Sunday, March 28, 2021

Fire pit fireworks

As we gathered around the fire pit during a break in the rolling thunderstorms last night, the youngest member of our posse suddenly posed the question, "Do you all think we've rounded the corner on the pandemic yet?"

The question has a measure of strength. Nationally, the spread of the Covid-19 virus seems to have plateaued, and remarkably, North Carolina seems to have responded well statewide (compared to many other states) in getting its residents vaccinated. There also is a strong sentiment behind that question about getting us back to something like a maskless normal.

But the rest of us responded with a resounding "No."

Our compadre expanded his question, noting that while he himself has taken the vaccine, he's playing devil's advocate by siding with the non-vaxxers, especially the ones who claim we are rushing into this vaccine without a proper testing period, that indeed, we are all being used as guinea pigs in a global experiment.

One of our members pointed out that the vaccine has been tested, and is actually a version of the vaccine created years ago for SARS using the new mRNA technology.

Another firepitter noted that every vaccine has an element of risk (risk being the operative word here), that your next gulp of beer can send you careening into recovery.

Yet another suggested that we now question the efficacy of vaccines because of the atmosphere of science denial in which we suddenly find ourselves immersed.

The use of the words "science denial" came very close to opening other doors, including the one about climate change. As evidence, this person pointed to the unusual number of severe thunderstorms that have thundered across the southeast in the past week or so. Another member wondered when did tornadoes became regular storm events east of the Appalachians. We just had a winter without anything much more than a snow flurry (I think only one day of school was missed because of snow this year. Weigh that against Covid. Then factor in what vaccines might mean.)

The conversation veered into politics (when does a conversation not veer into politics these days?) while brushing against the science denier faction when it was suggested that several Federal agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and even the FCC (not to mention the Center for Disease Control) needed to be depoliticized.

Our young friend remained rooted in his stance, saying he could see the other side of the argument. The discussion never did resolve anything (most never do), and, remarkably, even though the television was giving us the NCAA Tournament, did not devolve into sports. Well, except for a brief mention of how crappy the ACC is this year.

It occurred to me that the fire pit is now a Covid substitute for the coffee shop. The fire pit has its own bubble of friends. Most of us are now vaccinated but we're constantly aware that the pandemic is still hanging over us.

It gives us something to talk about.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Joe Sink

 Joe Sink mended my heart twice.

That wasn't his job.

The first time came in 1987. Joe was the publisher of The Dispatch, and I was a young sportswriter on his staff.

But I had to tell him that my dad had just passed away, and that I would be going to Wisconsin for a few days for the funeral. I'd managed to be strong in my grief that morning – until I sat down with Joe. Then the dam broke and I was carried away in a teary flood of emotion. I don't know why the release came with Joe, but then, maybe I do.

Joe came over to me, put his arm around me and comforted me. This had to be an awkward moment for him, but he never showed it. He spoke softly, firmly, helped me to regain my emotional equilibrium, and I was better. For that moment, at least, he wasn't my publisher. He was my pastor.

Joe Sink and his wife, Libby.

The second time came in 1991, and it was almost a carbon copy of 1987. Mom had just died. I walked into Joe's office to let him know I had to go to Wisconsin again, this time to bury my mother. My lips quivered, my eyes watered, I could hardly stand. Again, Joe came to me, wrapped his arms around me and soothed my aching heart.

I mention this because I think this is a side of Joe that was rarely seen outside of his family. I suspect most of his employees and friends probably saw him as the gregarious man with the wide-brimmed smile and the sometimes booming voice who could be larger than life almost at will. Which seemed to be often.

Joe died during the night after a rapid decline in his health. He just turned 84.

And so, with his passing, an era ends in Lexington.

It would be easy to get carried away here, flowing with accolades all over the place, and I may have already crossed that line.

But from where I stood, most people seemed to sense Joe's own love of life through his quick wit, his intelligence, his business acumen, his generosity. I don't know if he could ever say "no." But if he did, I bet it hurt him to say it, and then only when he needed to.

To this day, I don't know of a single Dispatch employee who ever had an unkind word to say about Joe. Almost unanimously, you hear former employees – whether it be newsroom, business office, press room, or circulation – declare that Joe was the best boss anybody could hope to work for. Word for word. All of us. Period.

He loved Lexington. He was a moving force in the creation of the Barbecue Festival, an event that actually put Lexington on the national map as one of the largest single-day food festivals in the country. Joe once told me that he originally expected the Festival to last just a dozen years or so, and he was shocked – and pleased – that it continued way beyond his expectations. Covid notwithstanding, the next one will be the 37th.

But he would also throw his support to local civic organizations and local school systems.

After his retirement, he spent hours each morning in The Black Chicken coffee shop, holding court and regaling us with stories from the past. His knowledge of Lexington was almost encyclopedic. He'd welcome total strangers to his table to share a cup of coffee with the rest of us, thus growing our circle of friends.

A few years ago, Joe was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Kim and I paid him a visit just before Covid halted all of that, and we were pleased that he remembered us still. He asked about The Dispatch.

And then an era came to an end.

My lips quivered. My eyes watered. My knees wavered. And I thought of Joe.



Sunday, March 21, 2021

You're not surprised, are you?

I was going to write my blog about getting my second Pfizer vaccine a couple weeks ago and then eagerly going back to the YMCA feeling fully liberated for the first time in a year. I returned to the Y on Monday.

I was taking a step toward normalcy.

Then the NCAA Tournament happened.

More specifically, 10th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth University made big news Saturday when it had to drop out of the West bracket due to Covid-19 protocols. The Rams were out of the tournament before even setting an Air Nike on the court, officially dropping a 1-0 "no contest" decision to No. 7 Oregon while advancing the Ducks to the second round without pulling down a single rebound or drawing a single foul.

As of yesterday, officials were still trying to figure out how to get VCU back to Richmond without spreading the virus.

In the meantime, there's a kind of mantra rolling in the back of my head chanting "I told you so. I told you so."

To me, the fact that a team had to drop out in mid-tournament automatically compromised the integrity of the entire event. Hope you didn't pick VCU as an upset team in your NCAA pool. I'm sure No. 2 Iowa, Oregon's next opponent, is delighted that the Ducks have an extra day of rest before taking to the court on Monday. How is that fair to Iowa?

But the problem here is deeper than a pool, or even the betting lines. Why are we even having a tournament? Why are we bringing hundreds of young athletes to Indianapolis and, despite all the precautions, subjecting them to a potentially deadly virus? Why are we making this a super spreader event?

Actually, we know why. Money. You can take it from there.

What doesn't seem to be getting into people's heads is just how insidious this virus is. The fact that VCU showed no symptoms until just hours before tip-off  and despite days of testing is because the virus apparently can remain in an asymptomatic incubation period before shouting "Gotcha!" By then it's too late. You have to withdraw from the tournament.

Who knows how many other teams are likewise infected? One? Two? All? None? What happens if  undefeated tourney favorite Gonzaga has to withdraw? Who gets the asterisk when a champion is finally named?

If the NCAA is so hellbent on having its silly basketball games (as announcer Charles Barkley remarkably and correctly described them last night), at least take the precaution to have everybody involved vaccinated and then start the tourney a week later. What's the rush?

But even now, as I think about this, the problem isn't so much with the NCAA (although it has a lot to answer for, especially if more teams get sick) as it is with us. We crave normalcy, so we watch this tournament on TV thinking everything is back to normal. And it's not.

Which is probably what is happening in Miami Beach as Spring Break brings us another super spreader event with maskless – and apparently invincible – college students clogging the streets. As if we didn't learn from last year. Which I guess we didn't.

•   •   •

OK, OK. I know what you're thinking. You hypocrite. If Covid is so dangerous, why are you back at the gym?

I'm making a conscious and considered decision after weighing the data. I'm fully vaccinated. I go to the gym early, at 5 a.m., when there are less than 10 people in the fitness center. We all wear masks. Each client is given a bottle of sanitizer to clean whatever workout machine he or she is using, before and after each workout. We social distance. The Y closes for two hours in the afternoon for a mass cleaning. I feel relatively safe. In a life where there are no guarantees, you weigh the odds.

The NCAA Tournament, meanwhile, remains a mass social gathering despite all the precautions and 20 percent fan base. The only real decision an individual makes is the decision whether or not to participate. But college athletes are on scholarships. Some may have lucrative futures in the NBA following their NCAA careers. And money talks. Money makes the decisions for them.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The ACC Default Tournament

Did you enjoy watching Georgia Tech defeat Florida State 90-75 in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship Saturday night?

That's what I thought.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get into the tournament this year. Sure, it was good to have games on television, but my passion for what I was watching just wasn't there.

Thank you, pandemic.

But why can't I just enjoy the game?

First off, the tournament was robbed of its integrity when both Duke and top-seeded Virginia had to withdraw in mid-tournament because of positive Covid results. That means there probably should be an asterisk behind the champion's name.

Not that Duke was going to be a spoiler. The 10th-seeded Blue Devils were an uncharacteristic 13-11 when Covid struck, ending their season (sort of). Consequently, No. 2 Florida State jumped right into the semifinal game against North Carolina. The Seminoles defeated the Tar Heels 69-66 to advance to the finals, presumably against the winner of Georgia Tech and Virginia.

Then Virginia came up with a positive test, knocking them out of the tourney and advancing Georgia Tech to the finals by default.

Who wanted to see that?

It marked only the second time a team from the state of North Carolina was not in the championship game. The last time that happened was 1990, when Georgia Tech defeated Virginia 70-61. That's the only other time that has ever happened since the tourney began in 1954.

Secondly, the tournament was played in Greensboro with just a handful of fans, which made for bad television for viewers and probably a less-than-inspiring environment for the players, who no doubt draw energy from a cheering fan base. I think playing in mostly empty arenas this year has significantly altered incentive and excitement for nearly every team this year.

Here's where it gets even goofier.

As of this morning, unless something has changed, Duke could be eligible for the NCAA Tournament with either an at-large bid or as a Covid replacement team, in case somebody else has to drop out – say Appalachian State or UNC Greensboro – because of a positive test.

So let me get this straight. A team with Covid is eligible to replace a team with Covid. Hmm.

I suppose that's possible if Duke goes seven consecutive days without a positive test. The same is true for Virginia. But if Duke does not get a bid, it snaps a 24-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances. If Duke does get in, then you have to wonder about integrity again.

Covid is still with us. Kansas had to drop out of its tournament. So why are we so intent in creating a super spreader event? (I know why. Money. Television. Covid fatigue).

It appears the NCAA Tournament will go on. But I suggest that you don't play in any tournament pools this year. The field could change in a moment's notice. The sure bet is that there are no sure bets this year.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Happy Ones

 Man, did we ever need this.

It had been a year since Kim and I had seen live music in a venue. Thank you, Covid. You were driving us nuts.

But on Saturday, The Happy Ones showed up at Junius Lindsay Vineyards in Welcome. We knew they were scheduled to be there, so we patiently marked time for a week or so until Saturday arrived.

We'd heard The Happy Ones before and really liked them. They are the acoustic duo of Brad Ratledge and Amanda Barnette, based in Mocksville, and they pretty much do the vineyard-pub-street festival circuit. In fact, you could almost consider them a Davidson County band what with fairly regular appearances on the Square in Lexington, or Sophie's, or Childress Vineyard, or Old Homeplace Vineyards, or JLV. You get the point. 

Amanda and Brad brighten our day.
So when Saturday showed up, so did we, along with our friends Mark and Karla Loper.

It was exactly what we needed.

"We've been doing this for what, five or six years now," Brad told me after their nonstop two-hour set. "When we first started, we did mostly rock. Now we've branched off into other genres. It just kind of evolved that way for us."

Their catalogue runs the gamut, from Eagles to CCR to Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton (or BeeGees, if you want to consider "Islands in the Stream" a Brothers Gibb tune).

They're very accommodating with requests. I wanted to hear "Drops of Jupiter" by Train, and Kim wanted to hear "Strawberry Wine" by Deana Carter. Karla requested "Perfect" by Ed Sheeran. Somebody else in the audience even asked for "You Are My Sunshine," which dates back to 1939. Guess what? The Happy Ones were happy to oblige. We about gave them a secondary set list with our requests. I can't believe the depth of their catalogue.

According to Amanda, Brad has been playing the guitar since he was 8 years old – or nearly 40 years. It shows. His fingers fly effortlessly across the strings and frets of his guitar and by the smile on his face, he clearly loves what he does.

And when he's not playing guitar, he's a mechanic for the Davie County School System. You kind of wonder if he whistles while he works.

"I met Brad at church," said Amanda, who is a dental hygienist in Mocksville. "He's a worship leader where we go to church. He was thinking of getting a band together. He knew I sang and one day he asked me if I wanted to join. So I did."

Amanda provides percussion with the cajón, or percussion box. I've never seen this instrument in any other band and it kind of makes the duo unique in this regard. It gives The Happy Ones a distinctive beat of their own.

But how do they sound?

This is the best part. To me, their voices blend naturally like honey and milk in a fruit smoothie. If an arrangement calls for an echoing harmony from Amanda, it's there. If a tune needs a supporting lift, Brad provides it. Together, they caress your ears. And both are strong lead vocalists.

Saturday turned out to be one of the best days we've had in a while, what with the weather, wine and camaraderie. We were starved for live music and mellow entertainment. Afterwards, as he was loading up his vehicle, I told Brad, "You know, today you've made us the happy ones."