Sunday, January 31, 2016

Beating the blahs

Underhill Rose was in town last night and it was just what the doctor ordered.

The harmony-driven three-piece string band from Asheville was as tuned in as ever: Eleanor Underhill wowed us with her musicianship on the banjo (even playing a few bars from "Dueling Banjos" that had many in the packed house at High Rock Outfitters stomping and clapping); guitarist Molly Rose Reed treated us with her superlative vocals, and upright bassist Salley Williamson kept the whole thing moving on beat with depth and style.

It's just what Lexington needed after emerging from last week's ice and snow display that shivered our collective timbers.

The girls made an early arrival in town on Saturday to follow up on a photo shoot request by local photographer Chris Allred, and I'm hoping some of his work shows up as a sample somewhere. I was allowed to see some of his galley proofs and they were terrific.

Meanwhile, the show last night was a perfect opportunity for some of our friends who have never heard the girls perform to see what the hell I've been gushing about for the past three years. I think my friends were excited. I just hope they were able to hear them.

Ah, yes.

If there was one common complaint I heard last night— and from more than one source — it was about the ambient noise that was coming from the bar area.

OK, OK. I know the venue is a bar and what should I expect when alcohol is involved anyway? It's a social gathering place. Of course there's going to be some racket.

I guess what I don't understand is paying the price of admission, paying the price for your adult beverage of choice, and then yapping away, sometimes trying to talk over the artists that you paid to come see in the first place. That's a trail of logic that simply loses me.

Not only is that conduct rude to the artists, but also to the other paying customers who actually want to listen to the music.

I guess we're just two different camps of paying customers on this one.

I've been told that most musicians have to deal with this issue, from glee clubs and choral groups to rock bands, who practice hard and perform to perfection, only to see their art end up as background music to somebody else's bombast.

Salley brought me to my senses, although only briefly. "They're only having a good time," she told me in her professional wisdom. "It's OK. We're used to it."

I guess the problem is that I'm the one who's not used to it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A cabin in the sky

Sometimes you don't have to go too far away to get away.

Sometimes, 40 minutes can seem like 400 miles.

That's the scenario we ran into last week when we booked a tobacco cabin at Pilot Knob Inn, located about 40 minutes from Lexington and sequestered in the quaint little mailing address of Pilot Mountain. Or was it Pinnacle? I'm almost certain it wasn't Mount Airy, but it could've been King. (See here.)

Anyway, Kim wanted to do this for a long time. I think she'd seen an article in Our State Magazine about 25 years ago about these wood log tobacco barns that had been converted into rustic-but-comfortable cabins standing in the shadow of looming Pilot Mountain (the mountain, not the town).

So we finally got around to doing this.

Our stay was going to be for less than 24 hours, since check-in was 3 p.m. and checkout was 11 a.m. the next morning. That gave us 20 hours, more or less, to chill. Time enough to take a brisk walk through the woods (it had briefly snowed that morning); to enjoy the wood burning fireplace; to unwind in the Jacuzzi.

There were other conveniences: Wi-Fi was available in our cabin, and so was Direct TV, which allowed me to watch bits of the NFL playoff games once I figured out how to use the Direct TV remote (not a guarantee for me, since Direct TV is a technological advance I still haven't quite mastered. Witness: I still use a flip phone).

The only inconvenience of our stay was the fact that our bedroom took up the entire second floor of the cabin. But the cabin's single commode was downstairs – there were no chamber pots – meaning my nightly senior trek required some cautious stairwalking at night. Needless to say, we left a light on.

But that was minor. You pretty much know what you're going to get when you sign up for this and you adjust. The bed was comfortable and I had a restful sleep.

Because the place is a bed and breakfast, we made our way to the main cabin the next morning, where a hearty breakfast was served. In addition to eggs your style, or waffles or pancakes, there was a sideboard filled with pies, muffins, granola and fruits.

All in all, it was a very satisfying experience, and we plan to do this again sometime in the future. Preferably not another 20 years from now.

This was our cabin. We didn't use the front porch. It was 25 degrees outside.

This was our view from the front door of our cabin.

We cozied up to the fireplace later that evening.

You can get a good night's sleep in this place.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Catching our breath

When the news came across the television screen that Glenn Frey, a founding member of the iconic Eagles, had died Monday at the age of 67, I bellowed out in a voice that I wasn't even certain was my own, "Oh, no! Oh, no!"

Frey's death comes quickly on the heels of the passing of splendid actor Alan Rickman (age 69) on Jan. 14; of influential singer David Bowie (age 69) on Jan. 10; and of silky-voiced singer Natalie Cole (age 65) on Dec. 31 (which might as well be January).

Suddenly, it seems, we can barely process the death of one artist before we are learning of the death of another. It's almost too much.

These four were all in their 60s — my age — and each succumbed to health issues pretty much beyond anyone's control, thus reinforcing the notion of how random life and death really are. Especially death.


But it also got me to wondering about the nature of celebrity and why these deaths are somehow so meaningful to us. As evidence, Facebook lit up with clips of Space Oddity, Hans Gruber and Peaceful Easy Feeling.

And then it became a little clearer to me — it's not their celebrity that impacts us so much, it's their art.

What might seem like a catchy tune with clever lyrics on one level might actually be a highway to reach us on another, deeper intellectual or emotional level; a sympatico of expression between artist and audience. We are all made of the same stardust, so it stands to reason that we – artists and audience – share the same instincts and rhythms of the universe.

Artists interpret, the audience absorbs and then interprets the artist. What sticks becomes meaningful, whether it's a song, a lyric, a painting, an essay, a photograph, a script delivered with panache and pathos.

It's all art; it's all about us, really.

And when an artist passes, a little bit of us does, too.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A billion reasons

For one, brief incorrigible moment, I lost sight of myself:

I thought I had a chance to win $1.5 billion in last week's Powerball lottery.

Well, I did have a chance. Just like you: It was one in almost 300 million. In truth, I'd have better odds of getting struck by lightning while waving my 5-iron over my head in a thunderstorm than winning the jackpot (those lightning strike odds are one in 700,000 by the way. Who figures this stuff out anyhow?)

I haven't played a lottery in years, mostly because the odds are so oppressive as to be ridiculous. When the North Carolina Education Lottery began in 2006, I spent $2 a week for a couple of weeks for scratch-off tickets. I think I broke even. I ended up spending $10, and won $10. I quickly lost interest and stopped playing after that.

Prior to moving to North Carolina in 1976, I played a few times in the Pennsylvania lottery when I lived in that state. Occasionally, I'd purchase a lottery ticket if I had some loose change in my pocket. But it hardly seemed worth it to spend one buck to win two, and that was on a good day.

So I quit. And I quit in North Carolina, too. My lottery career was over.

Until last week.

In reality, I wasn't planning to play this time, either. But my wife came home from work one afternoon with a lottery slip she got from a colleague, and just like that, we were back in the game.

We filled out our numbers —7, 21, 27, 30, and 52, with 4 as the Powerball.

Then something weird happened.

I started thinking about what I would do with all that money.

Really. I sat in front of the TV ignoring what was on the screen while my brain was whirring away like a runamuck calculator. Let's see. After taxes, I should have something like $600 or $700 million left. I'd give a million to the church; a million to each of my brothers and Kim's brother; perhaps a million for cancer research. Maybe I'd buy my favorite music group, Underhill Rose, a new touring vehicle, like a Suburban or something, with a $5,000 gas card. I'd pay off our outstanding bills. I'd renovate our house...

Oh, wait. How can I do all of this anonymously? I don't want unending phone calls or emails or strangers knocking on my door asking me for money. Damn, I'm going to have to move away...

"We could move to the Caribbean and eat Beanee Weenies," said Kim. Moving to the Caribbean and eating Beanee Weenies is her solution to most of any adversity we might face, and there are times when I think she might have a point. Until hurricane season, at least.

I was trying to work my way around this reveal issue when it came back to me that, hey Bozo, you're not going to win the lottery. Don't worry about it.

And as things turned out, the odds were correct. We didn't even come close to winning.

Looks like Beanee Weenies tonight.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Coming of age

How many coming of age milestones are there in a lifetime?

 A driver's license (age 16)? The right to vote (18)? Your first (legal) drink (21)? Your first meaningful kiss (fill in age here)? You can add other assorted first evers here.

I've been through those. A long time ago, in fact.

But that doesn't mean the milestones stop.

This past week, I received my Medicare Health Insurance card. You don't qualify for one of those until you are 65, so I guess that means in the eyes of the government, I'm now officially and legally old.

My Medicare card looks a whole lot like this.
 My 65th birthday is actually in February, but it's advisable to start the Medicare registration process about three months in advance of eating your birthday cake.

I started the process on Dec. 21 — did it all online — and I received my card (the birthday card of all birthday cards, I guess) a week ago. So the whole process took maybe three weeks.

Not bad for government work.

I don't become valid until Feb. 1 (not my birthday, but the month of my birth), so I still have a few weeks to go before I start waving my card around in doctors' offices.

What all of this means, of course, is that from here on out (the "out" part sounds rather ominous) is that my health care really is affordable now. I'd been paying for my health care insurance through monthly drafts from my pension, but this year, for the first time, my pension couldn't quite cover the rate increase. In fact, my health care insurance ate up my monthly pension almost to the dollar.

So Medicare is coming at just the right time for me. Consequently, a part of my pension will return to my bank account. At least, that's the plan.

I have mixed feelings about all of this Medicare business, of course. Even though it took me 65 years to get here, it still got here pretty damn quick. It's kind of like being careful what you wish for. On the other hand, I've been in the work force since I was 15 years old, so 50 years of contributing to my social security is about to pay hard-earned dividends.

And, yes, Social Security is the next milestone. I become fully vested when I turn 66, so I think I can hold out until then before before I start collecting that check.

In the meantime, I guess I should enjoy the perks. Some places, like restaurants, acknowledged that I was a senior when I turned 50. I got free iced tea, or maybe dollar discounts on certain meals. I can save a dollar or two at a movie theater. When I got my AARP card, I took advantage of the 10% discounts on hotel rooms whenever we went on vacation.

We have run into the occasional conundrum, of course. My wife, Kim, is 55 and about to turn 56, but she hardly looks it. She still gets carded when she buys wine. So she's in that bureaucratic gray area where she has to prove she's old enough to drink at one place while at the same time proving she's old enough for a senior discount on iced tea at another place. Go figure.

But this is where I am. It looks like a good place from here. The trick now is to make all of it move in slow motion.

From here on out.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

New Year cheer

The New Year for us arrived wrapped in cream cheese dip, with some pretzel thins, lite beer and cheap champagne.

Oh, yeah. And with a boatload of our friends.

I think that's the way you're supposed to do it. We didn't get to see the crystal ball drop on Times Square, mostly because we didn't have the TV turned to ABC (which I think stands for the American Bandstand Channel). I kinda hated we missed that tradition. But we did have party horns and party poppers, each with a half-life of about five minutes.

But that's OK, too. We did the countdown, and when midnight struck, so did we.

It's amazing to me how optimistic we get on New Year's. I guess it's because it's like discarding something worn and used up for a chance for something better. We do this every year, so you'd think we'd know how this works by now.

But I guess it's human nature to seek the higher ground.

I'm trying to keep my expectations within reason because resolutions are mostly useless: Stay reasonably healthy. Make a few more improvements on the house. Read more books. Sleep more. Eat less.

Yeah, that sounds like a plan. I'll drink to that. Where's the cheap champagne?