Sunday, March 30, 2014

Opening Day and whatnot

My Sports Illustrated arrived Thursday, bringing with it its annual baseball preview.

So, like I've done for the past 46 years (that's how long I've been a subscriber — since my junior year in high school), I immediately turned to the scouting report for the Philadelphia Phillies — my favorite team.

I knew right off it wasn't going to be good.

I didn't expect it to be abysmal.

The Phillies are old and they haven't done much to improve themselves. They still have a decent pitching staff with the likes of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett, but aging swatters like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley more closely resemble tributes to Throwback Thursday than legitimate contenders who won the World Series in 2008.

In fact, SI ranked the Phillies No. 13 out of the 15 National League teams, better only than the Marlins and the Cubs. The Phils are expected to finish 29 games out of first place, meaning they'll be out of the pennant race sometime in late August. The reality is that they'll never be in the pennant race at all this year.

I know I'm in Braves' country, but SI has the Braves finishing in second place behind the Nationals, 12 games out.

Methinks it's going to be a long, hot summer for a lot of us.

The good news about all this bad news is that a slew of good baseball movies is on television right now. One of my all-time favorites is Bull Durham, which has been showing up regularly on one of my premium stations.

For all you lollygaggers, this is one of my favorite scenes from the flick:

This should be one of my favorite times of the year, come to think of it.

However, I've been looking at my NCAA brackets and, well, they're starting to look like scouting reports for the Phillies.

I filled out three brackets this year and picked Florida to win in two of them. But picking the winner isn't the key — picking the upsets along the way is what keeps brackets alive

I thought I was doing well early on when I picked Dayton over Ohio State in one bracket and Mercer over Duke in another, but I couldn't maintain that kind of momentum. So right now, heading into today's games, only Florida is in the Final Four. One of my finalists — Louisville — is gone.

Sigh. The only hope I have left to salvage my spring is The Masters. At least the azaleas never let me down.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Help Kickstart my friends

Most of my friends know that I'm borderline OCD for Underhill Rose, a trio of wonderfully talented women from Asheville who are gradually making a name in and around the Americana music genre.

Eleanor Underhill is an accomplished banjo player and songwriter; her college classmate, Molly Rose Reed, is a talented guitarist (and songwriter) with a voice as pure as a love poem; and upright bassist Salley Williamson brings a decidedly subtle depth and balance to the group.

Together, they combine for some uniquely "heartfelt country soul" (their own words) that is often highlighted by incredible three-part harmonies and musicianship. Music videos on YouTube don't do them the justice of seeing them in a live performance.

I tell potential fans that Underhill Rose brings melodies from the mountains and harmonies from heaven.

Why do I bring all of this up?

The group is in the midst of a fan-based Kickstarter campaign to produce, record and distribute their third album. Their last CD, "Something Real" (which was also funded by Kickstarter), was named to the top 100 of the Americana Music Association's year-end chart for 2013, so they've definitely got the chops for this kind of thing. They are clearly Something Real.

Their last campaign requested $15,000 and fans delivered with more than $18,000. This time around, the stakes are more ambitious — $25,000, which must be raised by April 27th or else nothing happens.

Watch this Kickstarter appeal from the girls themselves, and check out the various levels of contribution — here.

What you see in that video is Underhill Rose at its heart. If you sense their sincerity, believe it. If you feel their confidence, trust it. If you feel their art, embrace it. If you feel their joy, go with it. They are all three the real deal.

I have a number of friends who tell me how much they enjoy Underhill Rose's music, but now is the time to ante up. As I write this blog, the band has raised $3,150 with 32 days left in the campaign. That means they have to average about $680 a day in pledges the rest of the way to meet their goal.

Underhill Rose does not have the luxury of a record label to subsidize a new album. They drive from gig to weekend gig, using their own money for gas, food and lodging while bringing their music to our ears — and to our hearts. It's an incredible dedication to their craft for not much more than a pat on the back. The budget does not include recording new CDs.

Now, as fans, we have an opportunity to help them bring us more of the music we enjoy, to bring us the art that we feel enhances our own quality of life, even if just for a little bit. Kickstarter allows us, literally, to become part of their music.

Now is the time.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

HRO — A special place

There once was a time when you could go to High Rock Outfitters and buy a kayak, some outdoor gear, perhaps a T-shirt or two, and maybe get some friendly advice from the owners about where to use this stuff while indulging in a calm cup of coffee.

But the unlikely business on the southwest quadrant of the square in Uptown Lexington has quietly — and efficiently — transformed itself into a miniature artist colony since it first opened at its present location at the White Star building in 2010 (see here for an early history of HRO).

Instead of backpacks and kayaks, original art by Chip Holton now hangs on the walls. There is a performance stage dotted by microphones and bordered by sound monitors and overhead lighting.  A corrugated metal wall serves as a curiously eye-pleasing backdrop. A hearty bar serves up craft beers and wine while huge display windows peer out onto Main Street and the Old Davidson County Courthouse across the way.

Welcome to Lexington's most unique gathering place where on any given weekend you can go to listen to high quality live music. Other evenings might feature open mic nights with local performers, or vinyl parties spinning old rock 'n roll records. There is ambiance here like nowhere else.

"Originally, when we laid it out, we were going to do music with a bar upstairs," said owner Chris Phelps. "But because of expense, we just merged it into one thing. It's definitely been an evolution. It's evolved completely differently than what we anticipated."

Owner Chris Phelps likes what he sees at High Rock Outfitters.
 Music came to HRO almost from the start. Bob Crawford, David Childers and the Over Mountain Men performed in December 2010 and things have rolled from there, slowly but happily for Lexington mutating the DNA of the place. "It went over well," said Phelps. "We had 80 or 90 people here and it made the front page of the paper the next day.

"That's kind of when people said, 'Whoa, what the hell are they doing up there?'"

While the focus is clearly on the music these days (and nights), Phelps still wants to keep the outfitter part of the business alive, too.

"We're trying to get back to an equal balance," said Phelps, a graduate of North Davidson. "Somehow, we're working through that right now.

"This whole place is a result of putting together all the things we like to do," said Phelps. "But you had to travel to do things like kayaking, backpacking or drinking good beer and listening to good music. And I had a really good job (in motorsports manufacturing) that I couldn't leave to do those things.

"So I thought I'd bring it here, and if it worked, fine, and if it didn't, that was OK, too."

Fortunately, it's worked out while bringing something completely different to Lexington.

 "That was part of the decision to do it, too," said Phelps, contemplatively stroking his lush, outdoorsman-inspired beard. "We wanted to move to a culture that we enjoy — loud music, good beer, outdoor activities. But we lived here, so why not just try to bring it here? And that's where all this came from."
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of all this is the response he hears from the artists themselves. Almost every performer who comes through here respects what Phelps has done. The stage was constructed in August 2012 to put the performers on a pedestal as part of the Songcraft series.

Even moreso, the artists love the acoustics. Brick walls, a relatively low tin ceiling, the corrugated backdrop. It all adds up.

"The acoustics were a happy accident," said Phelps. "It's just a good room. But I think it's also a psychological thing. If the room is comfortable, then it's enjoyable for the people and the performers. I think, just by default, that adds to the acoustics. Audio engineers will tell me that I'm full of it, but I think the comfort of a room adds to everything."

He may be right. Many acts, like Dark Water Rising, Wild Ponies and Underhill Rose, keep coming back. On one night, Wild Ponies may be singing at Nashville's Loveless Cafe, and a week later show up at HRO. Underhill Rose does a gig at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, and a month later shows up at HRO. That says a lot.

Everybody who enjoys HRO seems to have found a comfort zone there. Not the least of which is Lexington itself.

Here's HRO's Facebook page:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mysterious air

I know what happened to the mysteriously missing Malaysian Flight 370.

Space aliens.

No, really. And my theory is not based on evidence, but rather on the lack of evidence, which apparently — and ironically — is the strongest evidence we have.

From what I understand, there is absolutely no trace of this 220-foot, 660 thousand pound aircraft. No debris fields. No oil slicks. No cell phone calls from any of the 239 passengers and crew. Nothing.

Soooo, it has to be space aliens.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist in any sense of those words, and when I first heard "space aliens" suggested several days ago as a possible answer to the mystery, I chuckled to myself, just as you are now.

But as the days of newscasts lumbered by, with more and more speculation (with each new tidbit seemingly cancelling out a previous tidbit) as to what might have happened (A politically daft pilot? A random meteor strike? A cargo of lithium batteries burning through the hull of the aircraft?), space aliens began to sound no less absurd an explanation as anything else I've heard.

Besides, a conspiracy doesn't explain the disappearance of the plane. A conspiracy, rather, would suggest that the government(s) involved already know where the plane is and simply aren't telling us as in some kind of Edward Snowden scenario.

As humans, we search for answers to things we don't know. It's no doubt a deep-seated genetic trait of ours. It's why we invented news services and it goes a long way to explain why this story is getting the coverage that it is, including all the speculation from "experts."

So think of the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" not as a science fiction epic but rather as a documentary. It'll help explain a lot.

In my theory, extra terrestrials come to earth to abduct human samples for study (or, in a more optimistic vein, to solicit humans as intergalactic voyagers). They arrive in space ships made invisible through Klingon-like cloaking devices. They traditionally abduct/solicit us in hot spots like Area 51, the Bermuda Triangle and Philadelphia.

And now, with USS Enterprise-like tractor beams, they can carry off entire airplanes without a trace and take them to the mothership.

Hmmm, not so crazy now after all, is it?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

That was something

OK. Now that was an ice storm.

And before I go any further, let me note that I know whatever aggravation Kim and I suffered from Friday's ice storm pales in comparison to the hundreds, if not thousands, of other people in the county who lost cars, or power, or portions of their homes, or others kinds of damage of which I'm not aware.

In some respects, this storm might have been as devastating as Hurricane Hugo which swept through the Carolinas back in September of 1989 and left a swath of damage that still lingers in our collective memory. Hugo is still the stick by which we measure the fury of other local storms that have come and gone.

Friday's storm came close.

We have two maple trees in our smallish front yard, and for description's sake, I'll label them the Left Tree and the Right Tree.

The Right Tree has power lines to both my house and my neighbor's house running through the branches. Last year, we had to repair our sewer line, which runs perilously close to the tree. Some of the tree's roots were removed as a trench was dug to the street, and for a while I thought we might lose the tree.

There also seems to be evidence of a past infection, which I also thought might weaken the tree.

But nothing happened. The tree survived the ice storm without nary losing a twig. In fact, we never lost power to the house. Amazing.

The Left Tree, which I regarded as the healthier tree, lost two huge boughs, about an hour apart from each other's fall. They landed without damaging the house, although they did fill my front yard with significant lumber. The second bough also partially blocked my new front-to-back driveway, trapping our cars.

We could hear trees popping and cracking all morning long. It was a storm with a voice.

But we were lucky, and we know it.

By Friday afternoon, the warming sun had appeared and began melting the ice. When I got home from work (yes, the bank was open and operating on a generator — although I was caught in the elevator for a 15-second power outage), I started cutting out a path with a carpenter's handsaw to open the driveway. Fortunately, and for a reasonable fee, a man with his drive-by chain saw showed up, and within a half-hour, my yard was cleared.

I'll still need an arborist to repair the broken limbs on the Left Tree, which will now allow a cascade of abundant sunlight to fall on the left side of our cottage garden out front. It's the Left Tree that I now hope survives.

Herewith are some photos I've included as a personal memento to archive the ice storm:

The first limb is down from the Left Tree.

A second fallen branch adds to the lumber pile.

Can we get out? Don't really want to chance it.

Fallen trees block our alley — and our access to the outside world.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Uncommon strength, uncommon character

Who expects to face a life-changing event when you're just two years old?

Billie Jo (Edmonds) Varner never did.

But one day, very early in her formative years, when the pulse and sounds of the earth are still fresh and alive and mysterious, she came down with a particularly devastating case of rheumatic fever. She recovered, but the fever left her deaf in both ears.

Life changing, indeed.

"The infection damaged the tissue of the ear drums in both ears," said Varner, 44, who works the part-time morning shift in the mail room of a local bank, where I happen to work the afternoon shift.  "All I can remember is when I started going to school, which I guess is at age five, I had to take speech therapy every year. I was with somebody all the time."

Billie Jo Varner can teach us something about character.
Varner was able to hear — and learn — with the help of hearing aids (because of cost, she started off with just one, but was later able to have a second hearing aid for the other ear).

"I can only hear 20 percent, so I was able to hear the sounds and all, and try to work with speaking, but it took 12 years in school to learn," said Varner, who also learned how to sign.

School wasn't a particularly pleasant experience for her. In addition to being taught the standard curriculum, she also had her therapy classes and signing lessons. Every time she turned around, it seemed, she was being taught something. Good if you're a sponge, not so much if you're a child growing up wanting nothing more than to be a child growing up.

"It wasn't easy," Varner concurred. "You get picked on. That was bad. I hated school."

For the next decade or so (she married Eddie Varner 24 years ago — "He's been a blessing to me," said Varner — and the couple have two children, Kala, 20, and Lucas, 18) she made her way through life with the marginal benefit of her hearing aids. Then, about six years ago, when she was in her late 30s, she was told about cochlear implants, which requires a surgical procedure behind the ear to install a high-tech device that enables a deaf person to better understand speech. (see here)

"Somebody told us about (cochlear implants) and we checked it out online," said Varner. "Then we made an appointment to talk to the people you had to talk to about your insurance — about what it will pay and what it won't pay.

"They kept telling us that they couldn't approve it. But we kept looking into it more and I just really wanted it," said Varner, her eyes virtually brimming with excitement as she tells the story. "So we went and talked with them again, and they still said they couldn't approve it."

The cost of a cochlear implant can run anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, so insurance was a critical issue for her.

"I figured it just wasn't meant to be," said Varner.  "Then, two weeks later, in the mail, we got a letter, and it said it was approved."

Wow. Another life changer.

"God was working on me," smiled Varner. "Yeah, we were all excited. We celebrated. And for something like that, I wasn't even nervous. I was ready to go. Let's get it done, you know?"

Indeed, the procedure was done at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, and life has never been quite the same for her. Her device, located behind her right ear and unseen by a shower of blond hair, has four changeable programs on it, which allows her to either block background noise, or to let her hear sound from a distance (like a preacher in church), or to let her hear when on the phone, or to let her hear music from a radio.

"It's unreal," said Varner.

It's also uncertain — and always will be, I suppose — whether she hears sounds the way you and I do. For example, she has to turn down the volume on the telephone for it to make any sense to her. I have to turn it up. So sound frequencies might be gathered in different ways for her compared to you and me.

At first, she was overwhelmed with the learning curve required in having an implant. When she first came home after the procedure, she complained to her husband that she kept hearing a noise and what was it? "It's the clock," he said. "No, it's not," she replied. "What is it?" So he took the battery out of the clock.

"It was the clock," she smiled.

She never heard the sound of a flushing commode before the implant. Or the sound of crickets.

"It just goes on and on and on," she said.

She currently has only the right-ear implant and would like to have one for the left ear, but again, insurance says one is enough. For now.

Nevertheless, she remains ecstatic.

"There's a big difference from being able to hear only 20 percent. It was always difficult to hear and understand. I always had to be able to read lips. For example, growing up, we didn't have voice captioning on television. I had to try and read lips to watch a show."

The implant also has allowed her speech to improve.

"Because I'm hearing the words better I'm learning to speak better," she said.

Now for my two cents.

I met this woman about three weeks ago. She's a new hire at the bank and so our paths cross for about a half hour each day. In that span I've discovered her to be vital, a quick learner with a sharp sense of humor. I can't imagine what she's endured in her lifetime. Sometimes the biggest challenge of my day is deciding which shirt I'm going to wear. Varner, by contrast, has successfully scaled more challenges than I'll ever care to know.

And while it seems like she's spent her whole life caught in a learning process, she's been a teacher, too, even if she doesn't know it: She has already taught me something about perseverance and strength of character.

Thank you, Billie Jo.