Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter bunny tales

Believe me when I tell you that I was shocked — shocked, I tell you — when my wife, Kim, told me yesterday that when she and her brother were young children, the Easter bunny never came to their house.

"What?" I cried. "No Easter bunny?"

I couldn't imagine.

Back in my day (I actually love to say that now), the Easter bunny faithfully visited our house each Easter. He didn't leave colored eggs in the yard for us to find, but he did leave an Easter basket for each of the three sons brimming with goodies, including a hollow chocolate replica of himself planted in a bed of fake green tinsel-like grass (Astroturf before there was Astroturf, I guess), surrounded by handfuls of Hershey kisses, jelly beans, a couple of Peeps or two and a colored hard-boiled egg.

A blatant sugar grab if ever there was one.

Easter, of course, was never like Christmas. It was clearly an understated event. It wasn't something that we'd get up early for. In fact, we were allowed one or two pre-breakfast samples of chocolate kisses or jelly beans, then breakfast itself, before attending church.

Afterwards, it was on to one of the two sets of competing grandparents for an Easter meal, which usually included ham, sweet potatoes, creamed potatoes, a green vegetable and, perhaps in recognition of the Easter delivery system, sliced carrots. For some reason, I remember dessert always being lemon meringue pie. C'mon. We were Moravians. Where were the sugar cakes?

Grandma Kessler, baker extraordinaire, provided us with zip. Nada. What the...? I guess maybe she was still in recovery from her Christmas overloads.

In truth — or at least for me — the Easter bunny never quite gained the same traction that Santa Claus did. Consequently, he soon vanished down the rabbit hole of disbelief long before the jolly old elf poofed in the chimney. Magic rabbits. Yeah, right.

Over the years — and especially since moving to North Carolina and within a half-hour of Old Salem — Easter took on what I feel like are its proper dimensions for me. Every few years we'd go to the celebrated and emotional sunrise service to become revitalized, restored and renovated once again. It's a good feeling.

Then it's back home for NCAA tournament, baseball's Opening Day and — surreptitiously, at least — another sugar grab. Some things never change.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Hall of Fame coaching decision

For a little while there, I wondered why I was even covering the game.

After all, North Davidson's softball team is a perennial 4-A state powerhouse while R.J. Reynolds can barely scrape together enough talent to take the game beyond the sandlot level.

Even before the game started, it was evident that North was going to win, and no doubt by the 10-run mercy rule which can end a game after five innings. That's why it's called the mercy rule — mercy for all of us from one-sided debacles. Some games are just like that because of the mismatches in talent, and this was going to be one of them.

So by the third inning, with North already up 5-0 and threatening to score more, North right fielder Mackenzie Hauser reached second on a two-base error. And it was here that coach Mike Lambros replaced Hauser — usually North's front-line pitcher — with courtesy runner Felicia Hamby.

I need to tread lightly here. Hamby, an irrepressible senior who stands in at all of four-foot-nothing, is a special needs student at North, where she is enrolled in the occupational course of study curriculum. She served as a team equipment manager several years ago, but she wanted more than that — she wanted to play.

So last year, she asked Lambros if she could be on the team as a player. He told her yes, but under the condition that she wear a batting helmet with a face guard anytime she stepped on the field. Several parents quickly came up with a uniform for her and she proudly wears the "00" numbers on her back. She was on the team, which in itself is a wonderful gesture by Lambros, who has more than 750 career victories (making him the winningest softball coach in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history), a 4-A state title and enshrinement in at least two halls of fame (including induction in the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame last October).

Against Reynolds on Wednesday, Hamby got as far as third base, but was forced out at home moments later on an infield grounder. I think more than a few people wanted to see her score a run. She still made sure that she touched home plate, though, before heading back to the dugout. It was, I thought, a nice touch. A really nice touch.

But Hamby wasn't done. She'd already made one appearance this year as a defensive replacement in left field against Mt. Tabor. Now, in the top of the fourth inning, she was in right field, wearing her helmet, replacing Hauser.

She didn't get any chances in the field, though, because pitchers Whitney McBride and Blakely Thrower were combining on a one-hitter. Nobody was getting many chances.

In the bottom of the fourth Hamby finally came up for her first ever plate appearance. Through a quirk of substitution, she found herself as North's clean-up hitter batting in the No. 4 slot. She worked a full count against Reynolds' pitcher Elizabeth Meinberg before taking a called third strike. That was that, I thought. Hamby received a nice ovation for her effort from the small North crowd that showed up on this cold, blustery day. I wish there was a mercy rule for cold weather.

But Hamby still wasn't done.

Because North was in the midst of a seven-run uprising that ultimately sent 13 batters to the plate, she had yet another opportunity against Meinberg later in the inning. This time the bases were loaded. Once again she worked a full count, standing perfectly still as each pitch was delivered, never taking the bat off her shoulder, never altering her stance.

Then came Meinberg's deciding sixth pitch against Hamby's smallish strike zone — you sensed that fans were actually holding their breath. And then — ball four. Take your base.

The implications were enormous. Suddenly, Hamby had reached base on her own, and not as a courtesy runner. Plus, she had forced in a run in North's eventual 13-0 victory. She earned an RBI. And not just any RBI. A varsity RBI.

She was a true player. I hope she earns a varsity letter for this.

After the game, after my on-the-record postgame interview with Lambros, I went off the record.

"Mike," I said, "In 35 years of covering sports in Davidson County, I've never seen a special needs kid play in a varsity game. That was amazing. This is why you're a hall of fame coach."

I think I probably embarrassed him.

It's not the first time Lambros has done something like this. Two seasons ago, one of his assistant coaches, Jeff Pace, was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Lambros let him continue to coach until Pace — who died in December at the age of 45 —just couldn't do it anymore.

If you want to find where Lambros keeps his compassion, it's right there on his sleeve. Next to his heart.

As the players filtered back to the gym, Hamby received the well wishes of several North fans heading back to their cars. "Good job, Felicia. Good job," they told her, and she smiled back at them broadly.

I thought about all of this as I walked back to my own car. This was only a game, after all, and a lopsided one at that. And yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just seen something resembling dignity, decency and self-worth.

All of this at a softball game. Imagine that.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Double fantasy

There's a YouTube video currently going around that was picked up by the major media news outlets this past week showing a high school kid asking Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover girl Kate Upton if she would be his prom date (see here).

Ha ha ha, I laughed to myself. Yeah, right. Good luck, kid. Until this got me to thinking about my own fantasies.

Back in my younger days, when I was in my 50s, I had severe crushes on country music stars Patty Loveless and Martina McBride.

My fantasies involved being their love interest in their music videos.

For Patty, I was the guy wooing her on the steps of some joint in New Orleans in "Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way)."

For Martina, I replaced her husband at the end of "My Baby Loves Me." Martina, with her incredibly blue eyes, gives us a particularly pouty — or is it a come hither? — look near the end of the video.

Sigh. Patty and Martina. My double fantasy.

It never occurred to me to ask them out on dates. I'm not sure how I could have gotten my wife's permission for such a project anyway.

The best I could ever do was go to their concerts. We've seen each artist at least three times each during the past couple of decades and I'll have to be satisfied with that, I guess.

Kim and me with Patty Loveless in another lifetime.
I remember one Patty Loveless concert in particular at the Alabama Theater in North Myrtle Beach. Somehow I was able to score front row center seats. I also had plans to meet a female Internet friend (we'd met on a Patty Loveless chat site) at the concert. We'd never physically met before and we had no clue what each other looked like, but I told her where I was sitting. Front row center is not hard to find. A few minutes before the concert started, this drop-dead gorgeous woman appeared before me and asked if I was Bruce.

"Wanda?" I stuttered.

"Yes," she said and gave me a big unexpected hug. My wife could only look on incredulously, even though she knew I was going to meet a woman there. We just figured the odds were that she'd likely be matronish, not swimsuit modelish. I had somehow suddenly acquired the power to summon beautiful women at will, and total strangers at that. Where was this power when I really needed it back when I was in high school?

Apparently this magic worked with Patty, too, if only briefly. One of the first songs in her lineup was "I'm That Kind of Girl," a cute country rocker and I was singing along with her. You have to remember that while she is on the stage, our seats are probably less than 10 feet away.

"I'm That Kind of Girl" is not usually a song that many men sing along to, but I was happily croaking out the tune when Patty and I somehow made eye contact. I smiled sheepishly because I was singing this male-inappropriate song, and Patty — I'm sure understanding the absurdity of the moment — smiled back at me.

I know she was smiling at me because Kim instantly asked me, "What did you do?" as if I was signaling Patty in some sort of secret code or something.

This was probably a hard night for Kim, now that I think about it.

I wish I could remember this moment, but I was in a semiconscious state.
My Martina moment came at the same theater, maybe a year or so later. This was relatively early in Martina's career. She was a rising star and we had post concert backstage access as a result of being fan club members. So after the show we lined up with other fan club folks and waited our turn.

The line bent around a corner and Kim stepped out to take a peek.

"Bruce, she's beautiful," said Kim. That did it. I turned to mush. When it came to our turn to pose for the camera with Martina, I was trying desperately to think of something clever to say. I'm pretty sure I was semiconscious. I put my arm around her back, like we were related or something. Then I think I scolded her for filming the "Wild Angels" video on top of a skyscraper in New York City. "Don't ever do that again," I said.

Smooth. Sometimes you've got it, sometimes you don't.

I've pretty much lost my puppy love for these women. Now my double fantasy involves them as caregivers handing me my dose of Lipitor and beta blockers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


It's Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament time and I find that I'm ... I'm...


How can that be? I mean, I spent 30 years as a sports writer for The Dispatch, which not only defined my professional life, but handed me some of the best sports-related experiences I'm likely to ever know. I mean, I found myself, at times, in the same room with people like legendary coaches Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski and got to talk with them (however briefly) one on one. I met Richard Petty in the garage area of the Charlotte Motor Speedway as we waited out a rainstorm together. I sat within inches of Arnold Palmer in the press room of the Vantage Senior PGA golf tournament. I even got crushed by Phil Ford, who leaped into me on press row as he tried to chase down an out-of-bounds loose ball. I came up off the floor unhurt and smiling with a true story I could tell my friends.

I can give you hundreds of other stories about the sports heroes I met, all an accident created as a result of a job that put me in a converging crossroads with these people.

So I've been fortunate. Maybe I should be writing my memoirs instead of blog posts.

And you would think that with the ACC tournament here that I would be glued to every pick and roll, every elbow-swinging rebound, every unwhistled foul and non-foul that hurries across my TV screen.

And yet...

... I remember years ago how excited I got when the ACC tournament came to Greensboro or Charlotte. I reckon I've been to about 20 of those tournaments over the years, paying nothing more for admission than the price of my smoldering patience while trying to get into the media parking lot against all that traffic. That, and the credential around my neck.

Because we were representing a small newspaper, our courtside seat was usually about four rows back and maybe in a direct line with the foul stripe. Not bad, really.

This was back in the days when there were only eight teams in the conference and the tournament began with four elimination games on Friday. That was a killer. The first game would start at noon, with the final game ending around midnight. A 12-hour shift. Then it was hop in the car, rush back to The Dispatch to bang out a story or two, and get a couple hours of adrenalin-spiked sleep before doing it all over again.

Clearly, a young man's game.

So the other day, when the four-game Thursday (the league expanded to an unwieldy 12 teams about a decade ago, forcing an extra day added to the tournament) began, a weird sensation winged by my ear.

I was watching the tournament on television, but it was like my career as a sports writer who once covered this very event never happened. Somehow, I was completely divorced from my past, no strings attached.

I don't know how that happened or what it means. I still enjoy sports, although now armed with a remote control and infinite cable channels, I barely make it from one commercial break to another before I start surfing through the TV lineup. Sometimes I run across an old movie I enjoy and totally forget to go back to the game.

I never saw that one coming.

How do I explain this? There's a freedom now. No deadline. No unnatural hours to keep. A game I can choose not to watch. An incredibly patient wife I don't have to leave behind in my furiously churning wake.

Maybe, at 62, I'm finally rebelling from all those years of structure and expectations. Maybe I've matured. Or morphed.

And maybe I just learned how to breathe again.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The eyes have it

There's this little game that Kim and I play every once in a while.

It's called, "Where are my glasses?"

Curiously, this game almost always seems to be played when Kim needs her glasses — they are reading glasses, actually — the most. Like right now. This minute.

So begins a search through the house. Because we have most of the rooms closed off (as part of our energy-saving plan to keep the furnace from cutting on every two minutes) except for the ones we use the most, the search is usually limited in scope to four rooms: our smallish den, our bedroom, our downstairs bathroom and the kitchen.

Sometimes, we find her glasses right away. "Here they are," I'll tell her, pointing to the top of her head where she has them perched secretarially in her strawberry blonde hair. It's a good look for her. Very professional.

Sometimes it's not always that easy. We go from room to room, searching in vain, until Kim remembers that she left them in the car, when she switched out her reading glasses for sunglasses.

Complicating everything is that fact that she doesn't own one pair of reading glasses, but at least three pair — maybe even four —  each with a different magnification level: 1.25, 1.50, 1.75 and 2.0. I think.

Anyway, one day we went through the BOLO (Be On the LookOut) for her glasses and finally found a suitable pair, no doubt underneath some magazines on the coffee table. A likely place where glasses go to hide.

Anyway, I stepped into the bathroom for a moment, only to find three pair of her reading glasses on the counter top, sharing space with cosmetic bottles, toothbrushes, mouthwash, combs, and other sundry personal grooming items. Three pairs.

I've tried convincing her to get a glasses chain to wear around her neck, where she can always find her glasses, but the secretary in her shouts that she doesn't want to look like a frumpy spinster school marm, and so the game continues against all logic.

As if we needed another complication, she does own a pair of prescription glasses, but they are bifocals, and she doesn't want to be caught dead — or apparently even alive — wearing them. She says they make her dizzy when she tries to walk with them on, and even though she's had them for more than a year, I think she's worn them for a grand total of 52 minutes.

This can get frustrating when, say, she forgets her glasses while at the coffee shop and she wants to read something in the newspaper. Then she'll ask to borrow my prescription glasses for a moment. Go figure.

I have only one pair of glasses. They stay on my head constantly, and are almost never misplaced.

I'm not complaining, mind you. All of this is simple idiosyncrasy and it even can be amusing at times.

Well, gotta go. We're getting ready to go do some grocery shopping. Wait a minute. Where'd I put my car keys?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Life of (Chicken) Pie

When I came home from work one day last week, and opened the door, the aroma wafting throughout the house was ... was ...


Kim was in the kitchen, cooking.

OK, hold on for just a minute. I know what you are thinking. No, she is not chained to the stove. She's not barefoot. She's never been pregnant. She simply likes to cook. I daresay, she loves to cook. She's passionate about it. And she's very good at it, when she does it.

But because of a lengthy career in the work force, and because our jobs were very much like ships passing in the night — her 31-year career in banking was from 9 to 5, while mine as a sportswriter often took me out of the house around dinner time (or about the time she got home) — our meals often involved the microwave or, at best, take-out. MRE's.

But not on this particular day (which was her day off).

Kim was putting together one of our favorite all-time meals, chicken pie. She was thoughtfully doing this for a neighbor who was scheduled to have some surgery in a day or two, and I was a bit jealous. I hadn't had her chicken pie in months — maybe longer — and now a neighbor was going to get some.

Except that Kim had made enough for us, too.

I almost buckled at the knees when she told me this. I thought we were going out for dinner. Again.

Within moments, came the words I long to hear from her: "Come and get it."

I went to the stove and dished out a generous helping of chicken pie, along with several scoops of cream potatoes and green beans. I was in comfort food heaven.

Kim's chicken pie, seen here in its proper presentation.
Kim's chicken pie is not the Moravian version, which is without vegetables and is very crusty. Kim very seldom follows recipes except for the ones she sees in her head. She'll experiment with ingredients until it suits her taste. So her chicken pie involves cream of celery soup, a bag of Veg-All, and large chunks of white meat chicken that remind me of Cracker Jack prizes when I fork one out of the pie. All of this is covered by a Bisquick topping. There's probably a few other ingredients and seasonings that I'm not aware of that somehow all come together to make this feast.

She makes a sensational variation of her chicken pie during the cold and flu season, her famous chicken soup. I usually ask for this at the slightest sign of a sniffle. I pretend I'm on my deathbed, which tugs at her heartstrings, and Ouila! Chicken soup appears in unending bowls before me while I watch the basketball game on television. Cough, cough, sniff, sniff. May I have some more? This stuff invariably makes me feel better, every time, without fail.

Kim puts the finishing touches on her Kit-Kat birthday cake.
There are other items she does incredibly well. Her turkey dressing — following a long tradition taken from her mother — is often requested by family members at Thanksgiving. She brings a wonderful hashbrown casserole to family reunions and neighborhood gatherings. I've already written about her incredible five-bean chili, simmered for hours in a crock pot, that makes the Super Bowl worth watching.

Nothing seems impossible for her. One Saturday years ago I came home from covering an ACC basketball game in Durham, and Kim had a Seafood Newburg waiting for me, just because she wanted to see if she could make it. OMG. She once attempted — without a recipe and by memory only — an Arroz con Pollo that we always enjoyed at the now defunct Tijuana Fats. Yummm. Then there's that lasagna recipe she got from an Italian woman that she somehow improved...

And don't get me started on desserts. She loves to make brownies with a rich chocolate icing, and a few weeks ago she made a Kit-Kat cake (topped with M&Ms) for our birthdays. Then there's Christmas, when I plead with her (with real tears in my eyes) to make the time-consuming but always delicious Moravian sugar cakes.

My cooking skills, by contrast, usually involve hot dogs and hamburgers on the Weber grill, although I do make a pretty fair macaroni salad (my mom's recipe).

But nothing beats Kim's chicken pie. It ought to be featured on the Food Channel. Geez, I can hardly wait for another neighbor to be scheduled for surgery...