Sunday, December 27, 2015

Panthers need to be smart

If the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons today, they'll be 15-0 and the quest for an undefeated season will continue.

I hope they're smart about it.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to win the Super Bowl. Going undefeated would be a consequence of that quest. But going undefeated should not be the team's primary focus. Winning the Super Bowl should be.

The Panthers have already clinched a playoff berth and a first-round bye in the playoffs. A victory today would guarantee them home-field advantage in both the divisional round and the conference championship round, so they still do have something significant for which to play.

But if the Panthers find themselves in control of the game early, I want to see them take out their starters. Why risk injury? The team is already playing without starting running back Jonathan Stewart, who is recovering from a foot sprain. He is likely not going to see action again until the playoffs begin.

The focus right now should be keeping quarterback Cam Newton as far away from the risk of injury as possible. Clearly, Newton is in the midst of a spectacular MVP-type season and there should be no reason to jeopardize Newton's health in the team's remaining games.

If the Panthers win today, Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, linebacker Luke Keuchly, cornerback Josh Norman and maybe a few others should be given minimal playing time next Sunday in the regular season finale against Tampa Bay — just enough PT to stay sharp, but not enough to risk injury in the quest for an undefeated season.

I haven't seen any indications that going undefeated is a primary goal for this team. I think coach Ron Rivera knows what's at stake and is trying to balance sensibility (winning smart) with sentiment (going undefeated). It's a tough act, but so far, so good.

In a perfect world, the Panthers defeat the Falcons today, then look at next week as if it were an exhibition game — the starters stay in for a quarter, then yield to the reserves, who, incidentally, could hone their own skills for the playoffs.

I know it's not a perfect world. Both the Falcons and the Bucs (if it comes to that) see a target on the backs of the Panthers' jerseys. And for that reason, the next two games could be the mot difficult of the season for Carolina.

They've been smart about it so far. I hope it continues that way.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Lifting the light

For the first time in several years, Kim and I were able to get away for a Christmas Eve lovefeast and candlelight service.

Work had always gotten in the way before, but not this time. A change in workplace policy freed up the time we needed to drive to Winston-Salem for the Christmas Eve service in the rather unique 12-sided English Gothic sanctuary at Christ Moravian Church on Academy Street.

There is magic that happens here. At least, it happens for me.

Lifting the light...
 The moment I entered the narthex I felt myself being taken to a different time, to a different place. I don't know how this occurs — it just does and I let it happen. It is my full-scale surrender to something whispering to me — what, canon? mandates? decrees? — in surprisingly gracious terms.

Immediately after Kim and I find a place to sit, a Moravian brass band trumpets out familiar Christmas carols, unseen from a back room. Meanwhile, I take in the sanctuary that is trimmed in greenery, a huge 110-point Moravian star glowing from a 20-foot ceiling. And now I am whisked away to a time when I was the son of a Moravian minister, with Dad conducting his own candlelight services.

It begins. From the balcony, a handbell choir chimes out "Mary, Did You Know?" Soon after, the lovefeast rolls and coffee are served.

History is everywhere here. The first Moravian lovefeast was held in 1727. The first candlelight service a little later in 1747. I suspect not much has changed in the service since then. One of the highlights is the singing of "Morning Star," usually a solo sung by a teen or pre-teen with responsive verses answered by the congregation.

And now the beeswax candles arrive. The house lights dim, but the star above us glows brightly. I take a candle and hand it to Kim. I take my own candle from the diener, light it, and pass the flame to my wife, who seems to be tearing up. It's hard for me to tell because my own eyes are somewhat liquid right now.

Then, as one, the congregation lifts its light to the ceiling. I am rejuvenated.

It's Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A simpler Christmas

Kim and I probably have been heading in this direction for several years without conscious intent.

When the first week in Advent arrives, I hang our Moravian Star on the front porch. I take down our American flag and put a Moravian Christmas flag in its place. I put electric Christmas candles in the forward-facing windows of our house. We put wreaths (artificial) over those windows and dress up Stoney, our concrete porch cat.

Stoney still goes the full Santy...
 The transformation takes all of 30 minutes, but we're as ready for Christmas as anybody.

For as long as I can remember, we bought an annual Christmas tree (real) and decorated it. Our fireplace mantles turned into something resembling award-winning shop displays.

And Kim let loose in the kitchen, making labor-intensive sugar cakes and whatnot.

Or rather, she used to.

Slowly, over the past few years, we began downsizing Christmas. 

I'm not quite sure how or when it happened. It could have been the year that Kim's mother passed away. That happened in May of 2009 and nobody in our house was feeling much like Christmas that year. No tree. Minimal decorating. Limited gift buying.

Hey, wait a minute. There suddenly seemed to be some sanity in our sadness. The tedious chore of packing everything back up was gone. So was a lot of the stress.

A couple more Christmases came and went without trees or cookies, and — surprise — we really didn't miss them.

Now hold on a second. Before we're accused of being Grinchy, let me make it clear we're still planning on going to a Christmas Eve candlelight service in Winston-Salem, just as we have in past years. That service, more than anything else, fills me with Christmas.

We've already been to several holiday parties, so we've been quite social with our friends. And I still look forward to seeing the standard Christmas movies – I know I'm going to cry when Clarence gets his wings. I love it when Scrooge sees the light. Certain Christmas tunes still strike a chord within me. Some traditions simply are inviolate.

Nevertheless, the irony here for me seems to be that the less wrapped up I get in Christmas, the more I feel its warmth and significance.

And maybe that's the point.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My steak out

Curiously, my unexpected brush with the high life continues.

Just a couple of weeks removed from having smoked my one and only Cuban cigar ever, I was recently treated to a fist-sized portion of Chateaubriand from the Angus Barn in Raleigh (a place which just might qualify as one of the best steak joints on the planet).

How does this happen?

It all goes through my wife, Kim.

One afternoon last week, my wife and about a dozen of her cohorts (no spouses or significant others) from where she works made a business trip to Raleigh to celebrate the opening of their new branch office there. Hors d'oeuvres were consumed, champagne was fluted, hands were shaken, backs were slapped and best wishes were offered.

Thus primed, the group was taken to the Angus Barn about an hour or so later. Kim, who has eaten Alaskan King Crab in Prince William Sound, lobster in New England and barbecue in Lexington, has never been to the Angus Barn (see here), so she figured she was in for a treat.

But here's the thing: she's on a self-imposed diet. She's done very well with it, too, having lost nearly 20 pounds in the last couple of months. She looks great.

So how was she going to negotiate a once-in-a-lifetime meal without derailing from her diet? Peck at a salad? Drink only water? Embargo the diet for a day?

She placed her order, selecting the 14-ounce Chateaubriand, medium well, a twice-baked potato (Kim never met a potato she didn't like), French onion soup, a square cut of homemade bread and a glass of wine. She did not order dessert.

When the meal was served, she cut off a corner of the steak and took a few delicious bites. She tasted the tater and savored the soup, but didn't go much beyond that.

"I felt guilty," she told me later, "because you weren't there to enjoy it with me. And I didn't want to spoil my diet."

So she took the rest of the meal home in a to-go box. To share.

Now the rest of the picture comes into focus.

The next day, when I got home from work, about six ounces of world-class Chateaubriand (does that translate to  "House Brand" in the way that Pinot Noir suggests "Peanut of the Night?"), some bread and twice-baked potato were waiting for me.

Oh my gosh.

I have it in my mind that years ago, when I was working at The Dispatch, we were treated to the Angus Barn to celebrate our annual cache of press awards. You'd think I'd remember, but maybe I'm just projecting a memory that never was. I don't know. I just don't recall.

At any rate, the meal actually traveled well 24 hours later. The reheated steak was awesome. We savored each bite. It was Christmas come early.

We figured we were the only people in Lexington eating Chateaubriand that night.

If only I had had a Cuban cigar...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Word play

My past as a poem reading drawing card at HRO.
A few weeks ago I posted a picture of myself on Facebook reading some of my original poetry during Open Mic Night at High Rock Outfitters. I posted it as a Throwback Thursday item that I thought would raise a few chuckles.

I did the HRO thing for a couple of reasons: one, I wanted to face down my stage fright – in truth, I'm petrified as a public speaker; and two, I wanted to experience the perspective that performing artists have on that particular stage.

Don't ask me why. There was no logic behind it. But, anyway, mission accomplished. Sort of.

Curiously, a few of my friends have since asked me what it was I was reading that night. Most of the poems I wrote bubbled up during my college days at Kutztown State (PA) back in the time when my brain was fertile and fresh. Now, as I zero in on Medicare registration, fertile and fresh are all up for debate.

But I found a poem I'd written almost 45 years ago and this is the one I read. It's titled (probably ungrammatically), "She":

Not as vast as galaxies, nor is she deep beyond
         the oceans;
She soars the skies on fragile wings, but does not
         trace clouds in circular motions,
                          or in loops or spheres.
Not brave, or even firm and true, but rather
anxious in her dreams and fears
                        and knowing who she is and what she wants

She will not hold the stars in her her hands, but
          points to them instead;
Time does not obey her words, and confusion often 
          dwells in her head
                          because really there is no time.
I can not describe her beauty anymore, I only
feel her inside and know she is there
                          and I will try not to let her slip away

She is not magical sunsets or wondrous universes
          or blue skies;
She is the rich, damp earth, cool and moist between my fingers –
          but do we realize
                          the goodness of touching earth?

That day comes, as usual, and he looks to the horizon
as a distant dream, discovering its natural worth
                          as she heads in the opposite direction

Something waits for him now in the starsplit night, and it is he
                                                                     who slips away

I can't tell you how that poem came to be. I think I wrote it during a particularly numbing social science lecture and clearly, it was about a relationship that was failing (the impetus that drives most sane people to write poetry, I think).

Anyway, my theory behind poetry is that while I don't necessarily need meter, I do like words to rhyme. I think rhyming is part of the discipline behind a thoughtful, expressive poem that helps paint a picture or color an emotion. I also like to use rhyming words, when I can, whose root structures are spelled differently, i.e. "spheres" and "fears" or "motions" and "oceans." It makes things more challenging and can also raise an eyebrow in the reading. It's part of what I think "word play" is all about.

And, oh, yeah, don't forget about making your point. Making your point is the whole point about poetry,

One of my friends asked me why I haven't written any poetry more recent than 1973. My poetry basically vanished when I became a journalist in 1975 because, you know, making money was an imperative back then and I didn't want to travel the starving artist route. I mean, really, how many professional poets do you know?

But a few years ago, a photographer friend of mine, Rodney Slate from Thomasville, took some stunning black and white snaps after a brief snowfall. One of the images he captured was a stand of trees bordering a country lane somewhere in Davidson County. He posted the pic on Facebook and, four decades later, it got my poetic juices going again. His picture was stark, yet inviting. Geometric, yet open and free. I wrote my untitled poem and sent it to Rodney, who posted it in his blog along with his photo, much to my surprise.

A now, a few years later, I'm doing the same:

(Click on the picture to enlarge it.)