Monday, October 31, 2011

Things just ain't what they used to be

While in the grocery store the other day, I was delighted to find, unexpectedly, an end-aisle display of Tastykakes.

What are Tastykakes, you might ask? (See here) They are assorted confections baked in Philadelphia, and have been since 1914. Nobody in North Carolina knows what they are, but if you were born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, Tastykakes can be found clinging to your DNA. They go hand-in-hand with cheesesteaks and hoagies.

Many times when I go to Pennsylvania, I bring back a selection of cakes and pies for my southern friends, who generally enjoy them, I think.

So when I found them on display at a local Food Lion recently, I got excited and promptly bought a 12-pack case.

I bought them, no doubt, as a conditioned visual response. Tastykake=buy me. I say this because after decades of devouring Tastykakes, (heck, they were probably part of my womb service more than 60 years ago), I just cannot resist purchasing some whenever I see a display.

Too bad. Because, if truth be told, they are not the same as I remember as a child. Back in the 1950s, the cupcakes were actually full-sized cupcakes. Now, no doubt because of economic downsizing, they are mere shadows of themselves. They have, essentially, become bite-sized.

Plus, they no longer seem to have the rich, distinctive flavor I remember as a child. That's probably the most disappointing thing. The pies, I must say, still taste great. But the cupcakes leave something to be desired. I no longer feel like I'm enjoying a sinful treat. Now, it's just more wasted (or waisted) calories.

I have considered the possibility that maybe it's me who's changed over the years, and not the Tastykakes, but I don't think so.

Consider this: other pleasures also seem more disappointing to me. Hershey's chocolate candies seem to have less chocolate and more wax in them; whatever happened to Hydrox cookies? Gosh, talk about sinful, but now you can't even find them; even Famous Amos cookies taste generic to me, almost as if they are knockoffs of Chips Ahoy; breakfast cereals seem more bland and generic (I know there's less sugar in most, but I suspect there's more preservatives in them, too).

I'm guessing that mergers, consolidations and economics have turned once-distinctive favorites into clones of each other. Indeed, the Tasty Baking Company was recently saved from bankruptcy when the Georgia-based Flowers Foods purchased  Tasty for $34 million in cash.

Back in the day, we purchased Tastykakes from the two-cent redemption of soda bottles we found on the playground. Sigh.

I know. I sound like an old codger with nothing better to do except complain. Maybe I'll get over it.

Just let me finish this Butterscotch Krimpet first.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caregiver Kim

I've seen something incredible happen over the past few weeks.

My wife of 31 years has evolved into an insightful, confident, assured caregiver for her 81-year-old father.

First, you must understand that Kim is generally one of the most pleasant people that I know on the planet. If she were a cartoon, roses and hearts and bunny rabbits would rise in her wake whenever and wherever she moves. Cinnamon and vanilla would scent the air about her. She's the type of person that makes me slam on the brakes of the car when a squirrel scampers idiotically in front of us. She's tender, tender-hearted and soft-spoken.

But for the past month, circumstances have turned her into a 24/7 caregiver for her dad, although she's never been trained to do this professionally.

She did this willingly, knowing the toll it would take on her both emotionally and physically.

About a week ago, as dad's condition worsened, she was required to prick his finger for blood to test his blood sugar (he's diabetic). She's not fond of the sight of blood, but after a nurse showed her the procedure, she performed this task twice daily. Without fail. Without flinching.

I didn't think it could get any worse for her than that, but then, a few days ago, a vascular specialist discovered a clot in dad's leg. The next thing we knew, Kim was giving dad two injections of blood thinner a day — in his belly — with hypodermic needles. Without fail. Without flinching. Oh my God.

This doesn't include the sponge baths, the guiding visits to the commode, the general housework of keeping him moving that filled her days.

I don't know how she did it. More than one person has told me, "You do what you have to do," and I guess I knew that to be understood.

My job was to stay out of the way. Keep the fires burning at home, help her break away for a few minutes to get a bite to eat, to do any heavy lifting her father might need to get from here to there. Otherwise, stand clear.

We took dad to the hospital last night. It's time. It might be his time. A doctor there told Kim that if it had been him providing the 24/7 home care, he wouldn't have done anything differently than what she had done for her father over the past several weeks.

I've been witness to a remarkable evolution in my wife: I discovered an inner strength I never knew she had to complement the compassion I always knew that graces her spirit. She humbles me and I love her all the more for it.

Her dad is a lucky man.

So am I.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Plenty of pork in this barbecue barrel

Early this morning, I made my annual pre-dawn trek down Main Street to take in the 28th Barbecue Festival before it officially opened to the public. I mean, you could still see a few constellations blinking in the morning sky.

This is a traditional thing for me. I just want to scout out the scene before hundreds of thousands of voracious pork eaters descend on the city, inevitably bouncing off each other like human pinballs. Oddly enough, by about 10:30 a.m., I gladly become a pork eater, too.

Anyway, while strolling down Main Street this morning, I mentally took note of the fact that there seem to be more vendors setting up than usual. If that's indeed factually true, I think that might be in response to the success of last year's Festival, which drew an estimated record 200,000 visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

By 9 a.m. the Barbecue Festival crowd was already growing larger.
Wow. That's the equivalent of nearly two fully-packed Michigan Stadium crowds in Ann Arbor showing up for the Michigan State football game. How can a vendor resist that?

And guess what? The skies are blue, the temperatures are mild, and the promise is heavy that this year's Festival could be even bigger. Is that even possible?

I have several friends who make plans to get out of town the day of the Festival simply to avoid the crowds and the congestion. Normally, I do my best to avoid crowds, too. That's why I hit the streets at 7 a.m.

But this is a little different. Given that unemployment in North Carolina is now 10.5 percent, and no doubt even higher locally, I say bring it on.

My early-morning foray showed there are others like me, too. I bet there were hundreds of visitors already scoping out the Festival terrain before daylight. One or two even had made a purchase. It's unbelievable.

Fried bacon? Gaack, gaack, heart attack.
Some early sights: People were already lining up for the limited supply of Fine Swine Wine; I heard several different languages being spoken, including Spanish and Italian (although I'm pretty sure not to each other); and I spied a vendor who was advertising "Fried bacon." Apparently, anything porcine goes. Lord, have mercy. Fried bacon.

And, finally, a word about Festival founder Joe Sink.

Joe was my boss at The Dispatch for at least 25 of my 30 years there. It was his vision that gave birth to the Festival and brought it to fruition. I recently asked him if his vision ever saw the Festival heading into its 28th year and becoming the massive annual destination that it has become, and he conceded that he did not. He wasn't sure it would last 10 years, much less grow.

Sometime soon, it would be nice if Joe was recognized as more than "Honorary chairman" of the Festival. Maybe a historical marker on the Square would be nice. Or a statue next to the Confederate soldier. Something. Anything.

Even a slab of fried bacon would seem somehow appropriate.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sorting it all out

Sometime back in my own personal Paleolithic era, before my real life began as a serious taxpaying contributor to society in general, I once had a notion that I might like to work for the United States Postal Service.

Delivering the mail seemed noble enough, and it is certainly a historic profession, especially by United States standards, given the precedent and leadership set by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

But the idea never really panned out for me. There was the matter of the civil service exam, which I never took primarily because of my testophobia (which sounds downright male oriented, if not actually mail oriented), and life seemed to hold different plans for me anyway. I ended up as a sportswriter and the years just seemed to roll by, sometimes, it seems, without me really even noticing.

Then I retired.

Then the real fun began.

Suddenly, after 31 years, my wife's job at a local bank was eliminated. At nearly the same moment, our sewer line to our 90-year-old house showed signs of rebelling; her 16-year-old car failed inspection because it needs tires (among other things); one of our cats needs some dental work; and both our washer and dryer — the washer is nearly as old as our 31-year marriage — need replacing.

Sigh. I needed to go back to work, at least part time.

So I found a job — working at the very bank where my wife had worked all those years. Ironic, no? Not only that, but I was in the mail room, of all places. I didn't even need to take a civil service exam to get there, although I did have to provide a personal sample for the drug screening. (I passed, by the way.)

My work station is in the basement, in the very bowels of the bank, without a window to the outside world to be seen or to be seen out of. Cell phone service is spotty. I'm fairly confident that I'm safe from nuclear attack. So it is there, for four hours per day, five days a week, where I run mail through a postage machine, fold mail, sort mail, certify mail and mail mail.

I even make a daily visit to the real U.S. Post Office to drop off the bank's mail.

Who said dreams don't come true?

I've been at the job for nearly a month now and my confidence and proficiency at what I do seem to be growing. I hope one day I can get to the point where I can flip envelopes from behind my back into their proper cubby holes in the sorting room.

Once that happens, then I'll know I've arrived — signed, sealed and delivered.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time traveling, conclusion

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened about 30 years ago? Does more time have to pass to give it meaning?

I suppose it's possible. I mean, I'm kind of nostalgic for the club sandwich I had yesterday at The Bistro at Childress Vineyards, so I guess I'm answering my own question.

But what I'm getting at is that we've about reached the logical end of this memory tour through my time.

And the perfect ending must include my wife, Kim.

We met about 33 years ago, actually, at The Dispatch, where I worked. She was a temporary employee, filling in for a typesetter who was on maternity leave. I was a grizzled veteran of The Dispatch, in my third year with the paper. Kim caught my attention with her soft features, strawberry blond hair and a languid Southern accent she claims she doesn't have but which I could not resist, and I was hooked. We had a whirlwind romance, and in slightly more than a year we were married.

And we're still married, in spite of the fact that our fall foliage honeymoon to New England detoured us to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, among other places. In fact, we just celebrated our 31st anniversary last week. I'm not quite sure how this happened because she doesn't much care for sports, yet she married a sportswriter. Maybe it's a flaw in one of our characters, I don't know. But it's a flaw that apparently works.

Our marriage survived one other extreme vacation, too. That happened in 1992, when we decided to take two weeks to visit my brother, David, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Kim had never flown before, and wasn't excited about the prospect of flying. So we decided to take the trip by train. Or, at least half the trip. We took advantage of Amtrak's Air-Rail program, where you take the train to your destination point, and then fly back. I knew we were only postponing the inevitable, but I wanted to do this. No other family member has visited my brother in Alaska.

The train from Greensboro to Seattle took three-and-a-half days, which was about a half-day too long — especially when you're taking sponge baths out of the sink. But we still had to fly from Seattle to Anchorage.

This was about the only time I actually thought the marriage had ended. Our seats were at the back of the plane, near the engines of the 737, and all was fine as we taxied out to the runway. But when the pilot throttled back for take-off, Kim gripped the seat handles so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Tears were involuntarily (I think) falling from her eyes. I just knew we were doomed as man and wife.

It took her an hour before she looked out the window to see us flying above the carpet of clouds.

But gradually, she corralled her fears. Our trip to Alaska, complete with glaciers, sea otters and eagles, was saved, and so, too, was our marriage (I think).

This pretty much brings us up to date in a meaningful way. No doubt there's other stuff worth remembering in the past 30 years or so, but I'm not sure enough time has passed to make it truly memorable, or better than it actually was, which is what I think nostalgia really infers.

I guess that explains why I suddenly have a compelling urge to blow out a smudge pot.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Time traveling, part 7

We're getting close to real time.

After high school came college. I attended a place called Kutztown State College as a commuter student, at first majoring in secondary ed history, figuring I'd become a history teacher. And maybe that would have been a good choice if I could have gotten over my stage fright. To this day I become petrified whenever I have to talk to more than a table full of people.

And I even had a public speaking class, for all the good it did. What a teacher I would have been.

One of the good things about Kutztown was that I reacquainted myself with a friend from junior high school, back in the Bethlehem days. George was a commuter, too, and we bumped into each other in a parking lot at Kutztown one day. We stayed fast friends through the entire four years of college.

And after college, we fulfilled a dream we shared. We hopped in my Volkswagen Beetle, took along a tent, a Coleman lantern and stove, and went on a seven-week odyssey across the country.

This was back in 1973, when gas was around 30 cents per gallon. I vowed that when we got to California, I'd make my first coast-to-coast telephone call.

Meanwhile, we saw stuff. Lots of stuff. We first went to Virginia Beach, then cut right in North Carolina and headed to the Smoky Mountains. Along the way, we drove through Winston-Salem. How could I know when we did that I'd be within 20 miles of my future wife? I was 22 at the time, and she was — 13? Yikes. If we had met then I'd probably would have been arrested.

Anyway, other stops included Key Largo (where I swam with barracuda), Key West, Houston, San Antonio, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, the great Meteor Crater, Las Vegas (played the slots), Hoover Dam, San Francisco (where I made my coast-to-coast call from a pay phone in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge), Yosemite and its redwoods, Crater Lake, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park, to name some highlights.

It took us six weeks to reach California. It took us one week to get back. George was out of money, I was down to my last $100, and the VW was in need of a tune-up. It had gone 10,000 miles without an oil change and could barely climb even small grades anymore.

The trip was the great adventure of my life to that point, but it was time to enter the real world. After a job in a tile factory driving a fork lift and loading rail cars, thus putting my bachelor's degree to  good use, I ended up working for a newspaper.

It was only a matter of time before North Carolina beckoned.