Monday, November 5, 2018

Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?

I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD, but we were having trouble with the contrast on the TV back then and parts of the film, which is rather darkly shot to begin with, were just shadows moving across the screen, and it was difficult at times to understand the context of the dialog.
Okay, now I get it. Thomasin was talking to a goat. Somehow that is significantly more frightening than just the disembodied voice of Satan. And the goat following her as she walks naked though the forest toward the caterwauling of the coven is even creepier.
Sometimes the details make all the difference.
I am frequently asked during my book readings and signings where I get my ideas. The truth is, I don’t really know. They just... happen. I am completely unable to draw, and think the talent to take what one sees and convey it into a two dimensional representation is nothing short of miraculous. But when I ask artists how they do it, I always get the same answer... I don’t know, I just draw.
I get ideas in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is what I call “rearrangement.” Rearrangement is taking a basic idea found in some other work and asking myself, “how would I have written that?” My unpublished short story “Blue Ruin” is an example. It takes place in the same universe as "The Walking Dead," but posits the question; how would survivors living on the coast with easy access to the relative safety of the seas handle a zombie apocalypse. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the "Fear The Walking Dead" spinoff tackled the same question. I disagreed with their sea-going storyline - I still believe a boat is the safest place to be - but I get why finding a safe place and continuing a horror story are two different goals.
The short story “Uncle Augie’s Blind” from my latest book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, was similarly inspired by an obscure Stephen King story, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” I read in Yankee Magazine when I was in college. The plots are completely different, but the setup and style of storytelling is similar.
I call the other way I get ideas the Eureka! Moment. In this scenario, something new, and often nonsensical, comes to me out of nowhere. I was hiking in the mountains yesterday, for instance, and the phrase, “ring me up for souse” popped into my head. Now, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard that anywhere else, and I’m equally sure it’s of no practical value, except as the punchline of a joke or maybe the topic of a blog post, but there you have it. These Eureka! Moments are usually not fully realized concepts, but often just a title or a name. The title of the book I am currently working on, Craven Fork, came to me that way, as did the name of the main character, Owen Sinclair. The rest of the characters and the plot just sort of “unfolded” as I thought more about them.
Circling back to "The Witch," I have always liked the scenario of a colonial family scratching a living from of a plot of ground on the fringes of a great and mysterious forest, but I’ve never discovered the story or the voice to tell it. Maybe someday.

Monday, October 29, 2018

How The 2015 NFL Season May Have Ruined Sports

The factoid flashed across the bottom of the screen: “The last time the Red Sox won the World Series a loaf of bread was 7 cents.” It was a cool fall night in 1986 at my apartment in suburban Perrysburg, Ohio and the Mets were coming to bat in the bottom of the 10th. The Red Sox had scored two in the top of the frame for what appeared to be a comfortable lead. If you’ve read this far, you likely know what happened next, so I won’t dwell on the details. Let’s just say that the price of bread would go up by a few more cents before Boston would win a World Series.

The thing that is often lost in the “Curse of the Bambino” discussion is that Boston did not put many good teams on the field between 1918 and 2004. The Red Sox teams that did manage to make it to the World Series during that period were fluky, not overly talented pennant winners who always seemed to go up against much better teams in the postseason; a Gibson-led Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, and the 108 win Mets. That Boston was able to take those series to seven games was itself a minor miracle that only intensified the feeling that they were ultimately cursed.

The 2018 Red Sox, like the 2013 and 2007 editions, however, were not underdogs putting up the good fight against superior competition. They were, far and away, the better teams in those series, and that creates its own sort of pressure. After winning 108 games in the regular season and cruising through the AL playoffs, there was a sense of inevitability to Boston’s World Series push, but I’ve experienced that feeling before and frankly it may have ruined sports for me forever.  

After a choppy start to the 2015 season, the Carolina Panthers hit their stride and won 15 of 16 games, losing only to the Atlanta Falcons by a touchdown in week 15. In the playoffs, they steamrolled the powerful Seahawks and Cardinals and were prohibitive Super Bowl favorites against a Denver Broncos team that had looked inept on offense for much of the season before riding a strong defensive performance to an AFC Championship game win against the New England Patriots.

The 2015 Panthers had a modus operendi that year of getting out to large first half leads and then nearly blowing them in the second half. While that’s a dangerous recipe for winning, their two losses actually came in hard fought, low-scoring affairs that found them with the ball and a chance to go ahead in the closing minutes.

I thought the bad feelings about Super Bowl 50 would subside after a few months, but they never really did. I thought the excitement of remembering that magical 15-win season and those awesome playoff wins would one day add balance to the disappointing way the season ended, but to date it hasn’t. It’s HARD to make it to a Super Bowl. You need a really good team and a few breaks along the way. That a team, a very good team, could get so close, then fall to a lesser team is depressing. The Panthers also made it to the Super Bowl in 2004, a game against the Patriots in which they were huge underdogs. They played admirably, though and actually led briefly in the 4th quarter. In the end, Tom Brady orchestrated a short drive to get New England into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri, who coincidentally set the NFL total points record on Sunday, pushed through a kick as time expired. That loss, while painful for a few days, felt okay once the confetti settled. The Panthers had put up a good fight against one of the great football dynasties ever. They were, for practical purposes, all those Red Sox teams that somehow managed to keep it close against better players. The 2015 team was more like these Red Sox; anything short of a championship would forever taint their memory.

And that’s why I’m really glad the Red Sox put an end to the Series Sunday night. I’ve come to the point in my sports experience where the agony of defeat is starting to outweigh the thrill of victory. The Panthers are having another good season, winning Sunday afternoon to push their record to 5-2 and keep them firmly in the playoff conversation. I'd love for them to win a Super Bowl one day, but I'm not getting any younger.


Chappaquicick Will Leave You Frustrated, And That’s A Good Thing: Plus Three Conspiracy Theories

My father was an avid reader, but his choice of reading material often left something to be desired. He especilly enjoyed reading the “tabloids,” so there was always a Weekly World News or National Enquirer around the house for an “inquiring mind” like mine to leaf through. The stock-and-trade of those publications was reporting of semi-fictitious news stories, often with just a hint of truth to make their outlandish conspiracy theories seem plausible. It is no surprise, then, that I have a decent knowledge of Chappaquiddick and the various conspiracy theories surrounding it. That story dominated the tabloids for years, supplanted only half a decade later by the death (and possible resurrection?) of Elvis.

The movie Chappaquiddick tackles the story of that warm summer night in 1969 head on, but leaves the viewer with as many, maybe more, questions at its conclusion than they likely had heading in to the theater. Rather than attach themselves to one theory or another about the tragic events of that night, the filmmakers are content to stick to the official story, along with all the confounding ambiguity and significant gaps it offers. The end result is a film in which the actions of many of the prime characters make little to no sense. If it were a fictional story, this would be a fatal flaw, but the fact that these people actually acted that way makes it fascinating, if frustrating.

The facts of the story are such: Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, a rising star in the Democratic Party and the last surviving Kennedy “brother,” attended a get-together of staffers who had worked for his deceased brother Bobby. The party was held on the tiny Martha’s Vineyard island of Chappaquiddick. The exact nature of this event is open to speculation, but the guests were male Kennedy associates and female staffers in their late-20s, so draw your own conclusions. Around midnight, Kennedy left the party with a woman named Mary Jo Kopechne. Some time later a car driven by Kennedy ran off a small bridge and plunged upside down into the relatively shallow water. Kennedy escaped the wreck, but his passenger did not. After that, things get fuzzy, but the one undeniable fact is that Kennedy waited nine or ten hours before reporting the accident to authorities, and in fact did so only after the car was discovered by two boys out fishing and reported to the police.

All this took place at the same time as the Apollo 11 moon landing, so it understandably got pushed below the fold, but it was still a big story. A week after the incident, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to two months in jail, suspended. He went on television and expressed his regrets for his role in the accident, while telling a highly suspicious story with a lot of holes. A largely sympathetic nation (he had lost his brothers to assassination) was willing to overlook the inconsistencies of the story, and Kennedy went on to be one of the longest-serving U.S. Senators.

When you actually see this story played out in real time on the screen, however, it becomes very obvious very quickly that something is not right. There are massive holes which the movie simply leaves as holes: What were the two doing in his car at midnight? How did Kennedy escape an overturned, flooded car without breaking a window or opening a door? What happened in the nine or ten hours between the time the car entered the water and Kennedy reported the accident? These are not insignificant questions and the lack of resolution will frustrate the viewer, but any attempt by the filmmakers to fill in the blank spaces with conjecture or theory would be a disservice to Kennedy and/or Kopechne.

It is worth noting that a review of the movie in The New York Times calls the film a right-wing scree aimed at denigrating the memory of Senator Kennedy. While I have never been a particularly big fan of the Senator and am probably not the most impartial voice in the matter, that’s bunk. Yes, certain aspects of the film cast Kennedy in an unflattering light, but that will happen when you leave the scene of a fatal accident, can’t remember what happened and fail to report it to the authorities. The Times problem with the film is  apparently that it doesn’t go out if its way to exonerate Kennedy. Let's be clear here, even taken at his word, Kennedy is not a hero or martyr, and the film's suggestion that some political spin and outright lies may have taken place are hardly out of bounds given the circumstances.

There is a conspiracy theory that casts Kennedy in a slightly better light, the so-called “backseat” theory. This theory postulates that Kopechne left the party after having a couple of drinks and fell asleep in the backseat of Kennedy’s car. Kennedy, not knowing anyone was in the car with him, was simply relieved to have survived the accident and figured no harm could come of sleeping it off before reporting the accident to the authorities. But if this was the case, then why not say so. It’s arguably a more plausible story than the one told. Well, that leaves to another conspiracy...

A purse belonging to another staffer named Rosemary Keough was found in the submerged car. In fact, based on this purse, the victim was originally misidentified. The Keough conspiracy theory suggests that Kennedy did indeed leave the party for a tryst, but that it was with Keough, not Kopechne. Kopechne was merely asleep in the backseat, and Kennedy and Keough had no idea she was there until the news hit the next morning that there was a body in the car. While this theory does close a hole or two, it also suggests that two people could enter a car without noticing there was someone asleep in the backseat and that two people could escape a sunken car neatly closing the doors behind them.

A more outlandish conspiracy theory states that none of it was an accident and that it was effectively a “hit” on Kopechne who had some dirt on the Kennedys and in one variation was carrying Ted's baby. This outlandish theory says that Kennedy was never in the car and the whole thing was planned and executed by a team of Kennedy operatives who somehow botched what was supposed to look like an innocent accident. The problem with that theory is that if the intent was to kill Kopechne without raising suspicion, there were much simpler ways to accomplish that which did not implicate the Kennedys; have her “mugged” one night while walking home, for instance.

With the passing of Senator Kennedy in 2009 and most of the eye witnesses either dead or in their latter years, the Chappaquiddick incident will likely go down with the Jonbenet Ramsey murder and the Lindbergh Kidnapping as mysterious tabloid fodder that are never quite resolved.

Monday, October 1, 2018

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: 1982 Edition

The summer of ‘82 has been in the news as of late — don’t worry, not going there — and as it turns out, that particular window in time was a significant turning point for me. I didn’t keep a calendar and wouldn’t
swear to the accuracy of my recollections in court, but a few moments from that summer stand out as impacting my attitudes about life, my taste in music and my feelings about tiny flying mammals.For me, the summer of ‘82 kicked off with the completion of the final exam of my sophomore year at Ohio University. My best estimate is that it was either Wednesday, June 9th or Thursday, June 10th. OU was on a “quarter” system back then and the academic calendar was a little weird. The Fall Quarter started in mid-September and ran through Thanksgiving. We had a Holiday Break from Thanksgiving until New Years and then Winter Quarter ran from early July to late March. After a week off for Spring Break, Spring Quarter began in early April and ran through mid June. The negative thing for me, and one of the factors influencing my decision to transfer to Bowling Green in 1983 was that summer jobs in my hometown ran on a “tourism” schedule from mid May until late August and the late ending date made it hard to find employment. In the month leading up to that summer, I had been aggressive in my job search and had interviewed with and, I thought, secured a retail job at Sears in Sandusky over Spring Break and a subsequent visit home in May. When I arrived back in town, though, the store manager said they decided they couldn’t “wait for me” and had hired someone else a week earlier. This was a pretty significant development since I was paying a fair portion of my own way through college and by the end of my sophomore year had pretty much exhausted my financial resources. I spent a good part of those first couple of weeks out job hunting. I must have filled out 50 applications for jobs ranging from grocery store bag boy to house painter. In my off hours I mowed a couple of lawns for pocket money and hung out with my friend Carl.

Carl worked summers at a prestigious yacht/golf club called the Catawba Island Club, or CIC, and he encouraged me to put my application in there, so I did. Like many of the other places I applied I was told that they were fully staffed for the summer, but would keep me in mind if anything opened up. By the last  week of June, I was feeling a little depressed and beginning to doubt I was going to find anything. Carl,
his older sister Jo and I went to see the movie Ghost Story at the drive-in. It was a pretty forgettable film about a bunch of partying college kids who accidentally kill a girl and then cover up the crime. As you
might guess from the title, that ultimately does not go well for them.
A week or so later, on July 5th, Carl and I arranged to meet up with our high school buddy Jeff. Jeff had opted not to go to college and instead had taken a manager’s job at the Great Scott grocery store in Port Clinton and had moved into a small apartment in downtown. There was going to be a full lunar eclipse around 1:00 the morning of the 6th and the plan was to have a few beers and watch it from the roof of the store. When we got up there, though, it was kind of nasty — dirty and wet — so we decided to go to an eclipse party that one of Jeff’s neighbors was throwing back at the apartment. That went well enough until the girlfriend of the host went off with another guy on a “beer run” and didn’t return. Jeff, Carl and I then got caught up in a “posse” to track them down. It’s probably worth noting, for the record, that our participation in said posse wasn’t completely voluntary and we were pretty concerned about what might happen if we actually found them. Fortunately, we never did and just wound up running around town and spending the night at Jeff’s place.

The next morning, after about 2 hours of sleep, we got up and headed over to Carl’s house. Carl’s family had a small sailboat and we decided to take that out on the lake. We had a great time sailing around off Catawba Island; wherever the wind would take us. And that was a crucial point because none of us actually knew how to sail, so when it came time to head back we came to the somewhat disturbing observation that we were a mile or two offshore and the wind was continuing to blow us toward, well... Canada. We pulled in the sail and started paddling with our hands. Jeff, who had been on the swim team in high school, tied a rope around his waist, jumped in and pulled us along behind. At one point a motor boat, seeing our situation, pulled up alongside and asked us if there was a problem. Not wanting to look stupid, we claimed that no, we were just enjoying a fine summer day on our sailboat with our friend having a swim at the end of a rope. It took us most of the afternoon to get the boat back to shore, by which time we were exhausted, sunburned and embarrassed. It was also the very last time the three of us would do anything as a group.

When we got back to Carl’s house, Carl’s dad asked me how my job search was going. His dad was the superintendent of schools and well-respected in the community. With all the excitement of the preceding 24 hours, I had sort of forgotten about the depressing prospect of another 2 months sitting at home with nothing to do. I told him dejectedly I was still looking, but hadn’t found anything yet.

I went home that night, rubbed Noxema on my sunburned face and extremities, collapsed into bed and slept until noon the next day when my mother woke me up and told me I had a phone call, somebody named Mark from the Catawba Island Club. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. It was Mark Grabowski, the
dining room manager from the CIC. They had a busboy quit and if I could be there at 5:00, I had a job!

Was it a coincidence that I got the job a day after telling my tale of woe to Carl’s dad, who was a member of the club? Maybe, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think a call was made. If so, I owe Carl’s dad a huge debt because that job changed my life. 

I will say, though, my time at the CIC didn’t start out that great. At a country club, there are pecking orders, even among the staff, and I was definitely the peck-ee. The other busboys had been working together for at least a few weeks and were “led” by a couple of grade-A jerks, one of which was the starting QB for Oak Harbor high school. If there was a crap duty, I was the one who got to do it. Things started to turn around, though, when I got my first check. I had never worked for anything more than minimum wage and was so grateful for the job opportunity that I hadn’t bothered to ask about the pay. It turned out that busboys earned minimum wage PLUS they split 1% of the waitresses tips for that shift. That was a nice little bonus that amounted to about $50/week. Things went from looking sort of okay to looking pretty dang good. Then came the night of the bat.

My family lived in an old farmhouse. We didn’t have air conditioning and the window screens were old and ill-fitting, but we kept the windows open because it would have been too hot to sleep otherwise. I woke up one night that summer to high-pitched squeaks and the fluttering of leathery wings. A bat had gotten into my room. I started yelling and shooing at it with a pillow. Eventually I was able to get it back out a window, but the event bothered me a lot and I was not able to sleep soundly through the night for the rest of the summer.

In late August, my college roommate called and we went over plans for the coming year. We were moving to an off-campus complex called the College Inn and we would need some things we didn’t have in the dorm. He was bringing the stereo and fridge and I was responsible for getting a toaster oven. By that time, Carl had already gone back to school, so I drove over to Kmart in Sandusky by myself and picked up the oven and a new alarm clock. As was my habit, I also checked out the music department and decided to buy Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty. At that time, I didn’t own any of his albums, but was familiar with the title track and "The Loadout/Stay." When I got home and put it on the turntable, I was surprised by how good every song was and played it more or less constantly for the rest of the summer.

By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, I was getting more comfortable in my job at the CIC and had put away several hundred dollars. That Saturday was the last crazy-busy night of the summer season in the dining room, but I wasn’t feeling well. Lack of sleep and long, long hours had caught up with me and I spent a good bit of my shift shuffling to the employee restroom. Not a pleasant way to end the summer.

I probably worked a couple more uneventful shifts before packing it in and heading back to OU, but that Labor Day Saturday was the last thing I recall with any clarity until arriving at the College Inn. What could have been a depressing, difficult break had miraculously morphed into a transformational experience. I returned to school with greater confidence and resolve. My experiences at the CIC had taught me how the other half, well the other 2% actually, lives. I would go on to work two more summers at the CIC, eventually rising to the position of "Caller," one of the more coveted and well-paying positions there, and I still credit my experiences that summer as the root of the success I have had later in my life. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Cowboys or Saints; Who To Hate Most?

The NFL kicks off the 2018 season tonight in Philadelphia, and the Panthers play the Cowboys Sunday afternoon in Charlotte. I really, really don’t like the Cowboys, but, honestly, it’s been so long since they were relevant that they are no longer my most-hated team. That “honor” goes to the Saints. How I came to dislike those teams so intensely is the topic for today’s blog post.

On October 3rd, 1988, I sat down in the living room of The Little House on the Highway to watch Monday Night Football. The game was between the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints. In previous years, that wouldn’t have been much of a matchup. The Cowboys had been good since the late 60’s, while the Saints had been horrible since they came into existence in 1967. The Saints had, in fact, posted their first winning season in franchise history the year before, and that was the weird strike-shortened, replacement player season. Still, there was a sense of a “changing of the guard” in the NFL that year and many believed that the Saints were improving while the Cowboys were on the decline. To an extent, this would prove true as the Saints, behind USFL refugee QB Bobby Hebert, would win the game 17-14 and go on to a 10-6 season, narrowly missing the playoffs, while the Cowboys would slide to 3-13 that year. It would be Tom Landry’s last Monday night game.

At the time that game was played, I sort of liked the Cowboys and was ambivalent toward the Saints. Growing up in a household of Steelers haters, the Cowboys were the anti-Steelers and the only team that consistently gave them resistance during the latter part of the 70s. Roger Staubach was a stand-up guy and Tom Landry was the classy gentleman under the fedora. The Saints had been a non-entity for so long that, lacking any particular reason to dislike them, you sort of rooted for them as sad-sack underdogs.

Neither the Saints nor the Cowboys did much of note to finish out the 80s, but things would change dramatically as the new decade started. In Dallas, a complete jerk bought the team, fired Landry, hired an equally big jerk as coach and then swindled the Minnesota Vikings out of numerous draft picks which were almost immediately turned into Hall of Famers. Overnight, they went from “America’s Team” to something more akin to the Yankees; you loved ‘em or you hated ‘em. I hated them.

The Saints took a little while longer to make my poop list. When the Panthers entered the league in 1995 we were placed in the same division as the Saints and the Falcons, but at the time the Falcons were by far the better team and served as Carolina's primary geographic rival. The first Panthers game I ever attended was against the Saints, a Panthers win at Death Valley in the expansion season. For the first few years, the Saints were essentially good for an easy win or two, making it hard to hate them. But then... Katrina.

On August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, inundating New Orleans. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. The Panthers were scheduled to open the 2005 season with a game in Charlotte against the Saints. Despite having gone 7-9 in 2004 due to some major injuries, the Panthers were considered playoff contenders and were heavy favorites against the Saints. With the game coming so soon after the devastation, however, the Saints had become something of “media darlings.” The Panthers offered free tickets to many New Orleans residents who had been displaced to Charlotte by the storm. I was at the game and seated near some of those ticket recipients and it’s then that I got my first taste of what Saints fandom was really like. When the Saints were introduced, the Panthers crowd skipped the usual “rough” welcome and instead clapped politely. Conversely, the Saints fans talked trash, and nasty trash at that, incessantly for the entire game. The Saints went on to a surprising 23-20 win, which was hailed by the national media as the greatest thing ever, because, well, that's what the media does.

The Panthers went on to a successful 11-5 season and made it all the way to the NFC Championship game, but the ugliness of those Saints fans always stuck with me. Then, a few years later, the Saints were implicated in “bountygate,” a scheme in which New Orleans coaches paid players for hits on certain opposing players which resulted in injury. One of those select players was Panthers QB Cam Newton, and that pretty much solidified their place as the team I hate most.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Ancient Artifacts, Huntersville Edition

On Saturday, I replanted a flower bed near my garage. I have been trying to grow lavender and creeping jenny there for the past few years and the results have been underwhelming. I decided to pull everything out, double-dig the whole bed, add some peat to improve drainage and replant it. About halfway through the process, my shovel hit something metallic. Looking down, I was able to make out the remnants of some sort of cylindrical object. Believing that I might have stumbled onto a major archaeological find, I proceeded slowly, carefully removing the accumulated dirt and debris from around the object.

Although it was now badly deformed and in two pieces, it was immediately clear to me that the artifact was originally a single tube-like structure, about five inches tall and two inches in diameter. It was made from a light, flexible metal and painted in bright red, green and white shapes. Although the condition of the object made it difficult to ascertain what the design might have originally meant, it appeared to relate some a graphic description of the contents. The size and shape of the artifact suggest that it was probably a vessel used to hold and transport a liquid. The unusual metallic composition along with the bright colors and intricate design of the outside indicate that it likely had ritual or spiritual significance.

Although I am awaiting the results of the radio-carbon dating for verification, my initial estimate of its age places the artifact as mid-90s, a time when this part of North Carolina was mostly virgin forest with only a few scattered outposts of human habitation, mostly semi-nomadic tribes who fled south during this period seeking warmer weather and an abundance of purple and teal. It's fascinating to think about who the original owners of the artifact might have been, how they used it and how it came to be buried deep in a flower bed only a stone's throw from my garage. I guess I'll never know the true story, but I have a gut feeling this artifact is related somehow to the two-by-three-foot piece of foam insulation and the "Bic" firestarting device discovered during a dig in the same vicinity more than a decade ago.

Huntersville is an ancient place, full of mystery and intrigue, strange native cultures and Starbucks. Sometimes on a still night, I can sit out on my back deck and hear the rhythmic thumping and frightening whines of long-departed spirits echoing through the trees. Or maybe it's just the cars on I-77; you know they kind of sound the same.           

Monday, August 13, 2018

Bad Shark Movies and Rumors of Bad Shark Movies

I went to see THE MEG on Saturday afternoon. The wife was out of town and I needed a break from work around the homestead, so mid-afternoon I showered up, put on a clean tee and headed north to Our Town Cinemas in Davidson for the $8 matinee showing. I had every reason to believe the movie was going to be stupid, but that was okay; Our Town has a wide selection of craft beers, the A/C works just fine and the pretzels are soft and salty. 

The movie was predictably bad, so much so that I’m not even going to attempt to review it. Instead, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane to the last time I purposely saw a bad shark movie in a theater (Sharknados on TV don’t count). It was the summer of 1983, my second summer working as a busboy at the Catawba Island Club. I was between colleges at the time, having left Ohio U the previous spring and enrolled at Bowling Green for the upcoming semester. My high school buddy Carl also worked at the club, so our schedules were often in synch and we tended to hang out together. Near the end of a leisurely afternoon lunch shift, we determined that we both had the evening off and decided to head over to the Sandusky Mall and take in a movie. Carl noted that Jaws 3-D was playing and he’d always wanted to see a movie in 3-D. The problem was, we were a little reluctant to go to the movies, just the two of us, because we thought, hilariously in hindsight, that it “gave the wrong impression.” A year earlier, we had, in fact, taken Carl’s older sister, Jo, with us to a memorable drive-in showing of the movie Ghost Story. Neither of us was the least bit gay, but in those days it didn’t take much to be labeled as such.     

Carl suggested we call a female friend of ours that we had hung out with in high school and occasionally still saw around town. For purposes of this story, let’s call her JC. The thing was, there was a backstory that Carl was either unaware or only marginally aware of. I had been infatuated with JC from literally the first time I had seen her, but for a variety of reasons had never acted on those feelings... until earlier that year. Returning home from school that spring, I had finally decided to ask JC out. She readily accepted and I was thrilled. However, when the day arrived, she called and said she had to work late and would take a “rain check.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but decided not to press the point any further and just move on. So, this was about to get a little awkward.

As it turned out, JC was available that evening and we made arrangements to pick her up. Another busboy, Ron, who was a few years younger but an okay guy, overheard our conversation, said that he wanted to see Jaws 3-D and asked if he could tag along. Having no particularly good reason to say no, we agreed. Ron then asked if he could bring “a friend.” Sensing a little apprehension on our part, he quickly added, “... not like a girlfriend or anything, just a girl I’ve known since grade school.”   

We picked up JC first, neither of us making any reference to the earlier cancelled date. We then collected Ron and he directed us to his “friend’s” house. Ron had said he’d known her since grade school, but honestly, she could have BEEN in grade school. Ron was only 16 or 17 himself, but c’mon; I’m pretty sure that girl was playing with her Barbies before we showed up. I seriously started to wonder whether Jaws 3-D was an R movie and if we counted as adult supervision. 

We piled in my old Chevy Malibu for the half-hour drive to the mall; me, JC and Carl in the front seat, and Ron and Lolita (not her real name, obviously) in back. We were halfway across the bay bridge, windows down, WIOT playing on the radio, talking about how our summers were going, basically living the life when I threw a casual glance at the rear view mirror. All I’ll say is Ron’s  definition of “just a friend” was slightly different than mine. 

“You okay back there?”


“Not getting too much wind?”


“Well, just let us know.”


When we got to the mall, Ron and Lolita suggested they would sit by themselves at the movie, if that was okay. Carl said he thought that would be a great idea and excused himself to go to the bathroom, leaving me and JC standing in the lobby holding Cokes and popcorn.

“So, I thought maybe you’d call to reschedule.”

“I didn’t know... I mean it was hard to tell what was up.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Well, I guess we got our ‘date’ anyway.”


The movie was bad. Really, really bad. And 3-D technology back then was nothing like it is today. There was one slightly effective scene where a bloody severed arm was floating toward the audience, but other than that it was just kind of a muddled, grainy mess. The gist of the movie was that a new ocean theme park is opening and through some kind of mechanical malfunction a gate to the ocean is left open and a great white shark swims in. Bloody mayhem ensues and our heros, a young Dennis Quaid and a slumming Louis Gossett Jr., have to find a way to kill it and save the guests, who for reasons I can’t quite recall aren’t free to simply, you know, get in their cars and leave.

After the movie we went for ice cream, laughed at ourselves for having spent good money on such schlock, and silently wondered whether Lolita qualified for the free kiddie cone with adult purchase. I dropped off Lolita and Ron first, then JC. The order was not random. If I’d wanted some time alone with JC, I could have reversed the course and taken Carl home first, but somehow this felt like the appropriate, upbeat ending to a relationship that never was. As she headed up the sidewalk toward her house, she turned and said, “see you guys around.”     

That was the second to last time I ever saw her. A few years later, when I was working as a manager in a department store in Toledo she came in with her one-year-old daughter. We had both married accountants and settled in the suburbs. Ain’t that the way the story goes. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Last Day of Summer

For the first two decades of most of our lives, the beginning and end of summer are easy to define; summer starts when school lets out and ends when it starts back up again. And while carefree months of childhood play would eventually give way to increased household responsibilities and summer jobs, the passing of the seasons was always marked by “back to school.”

For adults, summer is less clearly defined, a little squishier around the edges. I’ll never forget the first time this fact of life dawned on me. I was out for an evening bike ride on a quiet country road the August after I graduated from college. It was the time of year that for as long as I could remember I’d started thinking about the new school year, shopping for school supplies and new “school clothes.” But that year there would be none of that, and as I looked off down that long country road, straight and flat to the horizon, I felt a weird sense of panic at the idea that there would be no more back-to-school, no more sharply defined pivot points, no more opportunities to start over with a clean notebook, a full pen and a new pair of jeans. The sheer length of that road seemed an almost unbearable journey without the way-points and mile markers to which I had become accustomed.

These days, as quite a bit of that road lies over my shoulder, should I care to look back at it, the passing of another summer is marked more subtly. The Hall of Fame football game was last night, and the Panthers first pre-season game is next week. The garden is past its peak and sliding into its long decline toward winking out with the first frost. Stores are placing the red-white and blue knickknacks of Memorial Day and the 4th of July on clearance to make room for the orange and black doodads of Halloween.

For the last few years, my neighborhood has held a summer pool party in early August, a week or two before the start of school, and that has become, for me, the dividing line between summer and what comes after. Here in the North Carolina Piedmont, it will be another 10 weeks before fall is in the air weather-wise, but make no mistake about it, the last day of summer is nigh.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The 5 Best Vacationland Destinations of 1972

Last week, I shared my memories of the 5 worst “staycations” of my youth. This week I am going to list the 5 best. To recap, my family did not generally take traditional vacations, instead opting for a half-dozen or so day trips within about a two hour radius of home. These ratings are based on how I perceived these destinations at the time, not how I would perceive them today. A couple of them, in fact, no longer exist.

#5 Enchanted Forest - The best thing about Enchanted Forest was proximity. It was located just a couple of miles from my sister’s house on Catawba Island, so the logistics of a visit were relatively simple; pack everyone into the station wagon with a jug of Kool-Aid and we were off. The park itself was located in a wooded area that surrounded a small lake. In the earliest years, I recall it being a relatively nice place to spend a summer afternoon, the key attractions being a bouncy house, a super slide, pedal boats and a miniature golf course. Though the 70’s, though, I remember it going downhill. One of the employees drowned in a tragic accident around ‘75, and at some point it was re-branded Enchanted Lake Park. By the early 80’s it had become more of an event venue, albeit with miniature golf and paddle boats. We had a Kokinda family reunion there, probably around ‘81 or ‘82. I last visited the park in the summer of 1983 with a couple of my buddies from the CIC. One of them insisted we go miniature golfing, which I thought was kind of curious until we got there and I figured out he had a thing going with the girl working the counter. The park closed sometime in the mid-80’s and is now upscale “lake access” housing. 

#4 The Blue Hole - It’s a bit hard to explain how this attraction makes it so far up the list. The Blue Hole was, in essence, a deep pond. That’s it. No rides. No games. No piano-playing chickens. There was a small gift shop and a trout hatchery — something that would be incredibly interesting to me now, but was at the time... meh. There was also a beautiful wooded picnic area with a babbling brook running through it. My nephews and I would fashion tiny “boats” out of fallen sticks and leaves and race them on it. Although it wasn’t the most exciting place on earth, there was something peaceful and soothing about it that called to me. And there was an ice cream place right across from the entrance that had strawberry soft-serve, an exotic delicacy back in the day. While the Blue Hole itself and the hatchery are still there, it is no longer open to the public.

#3 The Toledo Zoo - You can say a lot of things about Toledo, many of them negative, but it's hard to find fault with the zoo. For a city it's size, the zoo was and still is amazing. It was located about an hour from our house and was the only time we ever got to go the "the city." Crossing the High Level Bridge across the Maumee River was almost as big a thrill for a small town boy as the zoo itself. There were often large freighters tied up along the docks, and the windows of the tall buildings downtown sparkled in the hazy sun. As was the family tradition with any trip in excess of 30 minutes, we packed like Sir Hillary climbing Everest; jugs of Kool-Aid and iced tea, cold fried chicken, potato salad and cantaloupe. Not to mention the various standard accouterments needed for taking a band of heathen youth into a public place; strollers, wagons, blankets, wet-wipes, bug spray. It was quite the production. The zoo was divided into various exhibits; the ape house, the aquarium, the reptile house, etc. My favorite spots were the aquarium and the history museum. There was also a small train that you could ride around the perimeter of the park.

#2 Sea World - I am not certain when Sea World opened, but we visited it for the first time around '74. We got a brochure from one of the roadside rests and I spent hours pouring over it in advance of that first visit. See, I had grown up watching Flipper and had an intense interest in marine creatures. There was a point at which I seriously wanted to be a marine biologist. To me at the time, Sea World was this extraordinary, exotic place. The fact that it was located in Aurora, a full two hours from our house, made it seem even more fantastical. And it lived up to my expectations. Dolphins, seals, otters and whales... freakin' WHALES! There were even pearl divers, water skiers and a highly anachronistic trout pond. That place was da bomb! Yeah, I know; turns out they were kind of torturing the animals. Bad on them, but it takes nothing away from the memories of a 12 year old seeing a freakin' WHALE.

#1 Cedar Point - If you grew up anywhere within 150 miles of Sandusky, Ohio there was only one summertime day trip you looked forward to every year. We typically went twice each year, once in the middle of summer and once in the fall. The summer trip included the whole family — sisters, nephews, nieces — while the fall trip was usually just me and my parents. Dad worked at US Gypsum and the first Sunday after the park closed to the public for the season was always US Gypsum Day. We got in free, and even though the park had only a skeleton crew, and some of the rides and attractions weren't open, in some ways it was more fun. The lines were shorter. The weather was cooler. The crowds were smaller. Neither Mom nor Dad was a big fan of the rides, so we were pretty much limited to the train, the boat, the old fashioned cars and the kiddie rides, which was fine because I was too small to ride the harrowing stuff anyway. Free or not, I wouldn't say that Cedar Point was Dad's favorite place, but there were two things there he liked, the French fries and the crane game. Cedar Point had VERY special fries. They were thick cut and served with ketchup and vinegar. Over the course of the day, we would get 3 or 4 servings of them. You're probably familiar with the crane game; they have them in lots of places now. But back then it was a fairly novel concept. It cost a dime to play, and it was not uncommon for Dad to pump in $5 trying to win a particular item. I recall him spending a couple of dollars in pursuit of a ceramic turtle with a cigarette lighter in the middle of its shell. Dad didn't smoke, so his fascination with this particular item was puzzling, until he told me the rounded ceramic shell made it the most difficult item to pick up. It wasn't the prize itself that motivated him, it was the difficulty in getting it. That apple didn't fall far from the tree.    

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The 5 Worst Vacationland Destinations of 1972

With the exception of an ill-advised road trip to Florida in a VW Beetle during the summer of 1970, my family didn't take "traditional" vacations. Dad preferred to spend his hard-won time off on more practical pursuits like painting the house, putting on a new roof or building a garden shed. We did, however, take what would in the parlance of today be called "staycactions" or "day trips." Roughly every other week from the time school got out in mid-June until it started back up again in early September, my extended family -- which included my older sisters, sister-in-law, nephews and niece -- would pack up the station wagon and head to one or another of the local attractions. Some, like The Blue Hole, The Toledo Zoo, Cedar Point and Enchanted Forest, were annual events: Others, like Put-In-Bay and Sea World, were on a rotating schedule, while some -- I'm looking at you Sorrowful Mother Shrine and Lagoon Deer Park -- were one-and-done.

In general, my memories of these trips center around spending quality time with family and getting an ever-so-brief glance at the bigger world. But, of course, not all staycations are created equal, and some were markedly more fun than others. To kick off the summer vacation season, I offer a definitive listing of the sometimes schlocky tourist destinations of my "Vacationland" youth. To create this ranking, I am drawing upon my thoughts as a 10-year-old and not how I perceive those destinations today. For instance, at the time Put-In-Bay to me was a boring, nauseating boat ride followed by a day of doing basically nothing... in pouring rain. It would rank MUCH higher on my scale today. It is also worth noting that I am basing these rankings on what these places were like 40 years ago, and the ones that still exist may very well be nothing like that now, for better or worse. I'll list the bottom 5 today and the top 5 next week.

#10 Sorrowful Mother Shrine - Needless to say, this was something my mother wanted to do. SMS was (maybe still is?) in Bellevue, about 45 minutes from my hometown. It was intended to be a place of quiet prayer and reflection. I was 10. Need I say more?

#9 Lagoon Deer Park - I actually gave serious thought to dropping this ridiculous tourist trap below SMS, but at least you were allowed to talk out loud there. LDP was near a small town called Castalia on the other side of the Edison Bridge, and only a 15-20 minute drive from our house. To access it, you drove over a long gravel causeway across a swamp/corn field (the titular "lagoon," I guess, depending on how wet the summer was). It had the shabby look of a roadside attraction that might have been vaguely worthwhile sometime during the Eisenhower administration, but had fallen into serious disrepair since. The main feature was a "piano playing chicken." Essentially, this was a rooster in a cage with a toy piano. The idea was that you could buy overpriced chicken feed from a vending machine next to the exhibit, throw it to the chicken and it would then play the piano. Now, I wasn't hoping for the Moonlight Sonata, but there was an expectation that the bird might, you know, go somewhere near the piano.

#8 Mystery Hill/Prehistoric Forest - These were twin attractions just a few miles from home in the resort town of Lakeside. My mother had grown up in a house just a mile down the road and was skeptical of the legitimacy of the while affair; "well, water didn't flow uphill and there were no dinosaurs walking around when I was a kid." Thanks for that analysis, Mom.

#7 African Lion Safari - The closest attraction to our house, ALS was located on an epansive tract of land off a rural road on the way to Lakeside. It was, maybe still is, a commercial wildlife refuge that specialized in exotic African animals like zebras, giraffes and lions. There was a visitors' center with some cheesy educational exhibits, but the main event was a wildlife park that you drove through. The advertising showed a lion standing menacingly on the hood of a car! I distinctly recall my parents having a conversation about which car would be better to take, should we be forced to make a run for it.  That turned out to be a moot point, as the lions were only vaguely visible in the distance and were rather languid in their general disposition. I do recall, for an additional fee, getting to ride some sort of unusual animal, a llama maybe? So there was that.

#6 Put-In-Bay - Probably not giving PIB a fair shake in this ranking, but as a kid this just wasn't an enjoyable day. Every time we went, we seemed to get caught in torrential rain, and given that the Miller Ferry dropped off and picked up on the largely uninhabited side of the island and we had to ride our bikes a couple of miles into town, that was a problem. I guess I should explain that PIB is a a small town on an island in Lake Erie; think of it as a Midwestern Key West. As the crow flies, it was only 15 miles or so from our house, but 10 of those miles were water. I've been back as an adult and found it to be a rather engaging place, but the things that make it so -- drinking, music and general debauchery -- are not of much interest to a kid.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Refrigerate Me, Please

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to Ohio to visit with friends and family. Memorial Day is an interesting holiday in that part of the country weather-wise. It is generally considered the kick-off of the summer season, and more often than not the temperatures are vaguely summer-like, with highs in the upper 60's to lower 70's. Every now and then, though, there will be a Memorial Day that is more reminiscent of winter than summer. I recall my last year of working my way through college at a country club, we had to cancel just about all of our planned outdoor guest activities because the highs couldn't find their way out of the 40's.

This past weekend was exactly the opposite. It hit 90 every day we were there. Honestly, I don't ever recall it being so warm in May in the 30-plus years I lived up that way. It brought home the fact that folks in Ohio have a different relationship with their air conditioners than we have in the south. Here, our relationship resembles a committed monogamous marriage; we are pretty much tied to our AC, for better or worse. In Northwest Ohio, it's more of a friend-with-benefits kind of thing.

It turned out that the AC at my sister's house, where we stayed the first night, was broken entirely; which she had no way of knowing since she hadn't had it on yet this year. It was too hot to sleep in the bedroom, so I spread out on the living room sofa under the ceiling fan with the screen door wide open. The next two nights, we stayed with friends, and while their AC worked just fine, they took a very strategic approach to cooling; allowing the house to heat up during the day, then turning on the AC for a little bit just before bed to "cool things down" before turning it off for the rest of the night.

Looking back, I lived most of the first 30 years of my life with virtually no AC. We survived by keeping every available window open during the summer months and having a fan in almost every room. We also had a basement which, although musty-smelling, was pleasantly cool. Truth is, in Northwest Ohio really hot days are the summer exception rather than the rule, and, even then, it typically cools off once the sun goes down, making for decent sleeping even when the highs are in the 80's. There were always a handful of nights, though, when it was just too hot to sleep.

My father bought a window-mount air conditioner in the summer of 1975. It was a short-lived respite, though. He said it caused him to get colds so he got rid of it. I suspect the electric bill might have had an impact on his decision, as well.

I got my first real taste of air conditioning when Janet and I were first married and moved into a starter apartment. I don't really recall much about that, other than I'm sure we used it judiciously as we barely had two nickels to rub together in those days. When we moved to the Little House on the Highway, we didn't even have a fan for the first summer, and I recall several nights sweating in bed trying not to make skin-to-skin contact with Janet and hoping against hope that the beagle wouldn't want to cuddle.

Our move to the condo in Three Meadows was the start of our climate-controlled life, with central air a "luxury" we could finally afford, and it goes without saying that air conditioning is a big part of our lives at the Wynfield Creek Homestead where 90 degree days are the rule, not the exception. Is that environmentally friendly? Maybe not, but laying awake in bed dripping sweat unto your sheets is no way to live. I'll find some other way to save energy; refrigerate me, please!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Conspiracy Theories

Recently, a Charlotte city councilwoman tweeted that she did not believe the World Trade Center was destroyed by hijacked planes and suggested that 9/11 was an "inside job." When pressed on the issue, she apologized if anyone was offended by her tweet -- many Charlotteans had personal and business connections to people killed or injured in the attack -- but stopped short of retracting her comments.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but the ability to produce and promote disinformation is far greater today than it was even twenty years ago. I recall receiving a letter in the mail a year or so after moving to North Carolina in 1995. It was written in pencil on a sheet of yellow legal paper and offered the author's rambling account of how the weights he was using in his physical therapy were causing his cancer. I felt bad for the obviously disturbed individual and considered the amount of time, effort and money it cost him to send out those letters to random individuals. Today, I suspect those same delusional ramblings would elicit thousands of followers on Twitter and result in a YouTube "documentary," Your Weights Are Killing You.

The ability to inexpensively produce professional-quality content and disseminate it on the Internet at a minimal cost has emboldened every crackpot with an ax to grind and opportunist with a dollar to scam. But, not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

Extrapolation Conspiracy Theories

Many conspiracy theories are based on extrapolation of legitimate scientific thought. For instance, noted scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have argued it is almost a certainty there is other intelligent life in the universe. This is extrapolated to suggest that these aliens either founded life on earth and/or visit earth regularly, which is far, far less likely to be true.

Counterpoint Conspiracy Theories

These theories seem to evolve for no reason other to offer a counterpoint to widely-held, seemingly obvious and well-proven facts. The purveyors of this sort of theory seem to get a thrill from being "in on" some secret that eludes the other 99.9% of humanity. Flat-Earthers are the best example of this. The spherical shape of the earth is proven fact, beyond question. Yet, a small, but shockingly vocal group, including some high-profile athletes and entertainers, insist that it is not. They refute scientific fact with ludicrous work-arounds (Antarctica is actually a ring of ice that surrounds a disk-shaped Earth and holds the oceans in) and claim that any evidence t the contrary is fabricated by the establishment, which exists to deceive the world about its actual shape. What, precisely, their motive would be for perpetrating this spectacular rouse is a bit less clear.

Wishful-Thinking Conspiracy Theories

Elvis is alive! Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and is living on an island in the South Pacific with his soulmate Marilyn Monroe! Ripped from the pages of the National Enquirer, these conspiracy theories offer happy endings to less-happy circumstances. Now that we are a full 40 years beyond Elvis's death, many have forgotten just how pervasive and convincing these rumors were. Even the mainstream media wold occasionally be suckered into a story about a man running across Elvis at a convenience store in Alpena.

Ugly Racist Conspiracy Theories

The ugliest conspiracy theories are the ones which nut-job racists conjure up to feed their hatred. The most enduring and pervasive of these is the "Zionist" theory, which postulates that a group of Jewish elites have been planning to take over the world for centuries. How, exactly, a people who have been repeatedly conquered, enslaved and killed throughout history are making that happen is a little hard to grasp.

Crypto-Zoology Conspiracy Theories

Ending on a happier note, stories of Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman are a relatively harmless type of conspiracy theory. Anyone who's spent time alone in the woods knows that your mind can start to play tricks on you, so many of the reports of these creatures are probably legitimate cases of mistaken identity. The photographic evidence has, on the other hand, pretty much been debunked as elaborate hoaxes.

Just for fun, I have compiled a Top 3 list of conspiracy theories ranked according to the possibility they are true. What do you think? Let me know on my Facebook page.

1. New Coke was an "inside job." Probability 30%  This theory says that Coke purposely released New Coke with the intent of driving demand for Classic Coke. It's a convoluted path, but considering the way it worked out, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

2. Ghost Cosmonauts. Probability 25%  This theory says that several failed Russian space flights resulting in the deaths of their flight crews were covered up. Prior to the fall of the USSR, I would have said the odds of this were better than 50%, and indeed some unsavory facts about Soviet-era space deceptions have come out. Laika, the first dog in space, did not die a peaceful death, as originally reported, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, ejected from his capsule at high altitude and parachuted to the ground rather than returning with the craft to Earth. The most likely candidate for a suppressed failure would be the July 1969 "test" of the N-1 rocket, which some believe was actually a last-ditch effort to beat the Americans to the moon. The rocket exploded just a few seconds into its flight, destroying the launch facility. 

3. Fixed Championship Boxing. Probability 20%  Boxing has always had a dark underbelly and the idea that certain significant fights were fixed is pervasive. In particular, the second Ali-Liston and first Ali-Spinks fights are pointed to as likely candidates. Given the relationship between the sport and organized crime, especially in the 60's and 70's, it is absolutely possible. The one thing that points against it is that I can't see any amount of money that would have persuaded ed Ali to take a
fall. He was too proud for that.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Outlaw Josie Marek

Folks who follow my writing sometimes comment that while I often tell stories about my father, I rarely mention my mother. The simple reason is that by nature of his outsized personality, stories about my father tend to be more interesting. Mom was quieter, more introspective and less prone to the sorts of grand gestures that make for good anecdotes. In honor of Mothers' Day, though, I thought I would share a few stories about "The Outlaw," which is what my high school buddy Jeff St. Clair called her because, although her name was Josephine, everyone called her Josie, and the movie, "The Outlaw Josie Wales" was popular at the time.

My mother was born in Lakeside, Ohio in 1921, the youngest (10th) child of Peter and Mary Kokinda. She grew up on a small homestead just outside of town during the Depression. Although times were tough, the family had a cow and chickens and were able to eek out a moderate existence on their small plot of land. She married my father in 1940 and my oldest sister, Marilyn, was born in 1941. I came along a full 21 years later, when she was 42 (surprise!). In between, my sister Bonnie and my brother Jerry came along.

Mother was a cook at Portage Elementary for 20+ years, including all of my school days. However, I attended a Catholic school in Port Clinton, so I was only in the same building as her for kindergarten. Well, with one exception. During the winter "energy crisis" of 1977-78, our schools went to split schedules to conserve energy, and Mom worked at the high school cafeteria for a few weeks. One day, she came out and sat with me and my friends for an uncomfortable 10 minutes or so. To her credit, she got the drift and didn't try that again.

Portage Elementary was about a half mile from our house and Mom usually walked to work. Although she wasn't much of a driver, she did have a license and would occasionally make the 10 minute trip into Port Clinton for groceries or to visit family. I only recall riding with her once. She picked me up after work one summer afternoon in 1979 and drove me home, both hands clenching the wheel as we zipped along at a dizzying 30 MPH clip.

If my father was known as the "lawnmower whisperer," my mother's claim to fame was her baking. She was a mediocre cook, overall, but she could bake like nobody's business. Her specialties were nut and poppy seed rolls and pineapple horns. These were highly prized items at holidays and family functions like weddings and funerals. Her baking was done in what might be called the Eastern European tradition; heavy, doughy and sweet. My personal favorite was her coconut creme cake. This was a sponge cake cut in two and filled with a layer of coconut creme pie filling, then topped with a meringue-like icing and flake coconut.

Until her arthritis began acting up in the late 70's, she was a dedicated crocheter, making dozens of afghans, hats, gloves and footies. Although she didn't read much, she enjoyed circle-the-word puzzles and her "stories," afternoon soap operas like The Guiding Light, The Secret Storm and The Edge of Night.

She was also a big sports fan, and liked to listen to Cleveland Indians games on the radio in the summer, and watch Browns and Cavaliers games on TV on the fall and winter. My knowledge of and interest in sports comes almost entirely from her, but her choice of teams...

Mom had multiple health problems in the latter years of her life and passed away at age 87 in 2009. The picture that leads this article was taken at Easter of that year, a few months before her death.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Games of Skill and Chance

In the town of Wadesboro, where my economic development practice is located, a couple of new "adult arcades" have opened along the US 74 strip. It seems as though every few years the proprietors of these businesses find some loophole in the law that they can exploit until the state legislature figures out a way to close it. In the early 2000's it was video poker, which was originally categorized as a game of skill and, hence, not considered gambling. Then it was Internet sweepstakes, which originally fell under online privacy protections. The current iterations of these casino-lites are back to the "game of skill" angle.

Anson County is not alone in this current gaming boom. Multiple locations have popped up all over the Charlotte region, including Albemarle and Monroe. I am not certain about the types of games offered at places such as Hot Spot or Skill Fish, but an article about an Albemarle location mentions "shooting games." What is fairly obvious is they cannot actually be games of skill. A game truly dependent on a skill would mean that once that skill was acquired, one would be able to beat the machine on a regular basis.

Think about Asteroids, a game I occasionally played at the arcade back in the early 80's. The idea of the game was to navigate a tiny triangular ship between asteroids while blasting them with your laser and avoiding alien spaceships. I was never very good at it -- I might have been able to make a quarter last for 10 minutes, tops -- but I had buddies who turned that very specific and arcane skillset into an hour of play on two-bits. Yes, they had invested many quarters into developing those skills, but after a few hours of "practice," they were essentially able to play for free.

Clearly, that could never be possible in an environment where the "house" must pay out money for success. The business model for casinos is based on the predictable failure rate of random chance; if you roll dice an infinite number of times, certain number combinations will appear in predictable ways. There is, for instance, only one way to roll a 2 or a 12, while there are multiple ways to roll a 7.   Or, more graphically, imagine a roulette wheel. You can bet individual numbers, but you can also bet red or black. In doing so, you have slightly less than a 50% chance of winning, because there is one green "house" number. If an individual player plays red or black long enough they will eventually revert to the mean, which is to say they will not quite break even. The house, however, will always come out ahead in the long run.

For suburban homesteaders, that begs the question, "is what we do a game of skill or chance?" Certainly there is skill involved in knowing what crops to plant when to plant them and how to properly care for them, but ultimately does any of that make a difference if it doesn't rain, or rains too much, or if there is an unusually late frost? Is what we do more like Asteroids, where acquired skills all but guarantee success, or is it more like roulette, where eventually everything reverts to the mean?

Monday, April 30, 2018

Chicken Math

I was pondering the menu at a local restaurant the other day when a strange thought entered my head; the chicken math just doesn’t add up. Think about it, when you go to your favorite wing place, how many do you order... 6, 8, a dozen? Where are all those wings coming from. The last time I looked, chickens only had two wings, so it would take six full chickens to produce a dozen wings.

No wonder the Internet was recently abuzz with Photo-shopped images purporting to show a genetically-modified chicken sporting multiple wings, an idea also explored in Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake in which a company has patented the ChickieNob, a headless bird with multiple wings and legs growing from a central stem.

I'm not entirely certain about this, but I suspect the concept of chicken wings as bar food was originally designed to even out the math the other way around. Back in the day, people ate breasts and legs and thighs but nobody wanted those scrawny wings that barely had enough meat on them to justify the effort of chewing. So, some enterprising person came up with the idea of dousing them in hot sauce and an industry was born.

My first experience with WFTSOW (wings for the sake of wings) came shortly after I started my first real job post-college. I was an assistant manager at a retail store called Best Products in the Westgate area of Toledo, Ohio. I worked long hours and had to eat many meals in my office on a tight budget. There was a now-long-defunct chain restaurant called G.D. Ritzy's just down the street and they offered a lunch special that featured 4 wings, fries and a drink for $1.99. They weren't exactly Buffalo-style, but they came with a dipping sauce that was pretty good, and I developed a taste for them.

A few years later, a Toledo-based wing chain called Frickers opened a location not far from my condo in Perrysburg and I was hooked. Their signature sauce was called the "barbecue killer," and it was not for the faint of heart, but became a part of my weekly ritual.     

But back to chicken math. How do poultry companies make the demand for the various chicken parts work out? I think the answer, whether we like it or not, might be McNuggets.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Chicken, the Egg and the Farmers' Market

In a previous life,* the first Evening farmers' Market of the season was much anticipated. My office was located directly across the parking lot from the small park where a dozen or more vendors regularly set up under the sprawling pecan trees, selling everything from homemade soap to cookies to cut flowers. The first few weeks were, understandably, a little light on produce, as the market opened in April and the growing season doesn't really kick into gear until June, but the lack of tomatoes and peppers was more than made up for by the aforementioned craft and baked goods along with cold-hardy vegetables like spinach, lettuce and kale.

Recalling that experience, I was excited for the first Uptown Wadesboro Farmers' Market last June. To say it was a bit of a letdown would be an understatement. That's not to criticize Uptown Wadesboro or the vendors who participated--they did the best they could with limited resources and some difficult weather--but the lack of both vendors and shoppers was disappointing. 

In talking to folks around town about the market, there seems to be a chicken-or-the-egg mentality at work. Vendors say it is not worth their time to participate because there are no shoppers, and potential shoppers say it's not worth their time because there are so few vendors. We need to break that cycle. 

Vendors need to view the first few weeks of the market this year as an investment. There may not be much foot traffic initially, but I am confident that if people see numerous vendors set up on a weekly basis they will eventually stop by and see what is for sale. About 1,000 people live or work within easy walking distance of the Town Square. If just a quarter of those, 250, took 15 minutes on a Thursday afternoon to have a look at the products being offered, that would be sufficient for most vendors to consider their time well spent.

While we certainly do not want to turn the farmers' market into a swap meet or flea market, I think it is appropriate to expand the "farmer's" aspect to include homemade craft and food items such as candles, soap, baked goods, woodworking and fiber arts. 

There are many issues facing our community which cannot be solved overnight, but a vibrant farmers' market is NOT one of them. We are an agricultural community. We can do this! It has nothing to do with Washington or Raleigh or our local elected officials, this is on us. We, as both vendors and the buying public, simply need to make a commitment to supporting our farmers' market and to buying local. 

For my part, I will be sponsoring a table at the Uptown Wadesboro Farmers' Market this summer under the Wynfield Creek Homestead banner. I have planted a market garden and hope to have fresh produce to sell by mid-June. I am also going to sell my handcrafted fishing lures, and honey produced locally by co-worker Megan Sellers. Who else is willing to make a commitment to the Uptown and our community? Contact Julian Swittenburg (704-695-1644) at Uptown Wadesboro and let him know you are interested in selling at the market. Have products to sell, but can't be at the market? Give me a call (704-690-4936) and we can work something out.

* Refers to the 10 years I spent in the "Great Northern Void" above Davidson.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...