Sunday, June 18, 2017

Cooling it

We had to do something, and fast.

It was already getting unbearably hot, and it was still spring. A couple of days in the 90s, with the corresponding humidity to go with it.

Our little A/C unit just couldn't keep up...
So about two months ago, we started collecting estimates for a new cooling system. Our little Ruud central air unit, already about 10 years old when we bought our house about 13 years ago, was on its last legs.

In fact, last summer, when we had about a month of consecutive 100-degree days, the little unit simply couldn't keep up. We called a repair service, who put in a new condenser. That got us through the rest of the summer, but just barely. Even when the unit was running, it still got to be 84 degrees inside the house.

So we gainfully employed four of our six ceiling fans and one 30-year-old portable oscillating fan to good use. We used that strategy again this spring when the little Ruud finally said "Enough" and stopped pushing cold air.

We ended up with four estimates, ranging from four figures to five figures. If that sounds a bit wide ranging, keep in mind that we live in a house that will be 100 years old in a few years. There is no duct work to the second floor, which is cooled by two bedroom window units and heated by electric baseboards.

...The new unit is huge, but quite efficient.
 We considered ductless units for the upstairs, but anything we opted for would have required messing with 100-year-old plaster walls, and none of our potential contractors were really excited about that prospect. Neither were we.

So for the time being, we opted to keep the upstairs bedrooms as is. If you should happen to stay overnight with us, bring a heavy blanket in the winter or sleep au natural in the summer. Sorry, that's just how it is.

Anyway, after a couple weeks of agonizing, we decided to go with something called a gas pack. This is a combination heating and cooling system, which made sense to us. It brought us into the 21st century. Our neighbor had his gas pack installed about two years ago, forcing me to keep up with Jones's (so to speak). Even better, it meant I no longer had to navigate through the crawl space under my house, on my hands and knees, to change the furnace filter. I hated that job. I imagined snakes and cockroaches lingering everywhere.

No more. With a gas pack, I can change the filter outside.

The outfit we selected to install the unit (David Kinley's Services) was very professional. They tore out the old furnace and put in the new unit in two days. Just in time for the hot weather.

I was surprised when I cut on the unit for the first time. It was quiet. And, apparently, efficient. The first floor actually got cool, within minutes, it seemed. I ended up setting the thermostat at 74, and could probably get away with 75, which is amazing to me. Sometimes, we had the old unit set at 68 in an effort to stay cool.

It is big and a little ungainly. It looks like it could be used for commercial use. But we have it hidden — somewhat — amidst our hydrangeas.

It's all good now. I'm happy. I'm excited. And I'm soooo incredibly cool.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Gary Whitman

Maybe it was because we were both from Pennsylvania. I don't know for sure.

But I always got along with Gary Whitman.

Not many sports writers could say that. During his first tenure as Lexington's football coach — the one from 1981-88 in which he won consecutive state champions (1985 and 1986), an era that still rings loudly in the Yellow Jacket timeline — Whitman had something of a reputation as a dead-aim straight shooter who could aggravate sports writers at will. Curt. To the point. Suffered no fools.

I was a sports writer for The Dispatch then, primarily covering the teams in Davidson County, so I had little contact with the city schools.

That is, until I became sports editor in the 1990s. Until Whitman came back to Lexington in 2004. Then I had to deal with him directly.

I was a little apprehensive of him at first, not only because of his reputation as a no-nonsense guy, but also with how he dealt with the media.

Turned out, I had nothing to worry about. We got along just fine. Every Wednesday during football season, I'd go to his office in the field house to get an advance story on the upcoming Friday night opponent. But before we'd get into any particulars, we'd simply shoot the breeze. Sometimes he'd offer me a Coke or Pepsi, and we'd talk about Pennsylvania. The Phillies. The Pirates. The Steelers. The Eagles. Tastykakes.

He was from Lock Haven, in the sparsely populated central part of the state above Harrisburg. I was from Allentown, smack dab in the corridor between New York and Philadelphia. There was six years difference in our ages. All of which means nothing.

So the Gary Whitman I knew, the one I had to work with, was cordial. Mellow. I even wrote a column in 2003 about that seeming personality change that nobody quite could put a finger on. Looking back, I'm thinking by then he'd already accomplished things he didn't need to prove anymore. He collected a third state championship with nearby High Point Central. On top of that, as Lexington's tennis coach through the years, he won state titles in 1986, 1987 and 1991. Plus, he was a little older. Age is almost always a mellowing factor.

What more was there?

I enjoyed my time with him. I never played organized football, so he occasionally explained to me some of the nuances of the game. Once in a while he'd show me game film, to show me some technique, to see what went wrong, or what went right. Those were eye-openers for me. I still try to look for those things when I watch games on TV.

He was 80-22 in his first tenure at Lexington, and 26-34 his second time around. He ended up with an overall record of 292-141-1 in a 44-year career with seven different schools.

When I heard the other day that he had died, at the age of 72, I was saddened. He was a helluva coach. He was a contemporary. And he was a friend.








Sunday, June 4, 2017

Yeah, baby!

Back in February, back when all the pieces of the annual jigsaw puzzle were on the table waiting to be assembled, I wonder if anybody had an inkling that North Davidson's fabled softball program had another 4-A state championship in it.

The Knights won their only state title back in 2010, and that seemed to be enough. Coach Mike Lambros had created a remarkable program that had won everything in sight, up until then, except for the big one. His résumé was therefore incomplete: he was like the best golfer on the PGA Tour never to have won a major tournament.

A slogan, "Yeah, baby!" was born about 20 years ago to help bear the load and the team responded to it, through the good and the bad.

Then came 2010. The team went 33-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today. Lambros and the Knights had done it. It could never be better than that.

Certainly, this season didn't offer that kind of promise. Last August, Lambros was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and it seemed doubtful he'd ever be in a dugout again. But when February rolled around and practice began, there he was, a little thinner, a little grayer, giving instruction, shouting encouragement. The girls were listening.

Still...

Only six seniors dotted the 28-player roster. There were no big-name stars, no 15-strikeout per game pitchers. The team occasionally made uncharacteristic bonehead errors. In March, the Knights lost 2 of 3 games in one stretch, which almost never happens. Then, in April, they dropped a 7-3 nonconference decision to 3-A rival Ledford, quickly followed by a 5-3 nonconference loss to Enka in extra innings. Consecutive losses never happen.

There were no clues in sight. The Knights lost their Central Piedmont Conference tournament championship game with a lackluster 8-0 defeat to league rival Davie County. It was not the way you'd want to begin a run through the state playoffs.

Then, in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs against Watauga, during a game she was attending, Lambros's mother passed away. Lambros, himself, was traveling peaks and valleys in his cancer treatment that left you wondering exactly where this man was finding his strength just to stand up.

And, yet. And, yet...

The Knights cut their way through the playoffs, winning six straight games and setting up a best-of-three championship with Fayetteville Cape Fear. Again, the odds seemed steep. Cape Fear had gone through the regular season undefeated, had one loss in the best-of-three semifinals, and came into the finals as the second ranked team in the country.

No problem. North responded by winning 4-0 in Friday's first game, and followed that with Saturday's 3-2 capper. A sweep.

Could a state title ever be so satisfying? Lambros' career numbers are staggering: 880 victories against 131 losses in 38 years. No high school softball coach in North Carolina has more. That's a winning percentage of .870. That's an average of 23 victories per year. Per year.

Through all of this, Lambros has deflected attention — or tried to — from his own circumstances and put the spotlight on his team. "I am not a woe-is-me type person," maintains Lambros, and he leaves you no choice but to believe him.

And so, the familiar slogan offers a new perspective, a new line of thought:

Yeah, baby.



Sunday, May 28, 2017

We've got the power

This was an unusual power outage.

After an unusually heavy rainy Tuesday evening, the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink started blinking.

"Uh oh," said Kim, who was loading the dishwasher. "I think we need a new bulb." I flicked the light switch several times, which is how I test my lights, with nothing happening. I thought about checking the circuit breaker, but then, somewhat retroactively, everything else demanding electricity in the house quit.

Hmmm.

Then I did what everybody does in these situations: I went outside.

Slowly,  one by one, neighbors appeared from their doorways. "Is your power out, too?" we asked each other, with myself taking some comfort in knowing that it wasn't just me. It was all of us.

Until my neighbor from across the street pointed to one of the maple trees in my front yard. "You know one of your branches came down, right?"

Somewhere in this picture there is a fallen limb about to be let go...
 "Uh oh," I said to myself, looking up and seeing a rather large branch draped across the lines. Apparently, it wasn't all of us. It really was me.

"I'll call the city," said my neighbor.

A few minutes later, one of the city's cherry picker utility trucks appeared. I walked up a block to see how extensive the outage was, and it was everywhere. Even a stoplight at a nearby intersection was out. The grid was in complete disarray.

Meanwhile, a small crowd gathered in my front yard, looking at the fallen branch as a slight, unfinished rain continued to drizzle. I was feeling oddly guilty even though this was clearly out of my hands. But it was my tree.

Another utility truck appeared. The two drivers got out and held a discussion in the middle of the street. I thought one of them pointed at me, but maybe it was just my imagination. A third utility truck briefly appeared, then headed back up the road.

One of the drivers from the mid-street conference, who had the cherry picker on his truck, hopped in the bucket and raised himself up to the broken limb. He revved up a small chain saw and started carving the offending limb, taking care of that issue. Until then, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to get rid of that branch, but apparently, city taxes do the trick. Thank you, neighbors.

Still, there was no power. I suggested to Kim that we get in the car, drive around to see what other damage there was, stop at the store and get a few items, and maybe we'll be back on the grid by the time we return.

So we did all that. We were gone maybe 20 minutes, and as we headed back, I saw that the stoplight that was out earlier was now working.

"I think we're back on line," I said and saw lights glowing in my neighbors' windows.

I later found out that another branch had broken off from a tree several blocks away and apparently it was the culprit. The lines on my side of the street — where my limb had fallen — are telephone and cable lines, while those across the street are the power lines, with something like 75,000 volts coursing through them. The limb up the street had fallen on the power lines.

Many kudos to the city utility workers. The whole episode took about an hour, from my neighbor calling the city to the return of our power. The food in our freezer was not going to defrost. My ice cream was not going to melt. The beer was going to stay cold.

Life is good.




Sunday, May 21, 2017

Big burger at Big Rock

I was on The Great Burger Chase and didn't even know it.

I always thought I could make a pretty decent burger on my Lodge hibachi grill, when you came right down to it, but it turns out I wasn't even close.

When I was in a hurry, and didn't want to get out of my car, I thought Char's was always a good drive-thru choice. And the Garbage Burger at Terry's Sports Bar is a delicious meal in itself.

Then, about six months ago, my wife and I were in High Point and for no apparent reason other than the whim we rode in on, we walked into Tipsy'z Tavern, where I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. Mmmm. I thought I'd attained Nirvana.

I didn't know anything.

A few months ago, during one of our neighborhood porch parties, Lexington's Big Rock Tavern on National Boulevard was mentioned. It might have had something to do with Trivia Night or Karaoke Night, or where to go for great wings, I'm not sure. But Kim and I took a chance and walked in.

James "Koozie" Thomason knows his way around a kitchen.
 The last time we were in the building, it was called Avery's. And before that, it was Heritage House. And way before that, you could choose between 28 flavors of ice cream when it was a Howard Johnson's with the little weather vane and cupola on the roof. It was a place we've always known about, but was never really in our restaurant rotation.

But now it's Big Rock Tavern, where you can get a direct link to Burger Heaven.

The first time we went, I ordered a cheeseburger. It's always a good hint when the wait staff asks how I want the meat cooked because it indicates somebody in the kitchen actually cares. I like mine medium.

When the burger arrived, I was shocked. It was a half-pounder. Huge. Flame-broiled. Lettuce. Tomato. Cheddar cheese. Onions. Mustard, no mayonnaise. Hot chips overflowing on the side. I'd found my express to Burger Heaven. Take me now, Lord.

No, wait. Let me finish this burger first.

Kim, meanwhile, had dutifully ordered the ribeye salad. The beef, she said, was incredibly tender. And tasty. And grilled just right.

We soon became late Saturday afternoon regulars. I couldn't get past the cheeseburgers. Kim has since tried the grilled chicken salad, and usually alternates with the ribeye, depending on what her diet suggests that day. It usually doesn't suggest the fried mushrooms, but, my goodness...

A half-pound cheeseburger or a grilled ribeye salad beckon...
 I had to know how this food showed up in Lexington. Chef! Bring me the chef! I have to talk to the chef!

A very large man walked over to the table. I thought he might be the bouncer because, you know, I'm such a rabble-rouser. But it turns out, he was the cook, James "Koozie" Thomason. I had to ask...

"How do you do it? Where did you go to culinary school?"

"I didn't," said Koozie. "I just always liked cooking. When I was 16, I worked in an Italian restaurant, and then did odd jobs for a while until I got here. Sean (Smith, the owner) and Carrie are good friends and they took a chance on me and here I am. This place is like home to me now."

I get it. Home cooking.

The kitchen is Koozie's domain. It's all his except for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — the slam nights — when he gets assistance. Mostly, said Koozie, "you work one order at a time and take it as it comes. It's all about time management in the kitchen."

Big Rock basically offers a modest menu, but that doesn't mean Koozie can't adjust.

"There are some customers who come in and tell me, 'Fix whatever you want,'" said Koozie, who's been making magic happen at Big Rock for about two years or so. Consequently, new food groups have shown up, like quesadillas and wraps (There's even a Koozie wrap). So there's some things that are not on the menu.

One of the keys for the restaurant's success (The place started life as a sports bar, and it still retains that theme with perhaps a dozen TV's decorating the place and a humble selection of craft and draught beers. But it's fair to say that it's a family restaurant, too, where people bring their kids for birthday parties) is the fresh food. The burgers are hand-pattied. The ribeyes are cut to order.

"We use nothing but fresh food," said Koozie. "Sean gets fresh stock every day. I don't know how he does it."

Sean, for his part, knows he has a gem in Koozie.

"He's a great cook, obviously," said Smith. "He's worked really hard being here. He started out washing dishes and just kinda worked his way up. He's pretty much self-taught. Some of our recipes are in-house stuff, but he's taken them and rolled with them and done a very, very good job with them.

"He's actually got his own line of wraps here and customers ask for them," added Smith. "We're very lucky to have him."

Meanwhile, Koozie keeps on keeping on. Is this his dream job?

"I don't know if it's my dream job," laughed Koozie, "but I am passionate about it. I put a lot of heart in my work. And thanks to the great customers, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it."

So do we.






Sunday, May 14, 2017

You can't always get what you want

My wife, Kim, has been wanting to see Loretta Lynn in concert for nearly forever.

Even as a little girl, Kim has had a desire to hear the iconic country singer in person.

And it looked like it could happen late last year. Lynn was scheduled to perform at The Alabama Theater in North Myrtle Beach last October. So Kim, who knew I wasn't a huge country music fan, asked me — with crocodile tears in her eyes — if it was OK to get tickets.

Let's back up for a minute. About 30 years ago, when I really didn't care for country music, we went to Nashville to visit my youngest brother, Scott, who was working as a nurse at Vanderbilt. Kim, naturally enough, wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry, having never been before and figuring this was probably a one-time opportunity.

OK, I said, thinking I could endure the Opry for two hours of twang and still make my wife happy. So we went.

And it turned out to be something of a life-changing event — for me. Although there were no big name stars that night, I readily came to appreciate the musicianship and the talent of the artists who were there. I came to appreciate Goo Goo Clusters and Martha White flour. It was incredible. Within weeks, I was listening to Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and Kathy Mattea, with a little Mary Chapin Carpenter thrown in for good measure.

I had broadened my horizons. Duets with Patty Loveless and Vince Gill could make me cry. We went to see Martina in concert in Roanoke and the opening act was a relatively unknown child performer named LeAnn Rimes, who majestically sang "Blue." I once scored front-row seats for Alison Krauss and Union Station in Greensboro.

Fast forward to now.

So, sure. Go ahead and order tickets for Loretta Lynn. But do it now, because she's like in her mid-80s (85, actually). I heard that Loretta still put on a good show, that she mostly sat when she sang and told lots of stories. I can always listen to a good storyteller, especially from a Hall of Famer.

Kim bought the tickets. All we had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait.

October came, and so did Hurricane Matthew, who arrived about the same time as the scheduled show, which had to be postponed. Oddly enough, Kim and I both have it in our heads that the October show was actually a rescheduling from a previous booking, although we're not quite sure. But we think so.

Anyway, the rescheduled date was for February of this year, falling on the same weekend that we had reserved for a trip to Asheville. But, hey, this was Loretta, and she wasn't getting any younger. We made our plans.

But, then, that show was postponed because it was Grammy Awards weekend and Loretta had to be there. So she was rescheduled again, this time for two weeks ago.

We quickly rearranged our own schedules to see her in concert. Then, on the day we were to leave for the coast, I got an email from some friends who were going to the show as well, and were already at the beach. The email was only four words: "She fell. Show cancelled."

We left for the beach anyway just to get away. But we did stop at the Alabama Theater to find out about their refund policy. It turns out that Loretta had suffered a slight stroke, but fortunately, she's on the mend. Everybody is optimistic the show will go on at a future date. We're holding on to our tickets.

I don't know if there's a life lesson in here, or what. Three postponements — maybe four — seems to be bucking the odds. Life is strange. There are no promises. You can't always get what you want.






Wednesday, May 3, 2017

All steamed up

A couple of weeks ago my wife, Kim, and I were driving through nearby Spencer, past the North Carolina Transportation Museum, when something caught my eye.

Usually, it's a train engine of some kind that gets my attention. Locomotives have performed that sort of magic on me for about 60 years or so, and don't I know it. Sometimes I go out of my way to drive through Spencer just to see what's up. I mean, geez, you never know when Thomas the Tank Engine will be there.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The now familiar Class J No. 611 makes a run for it.
 This time, it worked. There on the tracks, chugging away, belching coal smoke and steam, was a pugnacious little engine I'd never seen before. Written on the water tank that sat like a saddle on top of the boiler (thus, a "saddle tank" engine) were the words "Lehigh Valley Coal Co." and underneath, in smaller print, "Hazelton Shaft Colliery."

"Holy smokes," I thought to myself. "What's that doing here?"

I grew up in the Lehigh Valley: Allentown. Bethlehem. Fountain Hill. My interest was piqued, as they say. I kind of thought the engine might have worked the sprawling Bethlehem Steel yards.

Logically, I figured the engine was in the Spencer Shops for some restoration work. But, no. As I later found out, "Sadie" (as she is known by) was in town for the 100 Years of Steam event that was held this past weekend. The engine was part of a three-train display that also featured the Civil War era "Texas" and the iconic bullet-nosed, art deco Class J No. 611, headquartered in Roanoke, Va.

The "Texas" is a wonderful piece of history, and beautiful in its own right.
 We'd seen the 611 before, two years ago when she completed her restoration at the Spencer Shops. A big deal was made about her return to Roanoke and many of us figured we might not ever see her again after her highly celebrated departure.

But now she makes fairly regular excursions between Spencer and Roanoke, and so every once in a while, you can hear her singularly plaintive steam whistle as she Dopplers her way through Lexington.

I also had some interest in the "Texas," which Kim and I had seen years ago in the Atlanta History Center where it is on permanent static display. The engine is part of Civil War lore, one of several involved in the Great Locomotive Chase through the hinterlands of Georgia in 1862. It was the "Texas," running in reverse, that finally caught up to the "General," which had been commandeered by Yankees on a raiding party.

I was surprised by how small the "Texas" was compared to her more modern cousins at the Spencer Shops, where she'd spent the past year or so undergoing her own restoration before heading back to Atlanta.

Saddle tank owner John Gramling gives me a lesson in engineering.
But it was "Sadie" that really interested me. I asked if there was any literature on her and was told, even better, that the owner, John Gramling, was on site. He might even be operating the engine.

And that's where we found him, making a water stop.

Gramling and his son, Barney, are basically a two-man saddle tank restoration team. They operate out of a barn on the family property in Ashley, Ind., and had restored one saddle tank engine before finding No. 126 in a scrap yard in Carbondale, Pa., in 2001. They came looking for parts and instead bought the engine for $4,500.

It only took the Gramlings 10 years to get "Sadie" back on track, as it were.

"It's a lot of work," understated Gramling, a carpenter by trade who once did a little teaching in addition to running the family farm before devoting full time to restoration work in 1985. "But it's also very rewarding. We travel a large part of the country, give rides, maybe offer a little education."

No. 126, as it turned out, never left the coal yards.

The Gramlings now have a stable of four engines.

"Yeah, well," sighed Gramling. "We bought the fourth one in a rage of stupidity, I guess. It's really gotten out of hand.

"We research the renovation work on our own," said Gramling. "The one thing I've learned from all of this is when someone offers you advice about these engines, it's probably best not to take it," he smiled.



Trains were in operation all over the Spencer yard, it seemed. I thought that was a curious thing, given that there were a ton of pedestrians on the grounds. Generally speaking, masses of iron and steel moving with the force of momentum don't usually play well together with flesh and bones, but somehow, the Transportation Museum makes it work.

And it occurred to me what an incredibly wonderful resource this place is: Turntable. Roundhouse. Active workshop. Museum. We're lucky to have something like this so close to home.

Just a train whistle away.






Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underhill Rose Live

As much as I enjoy listening to Underhill Rose on my CD player — I've got three of their discs running on a continuous loop in my car — there's nothing better than listening to them sing their mesmerizing harmonies in a live performance.

And, preferably, to hear them in a place like High Rock Outfitters. Spending two hours or so listening to them perform is like taking a break from the noise, from the crush, from the smog that sometimes clouds around us.

It's like taking a breath of fresh air. Mountain air.

So last night, at HRO, I got the best of all possible worlds.

 There they were, three seriously talented women from Asheville (guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjoist Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson) once again singing their songs in one of their favorite venues, promoting their latest CD, "Underhill Rose Live."

I've been waiting patiently for this moment. While their three previous CDs are accomplished products, they are also studio productions that give us a sound you don't quite get on the stage.

The stage, of course, is less cluttered. The sound from mouth to ear, from instrument to ear, offers us a better sense of the truth, I believe, when not enhanced by studio gadgetry. We are there. It's electric. It's acoustic.

That's what I like about live recordings. It helps put me back in my front row seat, where I want to be. Interestingly enough, several of the tunes in this album were recorded at HRO last September. I was there. Perhaps you can hear me applauding.

You can find most of the songs in this 15-tune collection in their previously released CDs, but one of the joys, for me anyway, are the songs not found on any of their other albums. Their covers of "Bette Davis Eyes," "Trouble in Mind," "In Color," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and "Long Monday" are, in my opinion, some of the best tracks on the CD.

Just listen: Molly deliciously delivers a particularly soulful rendition of "Bette Davis Eyes;" Salley is full of fun — wait, did she just wink at us? — in "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and Eleanor's wistful serenade in "Long Monday" artfully turns John Prine's plaintive lyrics into a moving picture show.

They might have included another one. Last night, on stage, they offered us "Ode to Billie Joe," and it was absolutely stunning, what with Molly's moody, understated vocals recalling the story line. New life to an old favorite. Very nice.

You'll find Underhill Rose's ear-pleasing harmonies and crisp musicianship everywhere on this album, tune after tune, clearly defining what their stage show is all about. Simply slip the CD into the player and you've paid the price of admission.

Underhill Rose is about to embark on its third British Isles tour in June, so it may be autumn, or later, before we see them again. That's why I'm going to my car right now and adding this latest release to my unending loop.

(See "Ode to Billie Joe" video at 7:45, but enjoy four Underhill Rose tunes at HRO here: Thanks to Franklin Bell for this.)








Sunday, April 23, 2017

Memory Lane

For some reason, I keep body surfing in a tsunami of nostalgia.

A couple of days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook friends when I came across an old black-and-white photo of something I thought I recognized.

It was a picture of Fountain Hill, Pa. And not just any picture, either. It was a shot of people building the borough playground. There were horse-drawn wagons, men with shovels, and, in the background, a fuzzy line of row homes. The picture was taken in 1928.

Constructing the playground in Fountain Hill, Pa., circa 1928.
 OMG.

I lived in Fountain Hill, sometime around 1955-59. It was a small community (pop. 3,500?) happily nestled in the ridges of South Mountain, just outside the shadow of Bethlehem, Pa. These were my formative years, when I was between 4 and 8 years old. We lived in one of those row homes where the street was lined with sycamores and chestnuts. The playground they built was directly across the street from us. Beaver Cleaver couldn't have done better.

Somehow, I had stumbled across a Fountain Hill Facebook page. There were pictures. There were discussions. There were videos. I had no choice. I had to join the site.

One of the pictures I found was of my Kindergarten class at Stevens School. There was Miss Rau, our teacher. We had milk and cookies between sessions of learning our ABC's, then we took naps on little rugs that we'd unroll. I think the naps were her idea so she could have a few minutes a day to herself, even though she told us that naps would help make us smarter and grow stronger. I think she probably needed our naps more than we did.

Miss Rau's Kindergarten. Am I the guy on the front row, extreme right?
 I'm not sure if that's me in the picture. Not 100 percent sure, anway. I look like me; my wife says it's me, but my brother says, Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to think. So I just don't know. I'll continue to say it's me until some Joe Blow says it's really him.

Notice that Miss Rau is standing directly behind me, probably for a reason. I'm scowling.

I was enjoying this.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I posted a picture of my father back when he was an English teacher at Fountain Hill High School and, Boom! the posts started flowing. Some people fondly recalled my dad as their teacher, as their mentor and as their friend. That really got to me.

Then one poster said she remembered me after all these years, confessed that she had a Stevens School crush on me and was sad when our family moved away to New Hampshire. I felt kind of bad about that. I didn't know any girl actually liked me that much. I hope I didn't break her heart. Hey, it wasn't my idea to go live in New Hampshire. I was only 8.

Anyway, my other brilliant thought was to tell my brother, David, about this page. So he quickly joined, too. He's three years younger than I am and his memories of the place are about as vivid as mine. He posted an era-correct B&W picture of kids playing box hockey — an incredibly favorite activity at the playground back then — and the posts suddenly started flying off the page as memories ignited.

Two things — the playground, and Stevens School — were the centers of our age of innocence back then. Dave and I talked about the responses that filled the discussion boards, most all of them hinting about the quality of life we had and the way the tight little community looked after its people. A lot of folks used the word "special" about their experience growing up there.

My wife, Kim, a lifelong resident of Lexington, grew up in the Erlanger neighborhood, which was also inclusive and had its own play area, ball field and swimming pool — not too unlike Fountain Hill. She, too, feels a sense of community when she talks about her childhood.

As my brother suggested, "Hey, growing up there made us who we are today."

Amen, and amen.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

The end of an era

For the past 37 years, at least one person with my last name worked at Lexington State Bank/NewBridge Bank/Yadkin Bank/First National Bank.

That ended a week ago when my tenure as a part-time employee — who worked in the mailroom the past five-and-a-half years — finally ran its course, staggering down the stretch, looking somewhat dehydrated and nearly out of breath.

The first 31 years were filled by my wife, Kim. She spent most of that time as the assistant to both the CEO  and the bank president (it's now deemed improper to label somebody as a secretary, unless they work as the head of a government cabinet position), keeping the ship stable behind the scenes.

She was hired out of junior college and subsequently flourished as a reliable, intelligent and faithful employee for what many customers and clients pretty much remember as an exceptional community bank.

She recalls those years with fondness. She made several lifelong friendships there. To this day, LSB remains a part of her essential core. Thirty-one years.

But times change. In an era of mergers, LSB combined with Greensboro-based FNB Southeast in 2007 in what was said to be "a merger of equals." Well, equal assets, anyway. What became NewBridge Bank turned out to be something less than equal for former LSB employees. Some lost their jobs as a result of the merger. And, at least here in town, some felt the bank had lost some of its personal touch.

Kim lost her job when her position was eventually displaced. She was let go in a final round of dismissals across the bank's footprint. A few months later, I learned the bank was looking for part-time help in the mailroom. I'd already retired from The Dispatch, but I needed to help out financially at home while Kim looked for work. So I applied for the job. And somehow, I got it.

A Wehrle was still at the bank. Go figure. Well, yeah, I worked in the basement, where the mailroom was located, and no one could find me without a map and GPS. But I contributed, and I made some good friends. It was the perfect job for a retired guy. It probably helped that Kim had paved the way before me.

Anyway, NewBridge managed to keep Lexington as its operation center and the bank remained a vital part of the community. Well, at least until 2015, when it was purchased by Raleigh-based Yadkin Financial Corp.

Here we go again.

That seemed to be the end of the merger-go-round, but, no. Within months, it seemed, we found out we were purchased by Pittsburgh-based First National Bank, a megabank.

The acquisition happened so fast, Yadkin Bank never got its signage on the building. Much of the stationery still had "NewBridge Bank" on it. Log-ins still referred to NewBridge, and courier bags from the branches still carried the NewBridge logo.

But it all ended last week. The once-thriving five-story building is now a first-floor operation only. Nearly 200 employees who once worked in the Lexington Main building have been whittled down to about 30 or so.

And for my wife and myself, well, an era comes to an end. A Wehrle has worked at the bank for our entire married lives together.

Not anymore.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Party time

Less than 24 hours from now, music is going to fill the air in Lexington.

And there's going to be about 1,000 people on hand — maybe more — to listen to six acts perform over 11 hours at the brand-new Breeden Insurance Amphitheater, located between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue just south of Main Street.

Workers put the final touches on the Breeden Amphitheater Friday.
 The scheduled performers include the nationally known Gin Blossoms, and Edwin McCain, the Lilly Brothers, On The Border (an Eagles tribute band), The Steppin' Stones and Holy Ghost Tent Revival.

The place is going to be rockin'.

And maybe, in part, you can thank city manager Alan Carson for that.

The primary purpose of the event, said Carson, is to draw attention to Lexington, and just as significantly, to the potential of the Depot District, which seeks a long-range plan for the development of the old Lexington Brands Furniture property, including an Amtrak stop.

The city purchased the property for just over $1 million back in 2006. Back then, many doubters wondered why.

But the vision of a decade ago is slowly coming into focus. A popular farmers' market took hold in the nearby freight depot several years ago, more or less getting people used to the idea of seeing something besides abandoned buildings where a thriving industry once stood.

Bull City Ciderworks arrived with some fanfare in 2015, rented a building for its brewery, and now recently bought the property, thus putting it on the city's tax rolls.

And now the amphitheater, to which Mark and Jill Breeden of Breeden Insurance gifted $200,000 toward its construction. The amphitheater, of course, could likely be a draw for future events.

Suddenly, that million-dollar purchase of some forlorn old buildings might just be the steal of the century.

As of Friday morning, Carson said there have been more than 800 tickets pre-sold, with more than 65 percent of those sales coming from outside of Lexington. No, wait. Outside of Davidson County. No, wait. Outside of the Piedmont.

"It's amazing," said Carson. "We're getting people from all over, including places from as far away as California and Minnesota. I don't know if they're family members of the bands, or what. But it's good."

Carson said there's no way the event will make money this year. Most inaugural events hardly ever do. But the primary benefit that will come — is coming — is an outsider learning a little bit more about Lexington.

"Maybe a developer or an investor will come to the concerts, look around, see what Lexington has to offer, see where we're going, and maybe looks into buying property here," said Carson. "Who knows? But it's exciting to think about."

Depending on how things go tomorrow — and it looks promising, with a sunny day and temperatures expected in the mid-60s — the music fest could be an annual event.

So far, it seems to be hitting the right notes.






Sunday, April 2, 2017

My right foot

About a year ago, Kim was walking down our back porch steps. The wooden steps were wet, and she was wearing her well-worn and slick-soled Crocs, which probably best explains how she ended up on her bottom before she reached bottom. Thump, thump, thump...

The offending steps...
 I wasn't home and she told me about it later. She wasn't hurt in the fall — just sore — but it could have been considerably worse. We were lucky.

"Be careful," she tells me to this day, every time I go out the back door.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I thought about all of this while I was in the middle of my own slippage down the porch steps earlier this past week. It had been raining, and I was wearing my own worn out Crocs while taking out the garbage early Monday morning.

Surprise. My foot slipped out from under me...

I have noticed this peculiar phenomenon that occurs when you are in the process of having an uncontrollable accident — time goes into slow motion. Thoughts go through your head with lightning speed — maybe even faster than that.

So anyway, while still in the process of falling, I swear I was thinking, "This is what happened to Kim. I hope this doesn't hurt..."

My right foot has become a canvas for modern art...
 I'm not quite sure what happened next. I think I tried to catch myself, but with both hands loaded with recyclables, there wasn't much I could do. I ended up on my ass, with my right leg bent awkwardly behind me. On the steps.

I didn't hear anything snap. I didn't feel anything tear. I stayed where I was for a moment, waiting for the pain to announce itself. I looked around to make sure my neighbors hadn't seen any of this. Kim was getting ready for work. I slowly started to unfold myself, limb by limb. The only thing that was starting to hurt was where I skinned my wrist, heel and knee. But no blood.

Nothing broken.

That was close.

But later in the day, several toes on my right foot were starting to swell, then turn black and blue. I went to work anyway, but early on, I had to take my shoes off because of the swelling. Apparently, I jammed several phalanges when I landed, in the way a basketball player might jam a finger miscatching a basketball. I showed a couple co-workers my mostly purple toes, because, you know, it was turning into a pretty good war story by now and I relish undeserved sympathy.

When I finally got home, I applied ice.

I felt better the next day. And the next. By the end of the week, most of the discoloration had gone. No doctor required.

Life has returned to normal speed.

We were lucky. Again.






Sunday, March 26, 2017

Changing times

Some things I think I think:

After this week's health care fiasco, maybe Washington DC should focus less on the art of the deal and more on the art of the compromise.

I know, I know. I may be picking nits here in my definitions of "deal" and "compromise."

To  me, deals are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Deals occasionally rely on deceit, bullying and chicanery and sometimes end in a handshake where somebody still feels taken advantage of. Kind of like buying a car.

In my definition, compromises are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Compromises generally involve adult give-and-take discussion to reach a common ground that end in a handshake and where both sides feel reasonably comfortable with the outcome. Kind of like a marriage.

My definitions of a deal and a compromise are separated by nuance. But what nuance...

Didn't government once work that way? Or was that just in a Jimmy Stewart movie I once saw?

•  •  •

President Trump suggested that with the demise of the Republican health care bill on Friday, the Democrats now completely and totally own health care.

But I don't think that's necessarily true.

The Affordable Care Act, with all of its flaws (which I believe could be cured with government by compromise), is still the law of the land. It rests under the purview of Dr. Tom Price, the newly-installed head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Which puts both Trump and Price in politically delicate moral dilemmas. Do they actively try to undermine the ACA along party lines and hope for its eventual collapse, or do they work to make the ACA succeed for the benefit of the people by whom they were elected? Both have taken oaths to faithfully uphold the Constitution (and, thus, the laws of the land).

Stay tuned.

•  •  •

We were in Salisbury Saturday to run a few errands.

While we were there, we made a visit to West End Plaza because that's where K&W is, and we really like the food there — and, for me, especially the chicken pie.

But afterwards, we made a quick stop at the nearby Dollar Tree for a couple of items. That's when it hit me — the once thriving West End Plaza (which one time offered a Belks, bookstores, candy stores, specialty shops, etc) has been reduced to just a couple of stores, of which the Dollar Tree apparently is now the anchor business (if you don't count the stand-alone K&W). Not even the empty Big Lots, sitting next door, could survive the shifting (socio-economic) times.

It kind of reminded me of the suggestion that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, only the arthropods will survive. Or something like that.

•  •  •

I heard the powerful hum of a four-engine prop airplane above me the other day and glanced up to see what it was. I was hoping for a B-17 or a B-24, but what I ended up with was a DC-6 instead.

I didn't know it at the time, of course. While I was straining to look at the plane lumbering through the sky, I noticed that it was heading in the direction of the Davidson County airport, so I hopped in my car and raced out to the field.

The plane wasn't there, but I asked the person behind the desk if he saw what I saw about 15 minutes ago.

"That was a DC-6," he said. "I flew in one of those about 50 years ago."

Cool.

This resembles the plane I saw flying above me on Friday.









Sunday, March 19, 2017

The arts

Last weekend we were sitting in the audience in the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania, patiently waiting for what we knew would be a wonderful Americana performance by Lexington's Snyder Family Band.

Before the show began, and as a sidebar to the introduction of the group to the audience, a member of the Muddy Creek staff took the stage to welcome us.

He then, somewhat surprisingly, encouraged us to support the smaller music venues (like Muddy Creek, which might seat 100 people if they can find a few more folding chairs) because, in his estimation, the small venues are where you can find the roots arts, as opposed, to say, the glitzy coliseum experiences that can cost upwards of $400 a ticket (or more).

Well, this gets complicated in a hurry. But I see his point. I love the intimacy of a small venue, where I can sit 10 feet away from a relatively unknown artist who is every bit as talented as (let's say) Paul McCartney or Stevie Nicks, and pay $15 for the show.

But I also figure the McCartneys' and the Nicks' have paid their dues and who fortuitously (for them) hit the lottery. Even in the big time, their craft is still their art. And vice versa.

I was thinking of all this when the Trump administration revealed its proposed "hard-power" budget on Wednesday, which would strip all funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public media (like NPR's popular "A Prairie Home Companion" or Public Broadcasting's "Downton Abbey").

I'm not sure I understand why even go in this direction. The arts and humanities represent such a minuscule portion of the budget that cutting them is not going to impact the national debt. Public broadcasting gets $445 million in annual funding, while the NEA and NEH receive $145 million from the $4 trillion federal budget.

Conversely, continued funding of these agencies, I believe, enriches us all.

But cutting their funding, to me, represents more of an administration philosophy. And in this case, it's hurtful. And souless. It's why I believe — hope — Congress will take its own carving knife to the proposed budget.

I suspect that stripping funding from the arts and humanities would reduce things like program grants, artist workshops, cultural preservation programs and the like — the very things that fuel our individual expression, voice and identity.

While the arts and humanities may not generate (at least, on the surface) the same importance in the budget as national defense or infrastructure, it's my belief they are important nonetheless. If we ourselves don't happen to be artists, it's still likely that we are consumers of the arts and humanities.

And the arts and humanities are still us.






Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Snyder Family Band, again

Turns out, when I wrote a blog about the Snyder Family Band last October after their performance in the Barbecue Festival, I had no clue what I was talking about (See here).

Well, I sort of did. I know what my ear likes when it listens to music. It's just that my education about the Lexington-based (or, more precisely, Tyro-based) Snyders wasn't complete.

That's because, during the Festival, we saw them perform on an outdoor stage on a chilly, blustery, wind-blown morning. Then, later that day, they performed again in the cavernous Smith Civic Center. Both times, I was impressed by their talent, but I somehow wanted more.

Last night, all that changed. Kim and I saw them again, this time in the intimate (maybe 100 seats) and acoustically perfect Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania. The place is an old Moravian grist mill with wooden beams, floors and walls, and it's as unique a listening room as you'll ever find.

And it was perfect for The Snyder Family Band ("Snyder with a 'Y'", as they like to say), which really requires up close and personal attention for full effect.

Their genre is Americana, which is probably not for everybody, so their audience is mostly target specific. Samantha, 18, plays fiddle and rhythm guitar (not at the same time), while her brother, Zeb, 21, plays lead guitar like his fingers are going to spontaneously combust. Bud, their father (no age given) plays the upright bass. And then there's show-stealing little brother, Owen, 11, who wears out the banjo for a couple of crowd-pleasing tunes. Owen brings the adorable factor to the stage.

So here was the continuation of my education. Samantha, when you listen closely, has a timbre to her voice that makes her sound very similar to virtuoso Alison Krauss — an artist from whom Samantha says she draws inspiration. She told me she's heard that comparison with Krauss from others, so it's not just me swimming in awe here.

Samantha picked up the fiddle when she was three years old and hasn't put it down since. She's also a gifted song writer and lyricist, so take that. Oh, yeah. And stage presence. Her wit is quick and her personality shines every time she smiles. Which is often.

Zeb also started playing young, picking up the guitar when he was around seven or eight. Then he picked up a banjo. And then a mandolin. If it has strings, he'll play it.

I don't know who taught him finger work (or finger craft, in his case), but watching him bring a guitar to its senses is simply mouth dropping. In all my years of concert going, I think he's one of the best guitar artists I've ever seen. Period. Several times during the show his solos evoked ovations, so again, it's not just me.

Then there's Bud. The story told last night is that Bud and his wife, Laine, home-school their children. In order to round out the kids' education they were encouraged by their parents to explore music, and when it turned out that Zeb and Samantha sounded pretty good together, they started doing local gigs.

"But I thought our sound needed depth," Zeb told the audience, "so we asked Dad if he'd play the upright. He said 'No.'"

Then, as a Christmas gift, Bud was given an upright. Zeb, naturally enough, taught Bud bass basics, and now the family band is where it is, making great music, and still evolving.

Bud told the audience that forming a band was never really a set goal, that it just happened on its own. Shared DNA can do that sometimes. "We love to play music, we have fun with it, and to do it with my children is unbelievable."

It could be that I still don't know what I'm talking about when I write about the Snyders. But that's OK. I'll just keep going back for more education.










Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Course correction

Kim said I was presented with a rare gift.

I got to hear somebody say something nice about me, and it wasn't at my funeral, a time when most people don't get to hear the nice things said about them. You know, because they're dead.

But this moment that happened to me seemed a little deeper, and it was certainly more affecting than I ever would have imagined. It's stayed with me for several days now.

It went something like this:

I was in the sauna after my daily two-hour workout at the YMCA. Usually, the sauna is a solitary place, but on this morning, there was another fellow in there, a young, mid-30-ish man I'd never seen at the Y before. I think there's a membership drive going on because new faces are cropping up everywhere in the fitness center. I figure that'll last about a month or so, after all those introductory memberships expire, and the place returns to normal.

Anyway, we struck up a brief conversation. It somehow came out in the moist heat that I'd worked at The Dispatch for 30 years, and blah, blah, blah. After a few more minutes, I got up to leave. I went to shake his hand and told him, by the way, that my name is Bruce.

His eyes lit up. I could see his wheels spinning hard trying to connect dots.

"Bruce?" he said. "At The Dispatch?"

"Yeah. I was the sports writer there for 30 years."

"Awww, man. I know you. You were good," he said, and if the conversation ended there, I would have left on Cloud 9. But he went on.

"The things you wrote about me, well, I think they helped me get a scholarship, because I messed up some things. But your stories really helped me.

"And not just me, but there's other guys, too," he offered.

My throat tightened. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't speak, and I was hoping the sweat on my face from the sauna camouflaged the tears welling in my eyes. I never saw this coming.

"I have to go," I croaked, and walked out of the sauna.

I never thought much about how my job at the paper affected people. I mostly thought of myself as a documentarian, writing those first drafts of history that showed up in newsprint every day. I mean, I was just writing about the games people play. This was so completely out of the ether. And yet, in a single moment, a total stranger seemingly justified my entire career.

I have two brothers who at certain points in their lives were first responders. They were the ones who helped people. My dad was a teacher, and then a minister. He helped people. I just wrote stories. I wrote to inform, and if I did it well enough, to entertain.

But now this person gave me something else to think about. What he said didn't alter my life, didn't turn me 180 degrees. But he did shift my axis of perspective a degree or two; perhaps it was a course correction.

I told my wife about this meeting, and I felt like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," where he got a chance to see how his life affected the people around him.

Kim was right. I was given a gift. It stays with me.

We all should have that experience...




Sunday, February 26, 2017

What's this about?

I don't want to suggest that the CIA is spying on me through the camera in my MacBook Pro or anything like that, but how does the Internet know how old I am?

I mean, shortly after I turned 66 a few weeks ago, I started getting unsolicited junk emails from something called Navajo Medicine to reduce my hearing loss IN JUST TWO WEEKS (yes, it was shouting at me in capital letters, because, you know, I can't hear. Apparently, I've been sitting too close to the fiddle player in the Blue Eyed Bettys the past few years and it's ruined my eardrums).

I've actually gotten several emails from this thoughtful Native American outfit. That's really nice of them to be so concerned about my hearing loss, but, hey. Don't call me. I'll call you.

Speaking of calling, I got another junk email lately from the CellPhoneForSeniorsSite. It was all one word, just like that, and it arrived in my computer's email box the day after my birthday.

On the one hand, it sounds like something I'd be interested in: Large buttons for those of us who can't see; no contract options for those of us on fixed incomes; clear photos for those of us who can't focus an automatic camera, and best of all, it's easy to use for those of us who are technologically challenged.

Sounds perfect.

On the other hand, I didn't ask for it. Stay away from me.

On Valentine's Day, I got an email from the LASIK Vision Institute. I visit my optometrist every two years, so I figure she'd tell me if I needed any eye care assistance. Besides, I wear glasses. I'm content with my glasses. I like my glasses. They turn shaded in the sun. Leave me alone.

I don't know if it's coincidence or not, but I haven't been getting any male enhancement ads lately. Maybe my 66th birthday is the cutoff for ads like that because I'm too far gone for help. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that one.

Many of these ads have "Unsubscribe here" actions, and occasionally, if I get frustrated enough, I'll unsubscribe from something I never subscribed to. But I can't help but feel as if I've opened my email address to other solicitations whenever I do that. You know, because they can see me in my computer's camera.

There is one thing I can't figure out. How come all these ads are targeted straight to me, even including my name in the teaser line? But the DMV sends all my bills and license tag notifications to an address where I haven't lived in 15 years.

What's that all about?


Sunday, February 19, 2017

I broke the law. Again

There were those pesky blue lights again, filling up my rearview mirror.

"What now?" I said to Kim as we were approaching the city limits of Asheville, our destination, Friday morning.

We soon found out what.

"Is this your vehicle?" asked the State Highway Patrolman.

"Yessir,"

"The reason I stopped you is because your license (at this moment I thought he was going to say our license plate had fallen off) tag has expired."

Whaaa????

He was talking about the little sticker in the upper righthand corner of my license plate, which had not fallen off. The sticker was a year old. It was still a black sticker, not the current white one, which is no doubt how he spotted our illegal car in a pack of traffic moving at 60 miles per hour on I-240.

From his perspective, he was the exact right officer at the exact right location at the exact right moment in time to make the collar. A minute or two earlier or later and maybe I'm scot free.

I was dumbfounded, of course. I quickly sorted through the confusion in my confused mind.

"We never got a license renewal bill in the mail," I told the officer, pleading something resembling ignorance of the law.

That never works.

"It's still your responsibility to stay current," he said, essentially telling us it's not the DMV's fault for not sending us the bill as he walked back to his cruiser.

We've been billed annually — just like everybody else — for years, and have never missed updating our license tag.

Then the officer returned, with our citation. Our $190 citation. Kim calmly looked it over because I was a hot-wired mess.

"Sir," she said. "This isn't our address."

Good catch, Kim. I thought she might have found our way out. For some reason, despite years of sending our annual renewal to our correct address, the DMV apparently and suddenly reverted to sending our bill to our former address, where we haven't lived in 15 years. And our bill, of course, wasn't forwarded to our current address.

I asked the officer if he couldn't just issue a warning, pretty much feeling like none of this was our fault.

"It still doesn't matter, and not after a year," said the officer, who said he updated our current address with the DMV on his in-car computer (so there goes our proof of a wrong address). "You're still responsible for renewing your license."

The news did get slightly better. My court date is in June. If I show up in court — in Asheville — on that date with proof of renewing my license tag, the citation will be dismissed. So now I need to make a six-hour round trip to the mountains for a 15-minute court appearance ... never mind.

Back in November, we were pulled for a rolling stop at an isolated intersection near Sunset Beach. I think I'm developing a severe case of blue light syndrome. And I just thought I had a cold...




Sunday, February 12, 2017

Traveling down Rt. 66

Okay, I'm going to bring it right out front.

Today's my birthday. I'm 66 years old. Please hold your applause.

I look at that number and kind of wonder how I got here. When I was (by age) a single-digit child, back during those elementary Pennsylvania days on the playground, climbing jungle gyms and waxing down metal sliding boards without the hint of adult supervision, anybody older than my parents was just plain old.

(Spoiler alert: I suspect my parents knew what I was doing at every moment. The city playground was just across the street from our house, and Dad even spent one summer as the playground supervisor. But I was given — gifted, actually — an incredible sense of independence for a 6-year-old. Thank you for that.)

My parents were my frame of reference. Therefore, my grandparents were old. Grey haired. Blue haired. Wrinkled. Kindly, that's true enough. But that's because they were old.

Never figured I'd cross that threshold one day. And just which day did that happen? Was I asleep? Or daydreaming? Watching TV one night, eating pizza and drinking beer, and I got old?

Now that I'm here, 66 doesn't sound that old anymore. And I don't feel what I once imagined being 66 might feel like. I still work out at the Y (I'll have to remember to key in "66" as my age when I set the parameters on my machine Monday). I take a minimum of medications, primarily for my heart, so I reckon I'm probably lucid on most days.

I started Medicare last year and next month I receive my first Social Security deposit, which are sure signs that in the eyes of the government, I'm old.

Yet, I still have two parttime jobs, so I'm not wiling away wasted hours waiting for my wife to come home from work. If I wasn't working, I'd probably be doing one of two things: playing golf, or puttering around the yard. The yard, of course, is in constant demand. So is my golf game.

And I still like to write, which is the reason for my blog. To me, writing is like magic, where words and ideas take form on a blank sheet and — poof — suddenly appear as artistry, or a memory, or a smile. And if readers can relate to that, that's cool. I've done my job.

So today I start another trip around the sun. I'm looking forward to an unpredictable ride.

But first, cake. I gotta have cake...






Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Big Game

When the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, I think I was actually pulling for them back then.

They were playing the St. Louis Rams, for one thing, so it was easy for me to draw battle lines. Plus, the Patriots hadn't won a Super Bowl in their two previous attempts, they had great young quarterback in Tom Brady, and this game was just months after the 9/11 attacks. What could be more patriotic than the Patriots? It all seemed to fit.

And the game was a good one, with the Patriots winning 20-17.

I didn't know the victory was going to set off a Cowboys-like dynasty. The Patriots came back in 2004 and defeated Carolina 32-29 in another close game (the one where Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake made boobs out of all of us). Brady was the game's MVP for the second time and I'm starting to scowl.

The following year, the Pats defeated my beloved Philadelphia Eagles 24-21, and I can never pull for New England again. This was lead-in to the Spygate era, which, of course, was the precursor to the current Deflategate era. The Pats were (to me) cheaters, even though they didn't have to be because they were just so... so... darn good. Always looking for an edge...

A decade of winning (but no Super Bowl titles) went by until 2015, when a bonehead call by Seattle coach Pete Carroll resulted in an interception in the end zone as time ran down, giving the Patriots a 28-24 victory.

That one still rankles. Bonehead.

And now, here we are. Brady started the season with a four-game suspension as a result of Deflategate and Patriot fans are livid. I'm not sure why. The team still rolled through the regular season with a 14-2 record. It seems to me that missing the first four games of the season probably kept Brady fresher than most QBs for the playoff run.

In any event, Brady's stats are spectacular. He's thrown for 3,500 yards, 28 touchdowns and has just two interceptions in 12 games. He's 39 years old, has four Super Bowl rings, is married to a super model, and he's a genuinely nice guy who signs autographs and visits kids who are seriously ill. He'll be in the Hall of Fame before his uniform is out of the laundry. What's not to like? Except for all that winning, I mean.

The Atlanta Falcons, by contrast, are in the Super Bowl for only the second time in their history. They're coming into the game with an 11-5 record and not much national recognition. Most people probably know who their quarterback is (Matt Ryan) and wide receiver Julio Jones (1,400 yards in receptions, and who just might be the player player in the NFL). Everybody else is a shadow.

But the Falcons have a high-powered offense. If they aren't awed by their surroundings and play their game, it could be an interesting evening. To me, it's all a toss-up anyway, although I'll have a slight lean toward the Falcons.

Pass the chips and dip, please.





Monday, January 30, 2017

Talk politics, lose weight

I was in the fitness center, mindlessly pedaling away on the recumbent bicycle machine, as I do every morning.

My earbuds were firmly in place, tuned into one of the 24/7 news outlets that helps me stay current as well as pass the time as I burn calorie after calorie. If I close my eyes, time seems to go faster.

Then I heard a muffled voice coming from the machine next to me. It was my exercise buddy/nemesis.

"Mifflewhapda mizzou odernable ants?" she asked.

"What?" I asked, pulling out my left earbud.

"What do you think of the ban on immigrants?"

Uh-oh. Danger, Will Robinson. I briefly saw my life flash before my eyes. Even though I knew we'd probably end up wrestling on the fitness center floor before this was over, I answered anyway.

"I don't like it," I said. "I think it goes against American values. It's not who we are as a country. What do you think?"

"I think it's tremendous," she said, and so the volleying began.

We bantered like this for a few minutes, each stating our case. I'm not a good real-time debater. I usually think of my best retorts about an hour or two after the discussion has ended. But this was an informal collision between friends.

"It's only vetting for three months," she said. "That's not long. Why not try it and see?"

"There's already a vetting process in place that can take up to two years," I said. "Why add to it?"

At this point, I happened to glance at the digital readout numbers on my machine. I usually pedal about 85 revolutions per minute. I was up to 89.

"How do you know terrorists aren't coming through in spite of the vetting now?" she asked. I didn't have an answer and said nothing, although I'm not sure 90 days of extra vetting will make any difference. I tend to think this is all about optics anyway.

I was cranking out 93 rpms.

Then she hit me with a good one, the kind that buries a liberal persuasion with a sense of guilt. "Well, are you going to take in any of the refugees?"

I'm at 95 rpms.

"Isn't that what churches are for?" I asked. I was thinking of the Montagnard refugees that came to the Piedmont in the 1980s through church sponsorship, and a friend of mine later reminded me of some Serbian refugees who were sponsored by churches during the same era.

"Lookit," I said. "You got me pedaling up to 98 rpms. I never go that fast."

"Me, too," she said. "Look at my heart rate. It's really up there. This is great."

"Maybe we should make this part of our exercise program," I said.

"Yeah, aggressive exercise. I'll talk to the director about it. This is wonderful."

"Same time tomorrow?"

"OK. See you then."

If the machine can be believed, I burned 787 calories in 70 minutes, although I suppose it could be giving me alternative facts.

But when I got home and stepped on the scale, I was down another pound. Not bad for a Monday.




Sunday, January 29, 2017

Our heritage



The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus (November 2, 1883)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Movie jag, Part II

Four silver screen movies in a month. This just never happens in our house. For Kim and me, going to the movies is our special treat to ourselves. It requires that we block off at least five hours on a Saturday afternoon, earmarking it as a "date."

We usually end up going for a meal some place afterwards, which really makes our five hours together special.

So when we go to the movies, the movie better be worth our while.

And so far, January has been remarkable.

A couple weeks ago, within a 48 hour time frame, we saw "Manchester by the Sea," quickly followed by "La La Land."

We added two more flicks this week. On Wednesday evening, we saw "Jackie," and then yesterday we were amazed by "Hidden Figures."

All these movies have elements of Oscar greatness in them, and when the Academy Awards come up next month, that could be something special, too. Expect Oscars all over the map. Maybe even shared Oscars.

First, "Hidden Figures."

If you don't know the synopsis already, the flick is the true story of three female African-American mathematicians/engineers (Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by the omnipresent Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae; and these women were called "computers" back in the 1960s) who helped get NASA launched back in the Project Mercury days, a timeline which just happened to parallel the rising civil rights activism of the era.

I was a teen-ager in that era. I was captivated by America's drive to put men in space. It never occurred to me that women might be involved. It never occurred to me that African-Americans might be involved. I just didn't know. Most of us probably didn't. Hence, the real-time beauty of this movie.

Henson, Spencer and Monae all turn in remarkable performances, but two solid supporting roles comes from Kevin Costner (as composite character Dr. Al Harrison, who headed up NASA's Space Task Group) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon in TV's "Big Bang Theory") perhaps typecast as head engineer Paul Stafford, who is also a composite character in the flick.

I love period-piece movies because for me it's like time traveling. I especially like it when they make you feel good, and they make you feel good because it actually happened. Kim and I left the theater wiping our eyes.

I wasn't particularly interested in seeing "Jackie." It was Kim's turn to pick the movie we were going to see, and this was her choice. It's a curious choice, because Kim was born in 1960, and the movie, of course, takes place in 1963. But Kim has almost always had a post-era fascination for Jackie Kennedy, as I guess many people do.

The movie mostly centers around Jackie Kennedy's life in the week following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. The title role is played with incredible skill by Natalie Portman, even to the point of Jackie's sometimes breathless-sounding speech patterns.

At the core of the movie's story is the assassination. About three-quarters of the way through the picture, we are there, riding in the limousine with Jackie, facing her. The rifle shot rings out in a surround-sound scream. We know it's coming but we still jump in our seats. It's graphic and it's horrifying. But it also explains exactly Jackie's life from that moment on. And in that light, it shows just how incredible Portman's tour de force here really is. Wow.

I'm not sure what's up next, although I think "The Founder," the story of Ray Kroc and the McDonald's empire, looks intriguing. Another period piece, for sure.

Pass the French fires. And stay tuned.










Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fake news

As a retired journalist, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of "fake news."

I guess I shouldn't, though. Fake news has always been around. It's simply an old concept with a new name, and maybe a new nuance. It's sometimes known as propaganda, or yellow journalism, or bias, or perhaps spin. The nuance is how politicized the conveying of news has become.

In my 40-plus years behind a keyboard and a press credential, the idea of spin was always anathema to me. I always took my role as a journalist — specifically, a sports writer — as seriously as I could. I always tried to quote my subjects as accurately as possible so they could get their story (not mine) out to the public, trusting their confidence in my ability to do that.

It's hard work because you are constantly dealing with points of view. What my subjects saw isn't necessarily what I saw, even though we were both looking at the same thing. It doesn't mean either of us was wrong, or trying for an advantage. It just means that an element of trust is involved, and on both sides.

Nearly all the journalists I know work this way. They are professionals. They are committed to the dispensing of truth as best as they can.

Trust is journalism's incredibly thin connective tissue, linking the originator to the audience. Trust has to be strong, but flexible. Like elastic, perhaps. Otherwise, if it breaks, everything tumbles.

I never studied journalism in college, because the school I went to didn't offer it. I never worked for school newspapers because up until my junior year in college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. At one point, I thought I might become a history teacher.

Somehow, I was steered into journalism, I guess because I loved to write and I loved sports, and so my first professional job was for a small family-owned newspaper in Quakertown, PA. Initially, I covered borough council meetings, school board meetings, car wrecks and fires, with sports coming on weekends.

This was on-the-job training for me, as I see it now but probably didn't know it at the time. I learned to listen and observe, to cover events in real time and then ask questions in detail.

Always, the goal was to be as accurate as possible, without any intentional slant.

Now comes fake news. What to believe? Thanks, in part, to the 24/7 news cycle, we are assaulted by information not only from reputable news organizations, but from Internet sources and social media as well. It's confusing. It challenges our trust.

And now, more than ever, it seems, it's up to the consumer to decide what is fake and what is real.

Sometime, it takes a little research.

And sometimes, it just takes a little common sense.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Socialized

I had another life event this week, so run up the blue pennant.

I filed for my Social Security retirement.

This was a week ago, and I was both looking forward to filing my claim and dreading it.

I was looking forward to it because it means I finally cash in on nearly 50 years of paycheck deductions. I was dreading it because it meant I had to actually go to the SSA office to get the paperwork rolling.

I know, I know. I could have done this whole process online.

But when I called the local office last week to let them know I turn 66 next month, they suggested I come in for my interview rather than file online. I actually thought it was a good idea because I wanted a real person in front of me to answer any questions I might have.

Plus, I like to be taken by the hand when I walk through the unknown and unfamiliar territory.

So Kim and I took the day off and went to the SSA office in Salisbury.

We took the day off because I'd heard the horror stories of long lines of people waiting to file their claims, and I was preparing myself for hours of bending my patience. Indeed, when I made my phone call to set up the appointment, I was on hold for nearly 20 minutes of bad music before I finally heard a human voice. It was not a good omen.

My fears were confirmed when we walked through the door. Immediately, you walk into a waiting area that has about 50 chairs lined up in rows like in a movie theater. They were nearly all filled. There was a beefy guy standing in the corner, in a uniform, wearing a badge, with his arms crossed. Uh oh. You take a number, then you take a seat, and then you wait.

But then magic happened. Within 10 minutes, my number was called. Kim and I went to our interview cubicle where, instead of a government bureaucrat, we spoke with a pleasant professional. The first thing she told us was that she was going to ask us a series of questions, and we'd better answer truthfully or else we were liable for imprisonment.

That was a little unnerving. And curious. The only ID I needed for my fraud wall was my Social Security number, which I assumed hasn't been hacked by the Russians just yet. As far as I know.

Anyway, the interview process lasted about 15 minutes. It was, all in all, painless.

I felt like I'd crossed a threshold. My first check goes into direct deposit in March.

I'm officially old.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

La La Land by the Sea

Kim and I have been on a movie jag lately.

I mean, the kind of movie jag where you pay lots of money to sit in a theater with strangers.

About a week or so ago, after falling for the very effective television promos for "Manchester by the Sea," which pretty much promised us would be the best movie ever in the last decade, we broke down and went to see it.

I try not to read too many Internet reviews about movies before I go to see them, mostly because I'm compelled, like an addiction, to read the spoiler alerts. It's kind of like somebody telling me how a story ends before I've finished reading (or seeing) it and I can't stop myself.

It's like "SPOILER ALERT!!! DON'T READ BEYOND THIS POINT!!!

And then I do. It's a dare I can't resist.

I do check Rotten Tomatoes, though, mostly to see if the movie is getting a high percentage of favorable reviews. That way I feel like I have a decent chance of not wasting my money on a bomb, no matter what Matt Damon says.

So we watched the movie. We had to go out of town — to High Point — to see it because the flick wasn't in any theater closer to us. I couldn't figure that one out.

We liked the movie well enough, but with qualifications. It's beautifully photographed. I loved the New England ambiance. The acting was superb. There will be Oscars.

But the storyline had me wanting to slit my wrists. It's not what I wanted to see over the Christmas holidays. Or ever. It's not the date night I had in mind for my wife and myself.

Sigh.

So then it was Kim's turn to choose.

A few days later, she said she found the movie she wanted to see. We were going to "La La Land."

Two movies within 10 days qualifies as a jag for us. It's rare that we do this.

So we went to The Grand 18 in Winston-Salem. It's probably been 10 years since I've seen a flick there (maybe longer), because we usually head to Tinseltown in Salisbury. But The Grand. Oh, my.

I walked up to the box office and told the attendant, without thinking, that I wanted tickets for "two seniors for 'La La Land.'" I think he smiled, probably thought that was the most truthful thing he'd heard all day.

We walked into the theater room that was showing the movie, and it was gigantic. The screen was bigger than our house. And when we picked our seats, they turned out to be naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliners. I'm not kidding.

"This is my theater from now on," said Kim as we literally settled in for the next couple hours.

I knew the flick was going to be a musical on the scale of something like the old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers productions back in Hollywood's heydays. The opening scene took place on a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway ramp, with hundreds of singers and dancers cavorting around their cars.

I was hooked. The movie had me from the start.

The two leads, doe-eyed and wholesome Emma Stone and wryly handsome Ryan Gosling, were astonishing. I later found out that Gosling learned to play jazz piano in six weeks for the movie, and that all the piano playing used in the film was actually his.

There is a Gosling-Stone soft-shoe dance number on a Los Angeles hilltop at sunset. It was filmed in one continuous take in six minutes. Because, you know, it was sunset. You can't tell the sun "Cut! Let's do that again."

We were well satisfied. There will be Oscars. When the movie was over, Kim had to pull me out of my recliner.

I'm hoping the jag continues. One of the previews was for a flick called "A Dog's Purpose," of which some of the teasers had me tearing up. Then I want to see "Hidden Figures," the true untold story of female African-American mathematicians who helped the NASA space program succeed. Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in "The Help," is in this one. And then there's "Gifted," another Spencer movie about a child prodigy.

This could be a good year for date movies, and it's only January.










Sunday, January 1, 2017

The great escape

Whew. That was close.

In a year seemingly filled to critical mass with celebrity deaths — first Beatles manager Allen Williams and actor William "Father Mulcahy" Christopher of MASH didn't quite clear the Dec. 31 deadline (so to speak — or maybe they did) — so I feel kinda lucky.

New Year's came and went and I tentatively set foot in 2017 — big toe first, as if testing the water —with a measure of caution. After passing through 66 of these annual demarcations, I've finally learned that the coming year isn't necessarily going to be better than the last. Or worse.

Mostly, it just is. Mostly, I guess it's up to us to make the best of what we're given, even if some things are beyond our control.

An out-of-state friend of mine wrote that she doesn't judge the worth of a year by the number of celebrities who happened to die in it. I can see her point. Still, celebrities are celebrities for a reason, leaving something of an impact on our lives for good or bad. When one passes, it can touch us, move us, shock us. When a whole bunch of them pass within a 365-day time frame, it leaves us shaking our uncomprehending heads in a kind of bewilderment. Wassup with that, bro? Let me outta here.

I spent the New Year's evening with my friends, and that's always a good idea. There was some interesting conversation, some food, some drink, then some glass clinking and some hugging when 12:00.01 got here. There's a sense of security and continuity in that and I was grateful for it.

Good friends are good to have. The crowd Kim and I run with ("run" is a relative term here. Kim and I usually find ourselves as the oldest ones showing up. In fact, I'm the old guy that starts yawning before anyone else does and it's only 9:30) never needs an excuse to party. They are fully equipped with fire pits, front porches, back porches, spacious living and dining rooms. It's perfect, actually. What sometimes begins as a casual conversation on the sidewalk has the potential to end up as a party.

 Why not? If nothing else, 2016 showed us that life is short. So party on.