literally. Physically. Vanishing.

This realization came to me several months ago during my annual physical examination. I stepped on the scale (we won't talk weight here) and when I got measured — without my Crocs — the nurse said I logged in at 5-foot-5.

Wha...???

I didn't say anything, of course. I knew she was wrong. That sliding, head-topping measuring thingy on the doctor's scale was also wrong. I've never been a tall guy, but I'd always been 5-7 in my adult years.

Five-foot-seven is considered to be short by most modern standards, although I would have been of average height during the Civil War. The current average male height in the United States is approaching — but not quite — 5-10, and I've never been that. Or even close to it. The short gene runs rampant in our family.

I let this new information stew in my noggin for several months, certain that my medical professional had gotten this all screwed up. That is, until a couple of weeks ago in the coffee shop. Somewhere in the conversation at our round table, I mentioned that I was shrinking. Ha ha ha.

"I'm 5-6," chimed the barista, a girl who I guess to be is in her early 20s, if not actually a teenager.

"Come over here and stand next to me," I said, rising from the table. She looked ridiculously short to me.

We stood back-to-back, without our shoes. "Who's taller?" she asked the table.

There was a slight murmur. A slight hesitation. "You are," the consensus told her, "although not by much."

Well, I'm glad they added that disclaimer because I could feel my male ego deflating faster than a bald tire over a spike strip. There it was. It was official. Irrefutable. I'm 5-5.

There is some precedent in the family for this intersecting of gravity, spinal compression and fading bone mass. The last time I visited my grandmother Wehrle in Pennsylvania, I was shocked by how short she was. I imagine she was a woman who stood 5-4 or 5-5 in her prime. But now, in her late 90s, she barely reached my chin. And I'm a short guy.

At 63 years old, I have no way of measuring how fast I'm fading. I suspect one day I'll simply shrink to nothing like something in a plot out of an Edgar Allen Poe (ahem) short story.

I can see my epitaph now:

Bruce was a short guy
and from dusk to dawn
he kept getting shorter
until he was gone.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Blogosphere

Every once in a while, as a source of amusement, I'll check the stats on my blog to get a feel for the size and reach of my readership.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of blogger.com, the platform I use to write and publish my blog, but it tells me the number of hits I get daily, weekly, monthly and all time for each individual blog that I post. It also tells me which countries in which my readers live, which is kind of interesting. Does that mean somebody in Uzbekistan really cares enough to read about the concrete driveway I put in last year? Holy smokes.

I'm flattered and thankful for the small number of faithful readers that follow my blog on a fairly regular basis. I write this thing mostly to entertain, perhaps provide a chuckle, to raise an eyebrow, maybe even to express a simmering outrage and to finally get that off my chest.

A typical blog post will generate about 40-50 hits on the day of publication. I figure 25 of you are regular readers, the other 15 or so are occasional readers or simply found me by accident. And I am more than satisfied with that.

Every once in a while I'll write something that touches a common core. When my friend Kent Crim passed away several months ago, the blog I wrote about him went through the ceiling, generating nearly 900 page views, about 700 of them on the day of publication. That was gratifying.

But this past month something really bizarre has been going on. A blog I wrote three years ago, entitled "Weighty issue" (see here), was lingering at about 60 pageviews ever since it was first published in 2011. Then, for some reason, it recently started smoldering, and then it combusted.

For the past month, "Weighty issue" was getting 40-50 hits per day. Go figure. I couldn't understand it. The world map on the stats page shades each country green when a reader from that nation pulls up my blog, and for some reason, France was always green. Dark green. Green when every other country was blank. Suddenly, it seemed, the French couldn't get enough of me.

As of today, "Weighty issue" has gotten 1,526 pageviews, although the upward trending seems to be slowing down. The story about Kent Crim is a distant second with 892 hits.

Incredibly, I had 2,200 hits for the month of October. Yikes.

I don't get it. I don't have any friends or relatives in France, so why the sudden international interest in my weight?

Then it hit me. Frenchmen are crazy. Their most popular Hollywood actor is Jerry Lewis, for crying out loud. So why shouldn't I be a popular bloggist in France?

I'm still not sure what to make of all of this. I don't know whether to be humbled for the increased readership or annoyed that the sudden impact of 1,526 readers could be skewering the stats.

I guess I'll be humbled. Merci beaucoup.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Burning daylight

As I hammer away on my computer keyboard this morning, my wife remains sound asleep.

We gained an hour of sleep because we changed the clocks last night. Back to standard time. Thus, my wife — who sleeps like a cat anyway — gained an hour of sleep.

Lucky her. It didn't work that way for me — I just got up an hour earlier.

I don't know why we change the clocks. Without getting into the politics of it, the whole concept of saving daylight in the summer seems like a good idea to me, so why don't we save daylight all year long? Especially in the winter, when there's less of it.

OK, OK. It's 6:30 a.m. as I write this, and there's daylight right now where there was none yesterday. Great. Who's awake to take advantage of this moment? Who's outside cutting grass or raking leaves? We seem to be adjusting our daylight for the wrong part of the day.

I went to Wikipedia to read up on this to get a clue as to what I am talking about, but the thing read like a Master's thesis and it lost me when it got to the part about disrupting circadian rhythms, which I was surprised to learn had nothing to do with the Bee Gees and disco music. Clearly, resetting the clock is a different kind of Saturday Night Fever.



As a child, clock changing always seemed like a mid-night event to me, a peculiar precursor to Christmas. I was excited about it without knowing why. I'm still not sure why. Do we actually lose an hour? Do we only have 23 hours today? Or did we repeat an hour, similar to the Twilight Zone time shifts in Ground Hog Day? Is that why the official changing hour is 2 a.m., when nobody is awake?

The blue nations observe daylight savings time. Everyone else is normal.
 And how does the rest of the world cope with this? Wikipedia showed me a map of the world where certain western civilizations observe time changing, but others on the planet don't. How can you conduct international commerce and business with an arrangement like that? How can Federal Express keep a tidy schedule with this mess going on?

Changing the clocks also makes me aware of just how many timepieces I own. There's my watch, and there's my wife's watch, which is like a miniature and I can hardly get to the stem to wind the thing back. There's digital clocks on my appliances and my ancient stereo tuner, yet miraculously I don't have to fiddle with anything on my TV or computer, which somehow know to change the time automatically. So, I wonder, what else do the TV and computer know? Then there's the clocks in our cars, which I always try to change while I'm driving. Probably not a good idea.

But I'm probably overreacting and all of this may be a moot point anyway. I'm sure I'll reconsider everything I've said, you know, after I take my nap. At 3 p.m. Or maybe 2 p.m.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fun festival

I love the Lexington Barbecue Festival.

I also realize I might be one of only four city residents who actually admits to that, the other three being Joe Sink, Lee Jessup and Newell Clark. But Joe is a founder of the event, Newell is the mayor and Lee is the Opening Ceremonies emcee, so their enthusiasm is obvious (although sincere, I'm sure.)

By contrast, I have friends who actually leave town on festival day, wanting to put as much space between themselves and 200,000 barbecue eaters as possible. Their loss, I figure.

Not much of a crowd at 7 a.m. — perfect for scouting out the festival.
Actually, I'm not a fan of huge crowds, either. That might explain why Kim and I go to the festival around 7 a.m., before it officially opens, to scout out the vendor tents and sand sculpture, listen to sound checks, catch the aromas of funnel cakes, fried pies, blooming onions and cheese steaks in the air, and watch the line grow for Bob Timberlake's autograph on the label of Childress Vineyard's newest bottle of Fine Swine Wine.

Sidebar: One of my friends, a new resident to Lexington, vowed she wouldn't go to the festival because of her anticipation of a ginormous crowd. However, she met us on Main Street around 8 a.m., stayed until 11, went home to chill and meet her daughter coming up from Columbia, SC, and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the festival, mostly (as I understand it) with a smile on her face.

The festival can do that to you. It's truly a bucket list event.

This year the Main Stage featured gates and fencing for security reasons.
 This year, things were a bit different. The city was trying out a new plan for crowd control (to replace the old plan, which was no plan), particularly on the Square, featuring gates and fencing to allow emergency personnel better access to individuals, if needed. Merchants were no longer permitted to set up tables on the sidewalks in front of their businesses, thereby aiding in crowd control, access, and general movement.

I thought it all came together well.

Although the weather was nearly perfect — sunny and cloudless, with afternoon temps that reached into the mid 70s — the early morning crowd developed slowly. Kim and I left by 11-ish, so I had to depend on friends to tell me that the afternoon once again saw peak attendance.

High-flying dogs were a big hit. (Photo by Newell Clark)
 Every festival offers something new, and this year it was the Purina Pro Plan Performance team, which featured amazing Frisbee chasing border collies, shepherds and Chihuahuas. Some of these incredibly agile dogs could leap over my head, no doubt.

This particular portion of the festival was held in the field behind the Civic Center, where the Barbecue Cook-Off is held in the spring. Although it steers some of the crowd away from the vendors and other sights on Main Street, it is a logical gathering place. Stage 4 is located here, as well as the Wine Garden, and bringing folks to this location may take some of the pressure off the crowds on Main Street. It makes sense to me.

For the first time in 31 years of festival going, I did not buy an official festival barbecue sandwich. This has been a long-standing tradition with me, my way of supporting the festival, but this year I couldn't bring myself to pay $6 for a sandwich, or $12 for a tray. Hey, the cost of gas is going down, why not pork? So we opted out and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant. I asked them how come there was no barbecue taco on the menu. They laughed politely. Gringo.

But the party did spin off to Second Avenue later in the day. We have neighbors who have a huge front porch, and during the summer, they occasionally hold impromptu social gatherings for their friends. This was one of those moments. We had perhaps 10 or 12 adults crammed together with a bunch of their kids running around, which might force us to be credentialed next year — like a beer garden.

All in all, it was another perfect festival. I love it.