Monday, January 30, 2017

Talk politics, lose weight

I was in the fitness center, mindlessly pedaling away on the recumbent bicycle machine, as I do every morning.

My earbuds were firmly in place, tuned into one of the 24/7 news outlets that helps me stay current as well as pass the time as I burn calorie after calorie. If I close my eyes, time seems to go faster.

Then I heard a muffled voice coming from the machine next to me. It was my exercise buddy/nemesis.

"Mifflewhapda mizzou odernable ants?" she asked.

"What?" I asked, pulling out my left earbud.

"What do you think of the ban on immigrants?"

Uh-oh. Danger, Will Robinson. I briefly saw my life flash before my eyes. Even though I knew we'd probably end up wrestling on the fitness center floor before this was over, I answered anyway.

"I don't like it," I said. "I think it goes against American values. It's not who we are as a country. What do you think?"

"I think it's tremendous," she said, and so the volleying began.

We bantered like this for a few minutes, each stating our case. I'm not a good real-time debater. I usually think of my best retorts about an hour or two after the discussion has ended. But this was an informal collision between friends.

"It's only vetting for three months," she said. "That's not long. Why not try it and see?"

"There's already a vetting process in place that can take up to two years," I said. "Why add to it?"

At this point, I happened to glance at the digital readout numbers on my machine. I usually pedal about 85 revolutions per minute. I was up to 89.

"How do you know terrorists aren't coming through in spite of the vetting now?" she asked. I didn't have an answer and said nothing, although I'm not sure 90 days of extra vetting will make any difference. I tend to think this is all about optics anyway.

I was cranking out 93 rpms.

Then she hit me with a good one, the kind that buries a liberal persuasion with a sense of guilt. "Well, are you going to take in any of the refugees?"

I'm at 95 rpms.

"Isn't that what churches are for?" I asked. I was thinking of the Montagnard refugees that came to the Piedmont in the 1980s through church sponsorship, and a friend of mine later reminded me of some Serbian refugees who were sponsored by churches during the same era.

"Lookit," I said. "You got me pedaling up to 98 rpms. I never go that fast."

"Me, too," she said. "Look at my heart rate. It's really up there. This is great."

"Maybe we should make this part of our exercise program," I said.

"Yeah, aggressive exercise. I'll talk to the director about it. This is wonderful."

"Same time tomorrow?"

"OK. See you then."

If the machine can be believed, I burned 787 calories in 70 minutes, although I suppose it could be giving me alternative facts.

But when I got home and stepped on the scale, I was down another pound. Not bad for a Monday.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Our heritage

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus (November 2, 1883)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Movie jag, Part II

Four silver screen movies in a month. This just never happens in our house. For Kim and me, going to the movies is our special treat to ourselves. It requires that we block off at least five hours on a Saturday afternoon, earmarking it as a "date."

We usually end up going for a meal some place afterwards, which really makes our five hours together special.

So when we go to the movies, the movie better be worth our while.

And so far, January has been remarkable.

A couple weeks ago, within a 48 hour time frame, we saw "Manchester by the Sea," quickly followed by "La La Land."

We added two more flicks this week. On Wednesday evening, we saw "Jackie," and then yesterday we were amazed by "Hidden Figures."

All these movies have elements of Oscar greatness in them, and when the Academy Awards come up next month, that could be something special, too. Expect Oscars all over the map. Maybe even shared Oscars.

First, "Hidden Figures."

If you don't know the synopsis already, the flick is the true story of three female African-American mathematicians/engineers (Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by the omnipresent Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae; and these women were called "computers" back in the 1960s) who helped get NASA launched back in the Project Mercury days, a timeline which just happened to parallel the rising civil rights activism of the era.

I was a teen-ager in that era. I was captivated by America's drive to put men in space. It never occurred to me that women might be involved. It never occurred to me that African-Americans might be involved. I just didn't know. Most of us probably didn't. Hence, the real-time beauty of this movie.

Henson, Spencer and Monae all turn in remarkable performances, but two solid supporting roles comes from Kevin Costner (as composite character Dr. Al Harrison, who headed up NASA's Space Task Group) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon in TV's "Big Bang Theory") perhaps typecast as head engineer Paul Stafford, who is also a composite character in the flick.

I love period-piece movies because for me it's like time traveling. I especially like it when they make you feel good, and they make you feel good because it actually happened. Kim and I left the theater wiping our eyes.

I wasn't particularly interested in seeing "Jackie." It was Kim's turn to pick the movie we were going to see, and this was her choice. It's a curious choice, because Kim was born in 1960, and the movie, of course, takes place in 1963. But Kim has almost always had a post-era fascination for Jackie Kennedy, as I guess many people do.

The movie mostly centers around Jackie Kennedy's life in the week following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. The title role is played with incredible skill by Natalie Portman, even to the point of Jackie's sometimes breathless-sounding speech patterns.

At the core of the movie's story is the assassination. About three-quarters of the way through the picture, we are there, riding in the limousine with Jackie, facing her. The rifle shot rings out in a surround-sound scream. We know it's coming but we still jump in our seats. It's graphic and it's horrifying. But it also explains exactly Jackie's life from that moment on. And in that light, it shows just how incredible Portman's tour de force here really is. Wow.

I'm not sure what's up next, although I think "The Founder," the story of Ray Kroc and the McDonald's empire, looks intriguing. Another period piece, for sure.

Pass the French fires. And stay tuned.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fake news

As a retired journalist, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of "fake news."

I guess I shouldn't, though. Fake news has always been around. It's simply an old concept with a new name, and maybe a new nuance. It's sometimes known as propaganda, or yellow journalism, or bias, or perhaps spin. The nuance is how politicized the conveying of news has become.

In my 40-plus years behind a keyboard and a press credential, the idea of spin was always anathema to me. I always took my role as a journalist — specifically, a sports writer — as seriously as I could. I always tried to quote my subjects as accurately as possible so they could get their story (not mine) out to the public, trusting their confidence in my ability to do that.

It's hard work because you are constantly dealing with points of view. What my subjects saw isn't necessarily what I saw, even though we were both looking at the same thing. It doesn't mean either of us was wrong, or trying for an advantage. It just means that an element of trust is involved, and on both sides.

Nearly all the journalists I know work this way. They are professionals. They are committed to the dispensing of truth as best as they can.

Trust is journalism's incredibly thin connective tissue, linking the originator to the audience. Trust has to be strong, but flexible. Like elastic, perhaps. Otherwise, if it breaks, everything tumbles.

I never studied journalism in college, because the school I went to didn't offer it. I never worked for school newspapers because up until my junior year in college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. At one point, I thought I might become a history teacher.

Somehow, I was steered into journalism, I guess because I loved to write and I loved sports, and so my first professional job was for a small family-owned newspaper in Quakertown, PA. Initially, I covered borough council meetings, school board meetings, car wrecks and fires, with sports coming on weekends.

This was on-the-job training for me, as I see it now but probably didn't know it at the time. I learned to listen and observe, to cover events in real time and then ask questions in detail.

Always, the goal was to be as accurate as possible, without any intentional slant.

Now comes fake news. What to believe? Thanks, in part, to the 24/7 news cycle, we are assaulted by information not only from reputable news organizations, but from Internet sources and social media as well. It's confusing. It challenges our trust.

And now, more than ever, it seems, it's up to the consumer to decide what is fake and what is real.

Sometime, it takes a little research.

And sometimes, it just takes a little common sense.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


I had another life event this week, so run up the blue pennant.

I filed for my Social Security retirement.

This was a week ago, and I was both looking forward to filing my claim and dreading it.

I was looking forward to it because it means I finally cash in on nearly 50 years of paycheck deductions. I was dreading it because it meant I had to actually go to the SSA office to get the paperwork rolling.

I know, I know. I could have done this whole process online.

But when I called the local office last week to let them know I turn 66 next month, they suggested I come in for my interview rather than file online. I actually thought it was a good idea because I wanted a real person in front of me to answer any questions I might have.

Plus, I like to be taken by the hand when I walk through the unknown and unfamiliar territory.

So Kim and I took the day off and went to the SSA office in Salisbury.

We took the day off because I'd heard the horror stories of long lines of people waiting to file their claims, and I was preparing myself for hours of bending my patience. Indeed, when I made my phone call to set up the appointment, I was on hold for nearly 20 minutes of bad music before I finally heard a human voice. It was not a good omen.

My fears were confirmed when we walked through the door. Immediately, you walk into a waiting area that has about 50 chairs lined up in rows like in a movie theater. They were nearly all filled. There was a beefy guy standing in the corner, in a uniform, wearing a badge, with his arms crossed. Uh oh. You take a number, then you take a seat, and then you wait.

But then magic happened. Within 10 minutes, my number was called. Kim and I went to our interview cubicle where, instead of a government bureaucrat, we spoke with a pleasant professional. The first thing she told us was that she was going to ask us a series of questions, and we'd better answer truthfully or else we were liable for imprisonment.

That was a little unnerving. And curious. The only ID I needed for my fraud wall was my Social Security number, which I assumed hasn't been hacked by the Russians just yet. As far as I know.

Anyway, the interview process lasted about 15 minutes. It was, all in all, painless.

I felt like I'd crossed a threshold. My first check goes into direct deposit in March.

I'm officially old.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

La La Land by the Sea

Kim and I have been on a movie jag lately.

I mean, the kind of movie jag where you pay lots of money to sit in a theater with strangers.

About a week or so ago, after falling for the very effective television promos for "Manchester by the Sea," which pretty much promised us would be the best movie ever in the last decade, we broke down and went to see it.

I try not to read too many Internet reviews about movies before I go to see them, mostly because I'm compelled, like an addiction, to read the spoiler alerts. It's kind of like somebody telling me how a story ends before I've finished reading (or seeing) it and I can't stop myself.


And then I do. It's a dare I can't resist.

I do check Rotten Tomatoes, though, mostly to see if the movie is getting a high percentage of favorable reviews. That way I feel like I have a decent chance of not wasting my money on a bomb, no matter what Matt Damon says.

So we watched the movie. We had to go out of town — to High Point — to see it because the flick wasn't in any theater closer to us. I couldn't figure that one out.

We liked the movie well enough, but with qualifications. It's beautifully photographed. I loved the New England ambiance. The acting was superb. There will be Oscars.

But the storyline had me wanting to slit my wrists. It's not what I wanted to see over the Christmas holidays. Or ever. It's not the date night I had in mind for my wife and myself.


So then it was Kim's turn to choose.

A few days later, she said she found the movie she wanted to see. We were going to "La La Land."

Two movies within 10 days qualifies as a jag for us. It's rare that we do this.

So we went to The Grand 18 in Winston-Salem. It's probably been 10 years since I've seen a flick there (maybe longer), because we usually head to Tinseltown in Salisbury. But The Grand. Oh, my.

I walked up to the box office and told the attendant, without thinking, that I wanted tickets for "two seniors for 'La La Land.'" I think he smiled, probably thought that was the most truthful thing he'd heard all day.

We walked into the theater room that was showing the movie, and it was gigantic. The screen was bigger than our house. And when we picked our seats, they turned out to be naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliners. I'm not kidding.

"This is my theater from now on," said Kim as we literally settled in for the next couple hours.

I knew the flick was going to be a musical on the scale of something like the old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers productions back in Hollywood's heydays. The opening scene took place on a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway ramp, with hundreds of singers and dancers cavorting around their cars.

I was hooked. The movie had me from the start.

The two leads, doe-eyed and wholesome Emma Stone and wryly handsome Ryan Gosling, were astonishing. I later found out that Gosling learned to play jazz piano in six weeks for the movie, and that all the piano playing used in the film was actually his.

There is a Gosling-Stone soft-shoe dance number on a Los Angeles hilltop at sunset. It was filmed in one continuous take in six minutes. Because, you know, it was sunset. You can't tell the sun "Cut! Let's do that again."

We were well satisfied. There will be Oscars. When the movie was over, Kim had to pull me out of my recliner.

I'm hoping the jag continues. One of the previews was for a flick called "A Dog's Purpose," of which some of the teasers had me tearing up. Then I want to see "Hidden Figures," the true untold story of female African-American mathematicians who helped the NASA space program succeed. Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in "The Help," is in this one. And then there's "Gifted," another Spencer movie about a child prodigy.

This could be a good year for date movies, and it's only January.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The great escape

Whew. That was close.

In a year seemingly filled to critical mass with celebrity deaths — first Beatles manager Allen Williams and actor William "Father Mulcahy" Christopher of MASH didn't quite clear the Dec. 31 deadline (so to speak — or maybe they did) — so I feel kinda lucky.

New Year's came and went and I tentatively set foot in 2017 — big toe first, as if testing the water —with a measure of caution. After passing through 66 of these annual demarcations, I've finally learned that the coming year isn't necessarily going to be better than the last. Or worse.

Mostly, it just is. Mostly, I guess it's up to us to make the best of what we're given, even if some things are beyond our control.

An out-of-state friend of mine wrote that she doesn't judge the worth of a year by the number of celebrities who happened to die in it. I can see her point. Still, celebrities are celebrities for a reason, leaving something of an impact on our lives for good or bad. When one passes, it can touch us, move us, shock us. When a whole bunch of them pass within a 365-day time frame, it leaves us shaking our uncomprehending heads in a kind of bewilderment. Wassup with that, bro? Let me outta here.

I spent the New Year's evening with my friends, and that's always a good idea. There was some interesting conversation, some food, some drink, then some glass clinking and some hugging when 12:00.01 got here. There's a sense of security and continuity in that and I was grateful for it.

Good friends are good to have. The crowd Kim and I run with ("run" is a relative term here. Kim and I usually find ourselves as the oldest ones showing up. In fact, I'm the old guy that starts yawning before anyone else does and it's only 9:30) never needs an excuse to party. They are fully equipped with fire pits, front porches, back porches, spacious living and dining rooms. It's perfect, actually. What sometimes begins as a casual conversation on the sidewalk has the potential to end up as a party.

 Why not? If nothing else, 2016 showed us that life is short. So party on.