Sunday, February 23, 2014

My life as performing artist

Why do I keep doing this to myself?

I'd been aware of Open Mic Night at High Rock Outfitters for a month or so now, and I thought the concept was yet another good idea by owner Chris Phelps as a way to draw folks to his really neat, one-of-a-kind-for-Lexington establishment. Mostly, I figured, it was the perfect place for relatively unknown musicians to get on a stage and try out their stuff. Especially since HRO is known primarily as a music venue.

Then I read the small print on the HRO Facebook page describing what Open Mic Night was all about: "Calling all Poets, Singers, Songwriters, Comedians, Storytellers, Puppeteers and great listeners for a truly open mic night."

Poets? Not just musicians? Hmm. I'd written some poetry back in college and I knew I had them saved in a manila envelope somewhere, so I rooted through my chest of drawers until I found an aging packet. It smelled musty and looked battered. I opened it up and pulled out some of the type-written pages that probably hadn't seen the light of day in 40 years and glanced at some of the poems I'd written about long-lost loves, forgotten pets and snowy days.

I can't sing. I can't write songs. I'm not particularly funny (at least, not on purpose). But I did have these poems. Why not give it a shot?

No, I am not singing. I am reading one of my poems during open mic at HRO.
 The only real problem to all of this was my unbridled fear of public speaking. I'd recently given a short thank-you speech to about 150 people when I was inducted into the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame last October, and I also made a presentation in front of city council in favor of making our neighborhood a historic district. I somehow successfully made my way through those moments, but it wasn't a particularly comfortable time for me. Still...

So last week Kim and I went to Open Mic Night. There were about 20-30 people there, most of them other performers. I signed up by putting my name on the chalk board and within minutes, Brittany Wilson, the general manager of HRO and a poet in her own right, introduced me. Brittany had just heard one of her poems put to music and performed by Jennifer Millis, who also serves as Open Mic emcee. It was a great moment.

But now it was my turn. I walked deliberately to the stage and stepped up to the mic. I brought two poems with me: one of them, "Pershing at the Front," is a humorous piece written by Arthur Guiterman during World War I and it's a rhyming poem about the absurdity of the military chain of command. The other poem was an original I had written as a parody to Guiterman's piece, except I used Viet Nam as the backdrop. I'd written it in 1973, you see, at the height of that war.

Anyway, as I started reciting, weird things began to happen. I couldn't see the audience three feet in front of me because of the overhead stage lights. That was a good thing. I was aware that my voice was strong and without nervous fluttering, but the hand that was holding my poem began shaking uncontrollably. Consequently, the poem was flopping about like a trout just pulled from a mountain stream. I kept reading, but at the same time my brain was multi-tasking and I was marveling at my shaky hand. I think I actually looked at my hand at one point. I had no idea that I could read a poem out loud and still try to think of ways to become unnervous at the same time. The ability of the brain to do that must be the 90 percent we don't usually utilize, I guess. Except during public speaking.

I got through Guiterman's poem, which brought a trickle of laughter. Good. That's what I wanted to happen. I just hoped they weren't laughing at me.

Then I started reading the piece I had written. Another strange thing happened. My knees started knocking. And, again, I was aware of this happening all while I was reading, and, believe it or not, I came to a solution in mid-poem. I thought maybe I could lock my knees to stop the knocking, and I actually tried to do so, but to no avail. I later found out that it was probably a good thing that I couldn't, because locking your knees might cut off the flow of blood from here to there and you could faint. Great. Come to HRO and see Bruce topple.

Anyway, I finished my poem. I heard the sound of polite applause. Somebody told me "Good job" as I walked back to my table, but I don't know who. The room was spinning. I sat down and tried to finish drinking my glass of beer with the hand that was still shaking, something even I found to be amusing. Kim smiled at me and held my hand. It's good to know I can still impress her after all these years.

Jennifer went up to introduce the next act, but before she did, she publicly thanked me for getting up on a stage to do what I did, that she has similar fears of her own when performing, and that on the whole, performing isn't easy. Those were kind words to say at just the right time and it helped to calm me.

So now what? Do I still want to keep doing this to myself? Oddly, I was petrified while on stage yet enjoyed it beyond reason.

And I still have 10 or 12 more poems to read.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snow job

Just about every time there is a hint of snow in the forecast, all of my friends — and I do mean all of my friends — comment that I must be used to it.

After all, I spent the first 25 years of my life in Yankeeland, including 22 years in Pennsylvania and three years in New England.

Yep. Ha, ha. I'm used to it. Snow is my middle name. That's why I've spent the past 38 years of my life in North Carolina. I got so used to snow that I finally had to get away.

Heavy snow falls in our back yard. Sigh.
 There's no doubt that as a child I revelled in the snow. We went sledding in it; we built intricate snow forts and tunnels in it; we had snowball fights in it; we caught flakes with our tongues and we built snowmen.

All that is fine when you're a kid. Everything changes when you have to drive in it.

The snow that finally pushed me over the top came in the winter of 1975. I was covering sports for a small newspaper in Quakertown, PA., and it was prep basketball season. Regionals, to be exact. It was the night one of the local teams advanced to the regionals, which were being held in the Little Palestra in Philadelphia, just an hour away. Snow was in the forecast, but nothing closed for snow in Yankeeland back in those days, so I drove to the game in my trusty Dodge Dart.

It snowed on the ride down. It snowed during the game. And it was snowing when the game was over. Even for a Yankee used to snow, the ride back in a couple of inches of new-fallen snow was a real ordeal. Never again, I told myself, and a year later, I was in Lexington, NC, working for The Dispatch.

Our neighborhood takes on a decidedly northern exposure.
 While moving to North Carolina didn't totally eliminate snow from my winters, it certainly cut down on the accum-ulation. I do remember going to one ACC Tournament in Greensboro one March in the early 1980s and it snowed about an inch, putting me into a kind of post traumatic snow disorder, but I survived that one, too.

Anyway, the snow this past week brought back memories, both good and not so good. I enjoyed the quiet snowfall. I get tickled when grown adults rush to make snow cream (an apparent southern delicacy we never enjoyed in Pennsylvania) and then claim they're making it for their kids. But, trying to be clever, I walked home from work to avoid driving in the stuff.

It was a nice walk, though. Flakes on my nose and eye lashes. No, wait...

I'm not trying to be a cynic about this. I do enjoy the occasional snowfall — the pureness of it all, the quiet solitude that blankets the town, the pleasant childhood memories it evokes — but I also enjoy the fact that in piedmont North Carolina, at least, it's pretty much all melted a day or two later.

I understand why my southern friends get excited when it snows because it really is an event. I enjoy watching them watching it. I mean, really. By Thursday morning, an army of snowmen had literally mushroomed in our neighborhood. Every small incline in town that even suggested that the pull of gravity might be involved had become a ski slope.

It was wondrous. Just don't expect me to be used to it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Funny valentine

All I wanted to do was read my eCard.

Wednesday was my 63rd birthday, and I found an alert in my email that morning presenting me with a birthday wish video.

Okay, I thought. That might be fun.

So I clicked on it. After all, I'd gotten eCards before. I knew what I was doing.

Uh-oh. Instead of getting an eCard, I got something that resembled a bluish Facebook background and told me that if I accepted the terms — there were about 20 items telling me that this and that would show up for my friends to see — then I could view the card.

So I accepted the terms, thinking my friends know everything about me anyway. I'm a pretty transparent guy, I think.

Anyway, after accepting those terms, I expected to see my card. Instead, I got what amounted to be another questionnaire, with "decline" or "accept" buttons at the bottom of the page.

Some of the stuff they were asking for was a little more personal — hair color, eye color, etc — so I didn't fill out any of it, but I clicked "accept" because I still wanted to see my damn birthday card.

Instead, I got yet another page, this one welcoming me to Zoosk. Apparently, Zoosk is the Facebook equivalent of eHarmony, or any similar dating site.

Dating site? Whoa, whoa, whoa. This didn't have anything to do with my birthday. I closed every window on my computer as fast as I could and ran for my life. I don't need a date. I'm married.

I thought I was safe and started playing a computer game when, ding, within minutes my email alerted me to new mail. I looked. It had the familiar Facebook charm about it, so I opened it, thinking somebody had tagged me.

"Tagged" would be an understatement. Inside was a form message from "Pamster," 60, complete with her picture (a mug shot), and she wanted to meet me. Accept or decline. I think I saw "Zoosk" somewhere on the page.

Now I was scared. Really scared. Sweating scared. Kim was in the bathroom putting on makeup and I didn't know what to do. Should I tell her that I'm now on a dating site and that it was an accident? Would she believe me? And how do I stop this? I could be under a deluge of lonely, post-menopausal women within the hour if I didn't do something now.

So I told her. Kim calmly put on her "What are you, some kind of idiot?" face along with her makeup and told me to find out how to unsubscribe.

I got back on Zoosk, clicking this and that until I found something that said "Your account." I clicked on that, and found another option that said "cancel," hoping it did just that.

And it did. I clicked and Zoosk said it was sorry to see me go, although I didn't think they were really sincere about it.

Whew. I felt I'd made the great escape. I was safe once more.

I just hope Pamster didn't think I was leading her on.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It was 50 years ago tonight...

This is what I remember:

We had gathered around the old black-and-white television set. Probably a Motorola, or maybe a Philco. And it was getting pretty near my parent-mandated bedtime. I was 12 years old, just days away from turning 13 and crossing that milestone threshold into my teenage years. And there was school the next day.

But we all wanted to see what the fuss was about: my parents, my younger brother and I waited patiently for the Ed Sullivan Show to come on.

And then, there they were. The Beatles. On TV. It was February 9, 1964, and my world was about to change.

Just not on that night.

My taste in music wasn't anywhere near established yet. Dad was into Broadway shows, so our record albums featured stuff  like "The Sound of Music," "My Fair Lady," "Oklahoma," and "The Music Man." Dad liked "The Music Man" so much that he and mom went to see the show on Broadway, and he came back enthralled by the barbershop quartet from that musical, The Buffalo Bills. So we had several albums of theirs in the record collection.

And then there was big band music. The Swing Era. Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Dad loved that, too. And some jazz. Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz. Our house was an amalgamation of musical tastes, hardly any of it rock and roll.

Mom listened to the radio and what passed for pop music in those days. I guess Elvis is what I remember most, sprinkled with other nameless performers. Somehow, I totally missed Buddy Holly. Shame on me. I really wasn't paying attention. Yet.

So when the Beatles came on television with all this enormous hype, the curiosity meter was off the gauge. Mostly, it was the hair. I watched that show that night with a buzz cut — a flattop that was all the rage back then.

While that night was historic in our culture, the family kind of snickered when the boys shook their heads to the music and their hair flew this way and that. I'm not sure we paid that much attention to the music at all. How could I know then that they would be such a huge part of the soundtrack for my generation?

I usually come late to parties and this was no different. It was a year or so later before my hair grew a little longer (See? Another cultural impact). The Beatles were still around and I was getting interested in girls, who were listening to the Beatles. And the Beatles weren't going away anytime soon.

Three years later, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and that finally caught my attention. I became a Beatles' fan in real time, better late than never, I suppose.

Now I have the entire Beatles collection in vinyl. And on cassette. And on CD. Album by album.

Dad, who was a high school English teacher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, actually taught a class that discussed Beatles lyrics. Mom thought "Something" was one of the best songs she ever heard. By the time I was in college, my hair was down to my shoulders and my taste in music ranged all over the place, from Yes to Cat Stevens to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to John Fogerty to the Rolling Stones.

But, always, with the Beatles out in front.

It's 50 years later. I can rewatch the Ed Sullivan Show on YouTube and thus enjoy my own magical, mystery tour and wonder where 50 years went. I have the advantage of hindsight and the Internet now, and the uncomplicated Beatles songs that sounded so entertaining then somehow offer hints of what was to come later. I can see it. I can hear it.

You know, I still like to listen to Broadway musicals, especially "The Music Man." I love to hear Glenn Miller. I've included the Americana genre and some country in my musical library. And while I can't play an instrument and you never want to hear me sing, the Beatles left something with me that I never thought possible that night 50 years ago.

They left an impact. Pretty impressive for four kids with guitars and a drum kit.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My friend Fred

I discovered this years ago: as you wend your journey through life you occasionally come across irresistible people.

These are the folks who leave a lasting impression. When you meet up with one of them, you hope to see them again sometime. Usually, they leave you smiling.

In my 30-year career as a sports writer, I've probably met 10,000 people. Probably more. Some of them were irresistible.

Fred Lohr was like that.

Fred Lohr
I met Fred almost as soon as I first arrived in Lexington in 1976. He was coaching the Post 8 American Legion baseball team back then and quickly I found it was impossible to have that strictly professional, arm's length relationship with him.

Usually, a journalist needs to keep work-related relationships somewhat impersonal, so you can ask the tough questions without compromise or hard feelings. When you work on a small-town newspaper, that's not always possible.

It was not possible with Fred. I knew him as one of the most even-keeled people I ever met. Usually soft-spoken, he'd greet you with his disarming smile and a friendly word. His face seemed to light up when he saw you, and that made you feel pretty darn good. He made you feel like you were his friend. Irresistible.

I never saw him angry, although I suppose it was possible he could get upset now and then. I never saw him lose his cool, even if he had to argue a call with an umpire. I also know Fred was an avid golfer, and while I never had a chance to play a round with him, I can't imagine him ever throwing a tantrum. Not possible. Not with his DNA.

I suppose his smile could have been cultivated over the years as a result of his proprietorship of Southern Lunch, Lexington's iconic restaurant hard by the rail depot and the now ghostly furniture plants. Fred probably met 100,000 people in his life — perhaps even more — and no doubt had a smile for every one of them. You need people skills when you deal with the public, and you can't help but think those skills came naturally to Fred. Heck, they probably weren't even skills — it's just who he was.

I saw Fred for the last time just a few months ago, and appropriately enough, it was at Southern Lunch. Age had tightened its grip on him — as it does for us all — but he still made his way to our table and flashed his smile and asked us how we were doing. It was as if he was still running the place.

Fred died on Thursday at the age of 80 and no doubt left his irresistible mark on the community — the people — he loved.