Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bucket list check-off

I have this bucket list — things I hope to accomplish before I die — that apparently I have been working on all my life.

I've been to the Grand Canyon and hiked down to the Colorado River. I've seen spectacular Northern Lights in Wisconsin. I've seen whales, moose and bald eagles in Alaska. I've been to nearly all the major Civil War battlefields. I shook hands with baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt after getting his autograph. I once interviewed Arnold Palmer. I watched a baseball game from the outfield seats in Boston's Fenway Park.

There are some things I have yet to do: I'd like to see Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and the the D-Day beaches at Normandy. I want to trace my family's lineage to the Black Forest region of Germany. I'd love to bring home some sand from a pot bunker at St. Andrews. I want to smoke a Cuban cigar.

The Montecristo is on top, a Dominican OpusX is on the bottom
Oh, wait. That last thing. I did that. Check.

This happened recently when I came into possession of a hand-rolled Montecristo Habana as a gift.

My cigar-smoking experience up to that point maybe included a couple of premium Macanudos, and beyond that, Swisher Sweets cigarillos (with the plastic mouth tips) and maybe a Phillies Blunt or two. Yeah, man of the world type stuff.

And keep in mind I'm not much of a smoker anyway. I quit smoking cigarettes almost 40 years ago when I was dating my wife. I briefly smoked a pipe when I was in my late 20s, and the occasional said cigar when somebody gave me one to celebrate the birth of their baby.

But the Montecristo was different, as I expected it to be. As I hoped it would be.

Before I got started, I wanted to do it in what I figured was the right way. So I bought a fifth of Dewar's Scotch whisky. I'm not much of a Scotch drinker, so I gave myself a test run, pouring a finger into a glass with a couple of ice cubes.

Man, this is the life...
 Now, I like my whisky as much as anybody, but the Dewar's could have been battery acid as far as I knew. I should have aimed higher, maybe something like a Glenlivet or Glenmorangie or Glengargoyle or whatever — anything that Glen makes.

As it was, I poured myself a dram of Bacardi Gold, which I thought was somehow appropriate because, you know, Puerto Rico is in the same general hurricane path as Cuba. The rum worked for me. Very smooth. A nice complement.

Next, I bit off the end of the cigar and spit it out. The couth thing to do would have been to cut off the end, but I'm currently into man of the world stuff and it somehow seemed the proper thing to do.

And then I lit up. I did this on our back porch because if you smoke a cigar inside the house, the odor/aroma lingers longer than a marriage ever could, and I didn't want to be in that kind of jeopardy. Then I drew my first draw. Oh my God. I wonder if they smoke cigars in heaven?

Anyway, it was a very mild sensation. Cigar smoke is not only something you smell, but also taste, and this had a certain delicacy on my palate that I didn't expect. I sat back in my wicker chair and puffed away.

I didn't inhale. I did that once with a cigar a long time ago (maybe it was a Swisher Sweet) and it was a hard lesson learned. I might still suffer from decades-old residual coughing because of that one faux pas.

A few minutes later I was feeling like some kind of Monopoly tycoon, so I decided to walk around the house and inspect my eighth-acre of property. It looked great and I was supremely pleased with my domain. I puffed up and then puffed on.

Then I thought about celebrating championships. I might have had a Pepsi when the Philllies won their World Series titles in 1980 and again in 2008, but now I had a Montecristo and so I belatedly and sublimely saluted those satisfying moments in my life. Thank you, Mike Schmidt. Thank you, Cole Hamels.

And it went on. Thank you, Miracle on Ice. Thank you, Neal Armstrong. Thank you, Secretariat. Thank you, Joe McIntosh. I figured I may never smoke this way again, and I was going to take advantage of it while I could.

Finally, inexorably, the cigar worked its way down to a stub. I was done. It took maybe 45 minutes and I savored every bit of it. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the stub, so I buried it. Respectfully.

Then I reflected. It was all a nice moment, now all up in smoke.

Life is good. Check.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


In view of the recent atrocities in Paris, I'm trying to figure out the nature of terrorism.

Specifically, what's the point behind the bombing, killing, maiming of concert goers, or machine gunning friends and tourists having a sip of Bordeaux at a sidewalk cafe? How does that move a political agenda forward?

What worthy statement do you make when you blow yourself up with a suicide vest? Is it all about the shock value of the act itself?

Does a terrorist act really bring to light the self-perceived oppression of the aggrieved? Or is terrorism nothing more than psychopathic role playing to satisfy innate misanthropic and homicidal tendencies?

Is the modern wave of jihadist terrorism really nothing more than political fanaticism cloaked in religious garments? If religion is indeed an element in all of this, then whose God wishes to see His creation destroy itself — to destroy human progress, to destroy history, to destroy the arts? There appears to be no logic in that.

Is it about power? Money? Oil? Disenfranchised youth?

Is it all of this? Is it none of this?

From my lonely perch in a small southern town, terrorism just doesn't seem to be a viable solution. Terrorism is, at best, I think, a shady answer to my invisible questions. All terrorism really does, I think, is bring unending resolve and retribution from the victims themselves. So then it becomes cyclical, without end. You strike me, I'll strike you. Terror begets terror, with no end, with no answer.

I've seen the pleas for more love, more understanding, more communication.  That is the ideal, of course, but I'm not sure that's the world we live in.

Because terrorism is a human problem, it'll take a human solution to solve. No doubt, it'll require love and understanding. And no doubt, it'll require bullets and bombs.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

It makes me wonder

I'm currently reading a library book called "Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America."

No, it's not about Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or Donald Trump or even Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt or anyone else who bobbed to the surface somewhere along the American timeline.

It's about founding father James Madison, a 5-foot-4 intellectual dynamo often credited as The Father of the Constitution (as well as The Bill of Rights).

The partnerships explored in the book, written by David O. Stewart, include Madison's connections with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe and Dolley Payne Todd (who eventually became Madison's wife).

I bring all of this up because we are in the midst of a sometimes fascinating, sometimes tedious, sometime ludicrous presidential campaign season. Absurdities uttered from nearly all the candidates, from both parties, seem to proliferate everywhere (you pick 'em, because what actually might make sense to me may be a joke to you. But they're there).

And this political season makes me wonder where and when we lost the intellectual brilliance of men like Madison, Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton.

Or did we?

From my point of view, I fear we haven't seen anything resembling the probing intelligence of our founding fathers, giants who seemed to be able to dissect an issue, then solve it with common sense and backroom compromise.

But, as it turns out, even the greats had their moments. The partnership with Madison and Hamilton that produced The Federalist papers faded in later years as political differences arose between them. Madison, who wrote many of Washington's speeches, drifted away from Washington in later years. It is, as they say, complicated. Political parties (never envisioned by the founders) formed, loyalties shifted.

And now, here we are, watching Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live and wondering if, 100 years further along the American timeline, our current crop of politicians will be seen as giants.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A good skate

The conversation started off innocently enough.

Sandy Andrews, my colleague at NewBridge Bank (where I work part time) and I were just having a casual little chit chat when it came out that I had been a sports writer for The Dispatch for more than 30 years.

"Oh," she said happily, "do you know anything about roller derby?"

Sandy Andrews is a pleasant, mild-mannered banker during the week...
Uh-oh, I thought to myself. Where is this going? Usually, I'm cornered by soccer moms who want a little extra coverage for their undeniably precocious star athletes. So I prepared myself to hear Sandy go on and on about one of her kids participating in yet another low-impact, non-mainstream sport.

"Ummm, maybe," I answered, with visions of Raquel Welch in the 1972 flick "Kansas City Bomber" flashing through my head. "Why?"

"Well," said Andrews, "I play derby."

Huh? I thought I heard her say that she skated in roller derby, but that just couldn't be. Sandy is built like a No. 2 pencil and has the pleasant, unassuming demeanor of, well, a Sunday school teacher. The roller derby I knew from watching it on TV back in the 1960s was raucous, violent and contrived. It just didn't jibe.

"Whut?" I said, and the conversation took a decidedly different turn.
 •   •   •
Andrews, a 42-year-old mom who works at the bank's call center in Lexington, said her children — Aeda, Christopher and Jacob — got interested in roller skating a while back, so she took them to a local rink. Things simply rolled from there, so to speak.

...and jammer Jaisy Juke for Greensboro Roller Derby on weekends. *
"They got interested in speed skating and they wanted me to join them," said Andrews. "So about a year ago, we started speed skating every Saturday. I liked it so much I wanted to find out what else I could do with skating."

 A bell went off in her head. A few years previously, a friend of hers from high school had participated in roller derby and had posted some pictures of herself on Facebook. Andrews thought it was interesting, but never in a million years would she do it. "It looked like a painful and wild sport," said Andrews.

Well, yeah.

But by this time, Andrews was more than a little curious. She did some research and found out that there was a roller derby team in Winston-Salem, originally the Camel City Thrashers. She called, and they invited her to watch — or, if she wanted, to participate in a practice. The only requirement was that she be over 18 years old.

"I went to a practice and fell in love with it," said Andrews. "And I've been hooked ever since."
•   •   •
There's a sidebar story running parallel to all of this.

About five or six years ago, Andrews contracted Lyme Disease through the bite of a deer tick. It changed her life.

"It affected me in every way — neurologically, mentally, physically, emotionally," said Andrews. "It was a very hard struggle getting over that. I couldn't walk straight, I couldn't hold a coffee cup. I couldn't control my muscles and I had tingling all over. I had all kinds of issues."

Fortunately, she's been able to treat the malaise with medication.

"Even though I still have a little pain, I've gotten much better," said Andrews. "I control that through exercise and diet. And skating actually makes me feel better. It's strengthened the joints in my knees and hips, and I don't have as much pain as I used to."

Andrews doesn't want to play up the Lyme Disease aspect of her life, other than to show that it's possible to wrestle against adversity with dedication and determination.

 "I've overcome this illness," noted Andrews. "There's some things I still can't do — running bothers me — but I can skate. Derby is a very intense athletic sport. I can say that I've overcome this disease, I'm strong and I'm an athlete."

You cannot mistake the pride in her voice for anything else.
•   •   •
Several Thrashers, including Andrews, eventually joined the Greensboro Roller Derby (see here), which competes in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. They currently hold their bouts (not matches, meets or games) in the Greensboro Coliseum annex.

Andrews — who took the name Jaisy Juke (in recognition of her childhood TV idol Daisy Duke) as her derby alter ego — became a jammer for her team, the Elm Street Nightmares.

Flat tracks tend to slow the action down a bit, as opposed to the banked wooden tracks that Raquel Welch bombed her way around. It's like the difference between NASCAR's flat Bowman Gray Stadium and the high-banked Charlotte Motor Speedway, and all the physics that that implies regarding speed and momentum. But the roller derby flat tracks are usually concrete surfaces, like those in coliseum annexes, which makes taking a spill a little more problematical.

"I've never been hurt," said Andrews, "except for a few bumps and bruises."

And the near black eye that is just now starting to fade.
•   •   •
A quick derby primer: Each team has five skaters on a flat oblong track that is approximately the length of a hockey rink. That's 10 people crowded together in helmets, elbow- and kneepads, trying to get their jammers (one designated player per team) through a wall of their opponent's blockers. Points are awarded when a jammer breaks through after she's completed her first lap.

"We're playing offense and defense at the same time," said Andrews. "It's kind of like football on roller skates. And it's for real. It's legitimate. There's nothing contrived about it.

"The first time I ever broke through as a jammer it was such an adrenalin rush," and Andrews. "I really love doing this."

So does her husband, Chris. And, of course, her kids. "They really support me with this," said Andrews, who practices two or three times a week. "I'm really having a lot of fun."

Wow. Amazing. And I know one thing for sure: the next time Sandy wants to tell me something, I'm paying close attention. I'll be jammed if I ever look at a No. 2 pencil the same way again.

(A brief example of flat track roller derby is in the video below. It does not depict Andrews' team): 

*Photo courtesy of Jill and Mike McClanahan, Frayed Edge Concepts, LLC.