Sunday, December 27, 2020

I resolve...

With 2021 clearly visible on the horizon, it's time to make those fruitless New Year's resolutions.

Especially the one about losing weight.

I've been fighting my battle of the bulge for about as long as I can remember. Well, at least I have been for the past 10 years or so (which, coincidentally, seems to be about as far back as I can remember. Hmm...). 

I actually had been doing an adequate job of weight control, but then two things happened: Covid and Christmas.

When I turned 65, I joined the YMCA through the Silver Sneakers program, which more or less gave me free access to recumbent bicycles, treadmills and anything else that burned more calories than I took in.

But sometime around April, Covid closed the gyms and knocked me out of my daily two-hour routine, which I had practiced faithfully. I loved the Y. I loved my routine. I had a whole new circle of friends there and I actually looked forward to sweating.

Even when the Y reopened a few months ago, I was reluctant to go back because, you know, Covid is still around. And I'm in the target age group, soooo.....

But weight I had kept off for four years, if not actually lost, started coming back. Slowly. Inevitably.

The eating season arrived with Halloween and continued with Thanksgiving. Then came Christmas. Almost every neighbor on our block was showing up at my front door bearing gifts. Food items, actually. Brownies. Bourbon balls. Cheese puffs and cheese straws. Cookies. Anything chocolate. Adult beverages.

I consumed them all. Happily.

One night, I was getting ready to take some food items to a neighbor, and when I opened my front door to leave my house, there stood a neighbor on my porch with a bag of Chex mix. She hadn't even had a chance to ring my doorbell. I think we surprised each other. We wished each other a Merry Christmas as she handed me the gift. When I continued with my mission to another neighbor's house, I looked down the street. Several other neighbors were criss-crossing the road to exchange gifts (probably food stuffs, if my own experience means anything). It was amazing.

Anyway, I'm now 20 pounds heavier than I was in April.

OK, OK. I know there's some discipline that should be involved here. I absolve my wonderfully thoughtful neighbors of any complicity in my weight gain. I do want to thank the neighbor who gave me a candlewick in a wine bottle. It's beautiful. And, believe it or not, I haven't tried to eat it yet.

I don't have any gym equipment in my space-challenged house, but I do have stairs to the second floor. I guess I could do 15 minutes of stair climbing each day.

And I could go for power walks, even though it's 32 degrees outside. I used to walk profusely on the trail at Grimes School before my Silver Sneaker days, knocking off three or four miles at a clip. It might be time to resurrect that plan once more. And there's always push-ups, sit-ups, jumping Jacks and trunk twisters that require no equipment. Just resolve. I could be the next Jack LaLanne.

Until then, I guess I'm still the current me.

Friday, December 25, 2020

It's A Wonderful Life

 Just as I do nearly every Christmas, I settled in last night and watched the annual broadcast of Frank Capra's classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." I just can't help myself. Inevitably, I weep at the end when Clarence, the angel second class, finally gets his wings.

It's a great movie, featuring Jimmy Stewart as everyman George Baily and Donna Reed as his devoted wife Mary. Released in 1946, it's filled with holiday nostalgia and poignant moments of American culture and sensibility that in today's world might be considered both fairly won and achingly lost.

But there's also a terrific backstory to the flick involving Stewart, a Hollywood matinee idol who was Tom Hanks before there was a Tom Hanks. He was that prolific. He was that good, and maybe even better.

And he was a war hero.

Stewart was 33 years old and had just received an Oscar for his role as a reporter in "The Philadelphia Story", which co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Then World War II happened. Just weeks after receiving his Oscar, he was drafted into the Army, but was rejected because he was a wispy 138 pounds spread like a wafer over his gangley 6-foot-3 frame. He tried joining again after a dietary regimen of spaghetti, milk shakes and steaks to gain weight, and this time, he was inducted and transferred to the Army Air Force. He'd just received his private pilot's license in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, so flying was perhaps a logical choice.

After spending time as a flying instructor for several months, Stewart was sent to the European Theater. Initially, he was bound to desk work – the Army no doubt didn't want to risk the life of a popular movie star – but Stewart wrangled his way to combat status. The Army relented and by the fall of 1943, Captain Stewart was piloting B-24 Liberators, huge four-engine bombers that each had a crew of 10 men.

The flak damage to Jimmy Stewart's B-24.*
 Most bombers were decorated with risque nose art or bore the names of girl friends. The first Liberator that Stewart flew into combat was a plane his crew inherited, famously named Nine Yanks and a Jerk

At any rate, Stewart ended up flying 20 harrowing combat missions over German-occupied territory, none of them easy milk runs, and most of them as a squadron commander responsible for 12 planes and 120 men.

Perhaps his most horrifying moment came on a mission to Furth. Their Liberator was struck by an 88mm antiaircraft (flak) shell just behind the flight deck, but providentially, didn't explode. I can only assume that Clarence, George Baily's guardian angel, rode with Jimmy Stewart that day. There's no other explanation.

Stewart, rattled like the rest of his crew, piloted his crippled plane back to their base in Tibenham, England. After a hard landing, the plane's fuselage buckled, never to fly again.

In an air war where fliers experienced a 77 percent casualty rate – the fabled Eighth Air Force lost 26,000 airmen – Stewart never lost a single man to combat.

Consequently, by the time he was promoted to Lt. Colonel after 20 missions, he'd received the Distinguished Flying Cross with an oak leaf cluster and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He received his first DFC for holding his squadron together following an especially dangerous Big Week mission.

When the war ended, Stewart was uncertain whether or not he wanted to continue making movies, but he found himself on the set of "It's a Wonderful Life." It is said that a conflicted Stewart had discussions – some of them apparently heated – with actor Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) over whether he should continue his career after dropping bombs on people during the war. Barrymore insisted that Stewart continue his acting.

There is some speculation that Stewart was dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while on the set of the movie. says this is undetermined, but I'm guessing there is some truth to this. The scene where he kisses Mary for the first time is particularly passionate (some editing was required to pass the censors) and his tears were real and unforced.

There are also some scenes where he contemplates suicide and confronting a life that never was that exposed a darker cinematic Stewart that movie goers had never seen before the war. Perhaps he was drawing from his war experience, and perhaps the role was therapeutic for him. I will argue there certainly is more depth to his characters in his post-war films.

At any rate, "It's a Wonderful Life" probably turned out to be the right movie at the right time for Jimmy Stewart. Somehow, I think it works that way for most of the rest of us, too.

•  •  •

Just a sidebar: While researching some of the information for this piece, I found out that Donna Reed – an Oscar winner in her own right for her role as Alma in "From Here to Eternity," died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 65 in 1986. I thought that was sad.

In 1997, Stewart died of a heart attack at the age of 89. Truly, he led a wonderful life.

* Photo by George W. Snook.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Lit up again

 As we head into our 18th year on West Second Avenue, I have long thought that Kim and I live in the best block in Lexington. I'm sure most people feel that way about the neighborhoods they live in, and that's a good thing. That's the way it should be. Your neighbors are not only your friends, but your caretakers, your confidants, your sounding boards, your mental health support system, and sometimes, even your garden tool supply center.


Most beautiful
They can also be your teammates.

A year ago, the Lexington Parks and Recreation Department inaugurated its 'Light Up the Block' contest for the holidays. So, just for the fun of it, we registered as a block, threw together our usual Christmas decorations, turned on the switch, and presto! We were voted the best lit block in town.

How'd that happen? Remember, this is a town that includes Country Club, the Castle, Twin Acres, Northside and Erlanger, to name several neighborhoods.

But it was nice. It was nice to be recognized. It was nice to get your name in the paper. And we thought maybe we could do it again this year.

So back in November, under the direction and encouragement from neighbor Kristi Thornhill, we held a socially-distanced and sanitized workshop in the carport of Billy and Stacy West, where we constructed chicken-wire lighted Christmas balls to hang in the trees, similar to the high-wattage pageant they famously throw at Sunset Hills in Greensboro. Or Tanglewood.

Most traditional
 And in short order, our block was ready to go. Most of the lights were up and burning by Thanksgiving. Perhaps it provided a measure of seasonal normalcy for us in an era of Covid, but it felt good. It was pretty much a team effort and we liked what we saw.

If the neighborhood has a theme, it's probably the white lights you see in most windows and on the trim. Lighted greenery, such as garland over doorways or hanging from porch railings, adds a tasteful accent and most of the homes on the block have this. I don't think there are any blowups in the yards and not many blinking lights.

Kim and I are basically minimalists when it comes to decorating our 100-year-old bungalow. We put candles in the windows, run some white lighted garland over the front door with swags hanging from red bows on the railings. There's also a Moravian star on the porch ceiling, and this year, for the first time, I added a floodlight to illuminate a wreath on a second floor window. 

Most original
 Several people I knew said they had driven down our block the past few nights and commented how pretty all the houses looked. I agree. There's just something about Christmas lights that draws the awe out of you, if not an actual "Ahhh."

Because our block won last year – which was satisfying enough – I really didn't expect much this year.

But this morning, Tammy Curry from the Rec department showed up again, once more hammering signs into several yards.

Our block had won again. And this time, with a flourish. T.J. Strickland and his family, with their hand-carved reindeer and sleigh, were voted most unique for the second straight year. This is a very appropriate recognition, because I can't think of anybody more unique than T.J. Teej.

Most unique

But the West's – who just moved in a few months ago – were voted most traditional. Their house is gorgeous, especially with a ceiling-high indoor Christmas tree shining through their beveled glass front door. It's spectacular.

Next door to the Wests, Pam and Jason Zanni were voted most original. I think it's because they decorated the trees in their yard with oversized Christmas balls. I mean, with real balls. Like kickballs and beach balls made to look like Christmas balls, and in various sizes. It's a stunning and clever display.

But, wait. There's more. Ken and Mary Coleman, across the street from the Zanni's, were voted most beautiful. This is also very appropriate. A few years ago, their previous house on the very same lot was burned to the ground because of a thoughtless Halloween vandalism. But now, in their newly-built home, they live in understated beauty and comfort. It's wonderful.

Best block
 To be sure, nearly all the decorated homes in the Park Place Historic District look pretty darn good. I wish there was a way to include them all in this recognition, because a  lot of thought and care have gone into some of those homes, too. It's evident the decoration bug has seeped in both directions, kinda like syrup, from our very own block and into others.

In any case, we've been voted the best block in town for the second straight year, which is both humbling and satisfying.

But you know what? I knew that all along. I think we all have.

Merry Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An early gift

We've all had a miserable 2020.

My horrible 2020 actually began in September 2019. That's when I had a foot of my colon removed as a precautionary measure after an embedded polyp was discovered lurking deep in my bowels.

The polyp was discovered first by the non-invasive Cologuard procedure, and quickly confirmed by a more invasive colonoscopy, which was followed by the ultimately ultra-invasive surgery to remove the polyp. It was my first surgery. Ever.

Now, a year later – actually, more than a year later – it was time for my follow-up colonoscopy.

I was dreading it. While the prep for the procedure – the worst part – is nothing like it once was (it's now 64 ounces of Miralax mixed in Gatorade instead of some repulsive chalky solution, and done within 18 hours of the procedure), it's still an aggravating pain in the posterior.

There were other concerns. This would be my fourth time under anesthesia in the past 15 months (two colonoscopies, a colonectomy and an unexpected gall bladder surgery in February). Plus, I was going to be in a hospital in the middle of a Covid pandemic, which was not exactly reassuring.

And I was apprehensive, wondering if this colonoscopy would reveal another polyp – or worse – requiring yet another surgery. Why not? Apparently, I was on a roll.

But I wanted to get this behind me.

So I had the procedure done earlier this week, performed by Dr. Sundara Rajan. I like Dr. Rajan. He's got a stellar reputation; I covered his kids back in the day when I was a sports writer for The Dispatch and they were high school athletes; and, best of all, he was impressively board certified by the Royal College of Surgeons in England back in 1990. (I like to think there's a joke in there somewhere about him being a Royal pain in the butt, but I guess not. I might need him again sometime).

Anyway, when I came out of the IV-induced anesthesia, the first thing I was told – first from my wife, and then from the attending post-procedure nurse – was that there were no polyps, and that my next colonoscopy will be in five years.

And that news became my best Christmas gift of the season. Maybe ever. I was joyful. Christmas joyful.

Not all Christmas gifts come wrapped in a bow.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Covid Crazy Christmas

While I was doing some yard work the other day, I was thinking how eagerly I was looking forward to going to the Christmas Eve service at Christ Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

And then I remembered: Oh, yeah.

Can't. Covid.

I could feel my seasonal joy escaping my soul like air from a leaky balloon.

No Love feast. No gigantic 110-point Moravian star mystically hanging from the ceiling. No acne-challenged pre-teen soloist singing "Morning Star." No candlelight raised above our heads. Not this year.

Sigh. I feel like I've been making these life-altering adjustments all my life, even though it's been less than nine months. Mask. Sanitizer. Distance.

But I still had Kim's Moravian sugar cakes to look forward to.

Until I didn't.

There was a time when Kim made sugar cakes from scratch, using a time-honored Moravian recipe she followed on hand-written scraps of paper that have trickled down through the generations. It's a very labor-intensive project that requires waiting for yeast to rise, not to mention peeling pecks of potatoes as a necessary ingredient of the original recipe.

This year, we've upped our house decorating game.
 In an effort to cut down on all this work, Kim and I discovered a sugar cake mix at Winkler Bakery in Old-Salem a few years ago. It cut Kim's cake labor in half and the confections still tasted just as good as the original.

But Covid has shut down Old Salem. Repeated trips to the Winkler Bakery were met with locked doors until we got it through our thick, doughy skulls that the place was deserted. We even tried ordering the Moravian Sugar Cake pre-mix online, but there were Covid conditions: you could pick up your order at the Old Salem Bake Shop at the Marketplace Mall, but only if you gave a secret knock on the back door at the appointed hour. Come alone. Head on a swivel.

It sounded too much like a drug deal. I could see SWAT teams sweeping down on us to confiscate our cache. It was a no-go.

So now we've been reduced to using a recipe that's close enough, but not quite the same. It's quick to make, and it uses beer for its yeast substitute, so it can't be all bad. It's more like friendship bread, I guess. I had some last night. It's OK.

So now we're trying to save our traditional Christmas by decorating our freshly painted house. In the past, our decorations have been simple. But last year, the Lexington Recreation Department sponsored a Light Up the Block contest, and our block won, basically using decorations we were going to use anyway.

This year, we upped our game a little bit. A few more lights and some garland around the front door. Kim made swags for the porch railings and I put up a spotlight to illuminate our wreaths. I have to say, it doesn't look too bad in this year of our crazy Covid Christmas.

It'll do.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Light fare

Kim and I hopped in the car the other night, looking for something to do. Usually, that means just driving around because anything else in a car at our age most likely would end up in cramps, knots, strains or possibly something even worse, perhaps even prompting a visit to the emergency room.

Try explaining that one to the attending physician.

"We just got tangled up somehow. I don't know how it happened. But my neck hurts."

So we decided to look at Christmas lights instead.

This turned out to be a good idea. We like to look at Christmas lights. Looking at lights helps put us in the mood (not that mood) for the season. We like to see if our friends did something new this year, or perhaps which neighborhoods upped their game from a year ago.

Like our neighborhood.

This is our block at night.
This is what our block looks like at night.
 Last year, just for fun and because we decorate our homes for Christmas anyway, our block on Second Avenue participated in the Lexington Recreation Department's "Light Up The Block" contest. And, somehow, we were recognized as the department's best lighted block. That was nice.

This year, we started early. We had a socially-distanced workshop in a neighbor's carport a couple weeks ago to make lighted chicken wire Christmas balls to hang from our oak and maple trees. Our block already had some last year, but now we have perhaps twice that number.

And while it's not quite Greensboro's Sunset Hills, it is amazing. We no longer need street lamps – and probably won't need them for at least the next several weeks.

On top of that, almost every house is decorated. Even our house added a spotlight this year to illuminate a wreath above our porch, thereby adding to the block's high wattage usage.

And the spirit seems to have spread. The blocks on either side of us – the 300 and 500 blocks – have also decked themselves out. It's really cool to drive down Second Avenue now.

I'm kind of hoping that if our block should happen to be recognized again, that the judges expand the parameters to make it a "Light Up The Neighborhood" contest. That would be better. This really seems to be a combined, rather than a competitive, effort.

I'm not sure how Covid comes into play here. Kim and I noticed in our drive around town that not as many homes, overall, seem to be decorated this year, even though some places put up their lights before Thanksgiving in an apparent effort to run the pandemic out of town.

And I've been told that judging will not be done by community members riding around town in a van as they did last year, mesmerized (or hypnotized) by the lights. That's a Covid no-no. Maybe walking tours instead. Or a parade of judges riding through the neighborhood in their own cars. It remains to be seen how it all pans out.

As long as they don't show up in the emergency room with aching necks.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Dodging a bullet

I can't help but think that I dodged a serious cyber bullet.

A couple of months ago, I was fooling around on my laptop when it suddenly decided to exercise a mind of its own. This made me a little nervous because I've been thinking for a long time now that computers are way smarter than I am, which is why I require IT people. I want them to hold my hand even when I'm logging on. I want them to comfort and assure me at every turn. I want them to whisper soothing words and wipe the sweat off my furrowed brow when I ask my what-do-I-do-now questions.

Anyway, when I tried what I thought would be a problem-solving reboot, it took forever for the screen to come back to life. And whatever processing was left went verrrrrr-y slowwwww-ly.


So I took the laptop to my friends, Conrad and Amy McKnight, at Triad PC Repair on Main Street. They've been my go-to computer people for several years now and they have performed several mini-miracles for me over the course of time.

Apparently, I needed another one. That's the thing with miracles: one is never enough.

My five-year-old MacBook Pro had finally expired with hard-drive failure. Apparently, Mac's time had come.

Uh-oh, again. Because I had no backup.

I wasn't on the cloud, and my GoFlex Time Machine – which I had been using for backup – had malfunctioned several months earlier. I always figured I had time to get a new Time Machine, but I never did get one. Silly me.

So now here I was, in deep laptop do-do.

And, as things like this do, it came at a bad financial time. We'd just had our house painted. I'm still making car payments, and Kim needed work done on her car. I just put a new set of tires on my car. We'd just completed some internal ceiling work to fix a leak in our 100-year-old bungalow. I bought a new watch a few months earlier to replace my 25-year-old antique. Jeez, the year started with me buying a new TV.

And now this.

So we saved our money, trying not to break into our savings or checking accounts, or 401ks or equity lines if we could help it.

But a week ago, we finally got a new MacBook Pro (with solid state drive), and I anxiously took it to Conrad to see if he could coax a data transfer from my dead Mac into my new one. I held my breath all day. I had visions of lost pictures, lost emails, lost passwords, lost documents and anything else I didn't want lost.

Then, later in the day, Amy texted me. My computer was ready.

I brought it home. I fired it up. And everything was there. Everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I don't know how Conrad did it. I can't sing his praises enough. If he's not a genius, he's at least a wizard. At least, that's what I think.

So here I am, up and running and back online, waiting to dodge my next cyber bullet.