Monday, September 29, 2014

That Bleepin’ Beepin’


Please listen to this sound and see if you can identify it. Or, if your mouse finger is exhausted, just imagine it: four brief, electronic beeps. You hear them constantly.

If you guessed it’s the sound of my microwave letting me know my chocolate is hot, you’re right! Nice going.

But maybe you figured it’s the sound of our washing machine letting us know the cycle is finished and we can move the wet clothes to the dryer. Or maybe you thought it is the sound of the dryer telling us that the current load is dry and the clothes can be taken out to make room for the next load from the washing machine, which will make the same sound when it’s done. And you’d be right! And right!

Or maybe you thought the oven is telling us it has preheated, or that the self-cleaning is done, and you know what? You’d be right!

You’re really good at this.

When I hear that sound, I have no idea what it is. You know what makes a sound I can identify? Our cell phones. Because cell phones have let you customize sounds since way back before my wife’s current phone was engineered.

(My wife hates new phones. She likes the one she’s used to. She has a clamshell from about 1996 that still does what she wants to do with a phone – talk on it – perfectly well. It makes sounds that are unlike any other sounds my phone our our home or our cars make. We never have to ask, “What was that?” when her phone rings. Of course, the downside is that every time she pulls the thing out of her purse even complete strangers look at me like I’m Michael Vick or Ray Rice and ask, “Why won’t you let your wife have a modern phone?”)

I’m sorry, where was I?

When I get a voice call on my iPhone, it plays the lead riff from Stairway to Heaven. I like it so much that I often let Jimmy finish before I answer. Hate to interrupt a masterpiece. 

No matter how hard I try, I cannot convince our microwave oven to play Led Zeppelin when it’s done. Heck, I can’t even get our microwave oven to play Meatloaf.

Instead, it beeps. Precisely like the oven and the clothes dryer. And the message waiting indicator on the answering machine. Same pitch, same number of beeps at the same frequency.

Maybe you guessed the answering machine. Yep, you win.

Today I drove my wife’s Prius for the first time in a long while. When I put it in reverse, I knew instantly that I was backing up because it started beeping. You see, studies show that Prius drivers can’t tell when they’re moving backward, so Toyota had to add that beeper to warn them. Apparently, they don’t notice that things in front of them are getting farther away instead of closer, I don’t know.

It wasn’t a big deal for Toyota to add the beeper, because apparently every product manufacturer on the face of the earth uses the same beeper component from a factory in China because they can get them for like, ten for a nickel.

Now, when the Prius beeped, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t the clothes dryer, though it might’ve been a warning that I left the lights on. It sounds exactly the same. This beep, when in a car, means that there is something you should be aware of, but you really have no clue what that might be or how urgent it might be. Maybe you’re backing up or maybe the engine just fell out of the car. 

Same sound.

The problem I had with the Prius beep is that my Lexus beeps in exactly the same way, but not when I am merely backing up. (Apparently, Lexus Hybrid drivers can tell when they’re moving backward.) The Lexus does beep, however, when someone is approaching perpendicular to me as I back up, in an effort to warn me that I am about to back out in front of someone. So, when I’m driving one of our cars in reverse, the beeping either lets me know that “reverse” means “backwards”, or that I am about to be struck by an approaching vehicle or pedestrian in one of the rear quarter panels, depending on which car I'm in.

Same sound.

Our European-brand dishwasher beeps in exactly the same way when it finishes. I don’t know why.

Europeans aren’t into the “dry the dishes” thing, it not being eco-friendly, so the beep doesn’t signal the dishes are dry. It means, “I’m through washing the dishes but they are still too hot to handle and besides, they’re still pretty wet so don’t do anything for a while. Oh, you might want to turn off this meaningless beeper, because I will keep beeping until I drive you insane if you don’t.”

Good to know.

So, if you guessed that sound was a backing Prius, endangered Lexus or meaningless message from a European dishwasher, you’d be right!

Except that it might have also been the smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are easily distinguishable by their volume, even though they make the same damned beep, but there are usually more than one and finding the one that’s beeping can be a challenge.  They say, “There may be a fire somewhere in the house. Just try and find it.”

Smoke detector manufacturers created an insidious version of the ubiquitous, "generic product beep" to indicate when the battery is dying. It’s loud enough to be heard, but just barely. And it’s beep is so brief that it is nearly impossible to find. We finally settled on the strategy of standing by each smoke alarm for several minutes until we hear the beep, like a hiding ghost, from somewhere else in the house. Then we mark this one off the list.

We have maybe 6 or 8 smoke alarms. I can change the batteries in all of them in less time than it takes to find the one that’s beeping because it actually needs a new battery.

The beeps are generally helpful, I suppose. Anytime I hear one, I know that it is not a cell phone and therefore it must be a smoke alarm, oven, dishwasher, clothes washer, clothes dryer, computer, iPad, answering machine, Prius in reverse, Lexus in harm’s way or microwave oven. And I know that it is signaling either something totally meaningless or something deadly urgent.

There is something, I should add, somewhere in our home that beeps from time to time and that we have never been able to identify. Then it just stops. For days. Hope it’s not important.

What I’m asking of manufacturers of any kind of product, I suppose, is would it freakin’ kill you to use a beeper that’s a little different than every other one on the planet?

Gotta run now. Something’s beeping somewhere.

Could be important. Maybe not.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pullet Laureate


I met a nice family over in Carrboro last week.

Carrboro is a separate town, but no one knows for sure where Chapel Hill ends and Carrboro starts. It starts roughly over there by the car wash. In fact, no one at the car wash knows which fire department they should call if the place ever catches on fire, but they don't worry about it a lot because, well, it's a car wash. 

When business is slow, they sit on the bench out front, watch cars drive from Carrboro into Chapel Hill and vice versa, though they're never really sure when the car has actually made the transition ("Reckon that red Chevy is in Chapel Hill, yet? How 'bout that blue hybrid?"), and cogitate on the fire department question.

Anyway, this family I met raises chickens in their backyard ― it's a "thang" over there in Carrboro. The town council approved it. 

Carrboro is serious about raising chickens. Every year they have a big parade and select a Pullet Laureate.

You can't raise chickens in Chapel Hill. In fact, if it isn't free range and certifiably organic, you're not even supposed to eat one here. That's why we eat in Carrboro a lot. People eat fried chicken over there every day of the week and never ask to see the chicken's papers.

Back to my story, though, this family I met realized that when school starts they will need help with the chickens, so they were looking around for someone to come by once or twice a day and check to see that they have plenty of feed and water. A family from Chechnya had recently moved into the neighborhood and they have a 15-year old son who said he'd love a part-time job. They hired the kid on the spot and now claim to be the only family in North Carolina with a Chechen chicken checker.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jake and Dinah

My grandfather loved fiercely.

Being loved fiercely is a blessing and a curse. It brings tremendous comfort and security and, at times, it smothers until you push back, fiercely, and scream, if only in your head.

Grandpa ran a sawmill in my earliest memories. He picked me up on his way to work many mornings and I would spend much of the day playing in the woods or meeting workers like "Uncle Albert", who apparently had no last name and was probably someone's uncle, though not mine.

Uncle Albert ran the mill, a giant, spinning saw blade taller than me at age five and rotated by a strap looped around the blade axle at one end and the power take-off of a regular farm tractor at the other. I was too young to notice the make of the tractor, but it was red, so I'm guessing maybe it was an International Harvester Farmall.

I think some Massey-Fergusons were red, too, so maybe it wasn't a Farmall. Theoretically, someone might have painted any brand tractor red, but painting a tractor is not something that would ever occur to most country folk. The tractor they used to pull logs was a gray Ford. That, I remember.

A saw mill smells like fresh cut wood, but also like tractor exhaust, and the gasoline and oil from large chain saws and sweat. Mostly, saw mills are loud. When the saw is not cutting, there is the ever-present sound of a tractor running nearby and the sound of chain saws cutting trees in the woods and occasionally the crack of a tree trunk, like a rifle shot, as it breaks off and hinges to the ground. All of this is drowned out by the high-pitched squeal of the saw when a log is being cut.
You will have no doubt noticed that tree trunks are round and boards are rectangular. Trimming one into the other leaves behind scraps called "slabs". Grandpa's saw mill had enormous piles of slabs (enormous at least to a five-year old) and I often sat on them to watch the show.

My Dad and two uncles worked at the mill from time to time. Grandpa had the Ford tractor to pull felled trees from the woods to the mill but he used a mule named Old George to pull logs from places where the tractor couldn't go. They’d hook George to the log and follow along beside it holding long, leather traces and yelling “gee” and “haw” to guide the mule right and left.

(I once asked a country boy how he got the bruise on his head and he responded, “I gee’d when I should'a hawed.”)

One might imagine that having a five-year old wander around a saw mill with giant saw blades, tractors, mules, chain saws galore and falling trees would be dangerous, and it was, but not more so than riding around in my grandfather's white Rambler, standing unconstrained by seat belts next to him on the front bench seat, my left arm around his shoulder and sucking on my right thumb as we drove down mostly unpaved roads.

The car rides weren't as dangerous as they might sound. We didn't have child car seats, seat belts or air bags, but every time his foot touched the brake, his right arm flew up to stop me from falling forward. Plus, I had my arm around his neck. I doubt I have ever, in my life, felt more safe.

One of the dirt roads we drove a lot was Niles Row Road from the mill into Dawson. Nearing the paved road was the sharpest S-curve I have ever known, running up one of the steepest hills I have ever driven. It straightened and leveled off after only fifty or sixty feet, but it was one of those hills that required shifting the three-speed column shifter into first gear and climbing slowly, while visibility was limited to about a car length by the S-curve.

Standing in the middle of the front bench seat, for me it was the fun part of the drive. Unfortunately, Grandpa's log trucks had to take the same curve and hill to get the cut timbers to the lumber dealer in Dawson.

One day, my Dad drove a load of lumber into town. The old truck had been overloaded a bit and the timbers hung too far off the back, balancing most of the load's weight behind the rear wheels. As Dad started creeping up the steep incline in first gear, the front wheels of the truck slowly rose into the air until the trailing end of the timbers rested on the ground behind the truck like a fat kid had just hopped on the other end of a seesaw. 

Someone got word to my grandfather back at the mill and he drove to the curve to assess the damage. The truck sat at the bottom of the hill with both front wheels three feet off the ground and its grill pointing to the sky.

Dad climbed down from the cab and approached his father-in-law with a sheepish look on his face.

Grandpa just looked at the scene and began to laugh.

I guess because I was the first grandchild, I spent more time with my grandparents than my own parents growing up, even through high school. The concepts of parents and grandparents are intertwined and inseparable in my mind to this day. It isn't something I've ever felt a need to untangle.

Years after the sawmill was shut down and Grandpa became a high school teacher and basketball coach, he planted a garden where the mill once stood. Off to the side at the edge of the woods, I could still see pieces of the old mill and rotting slab piles when I went with him to plant or harvest.

He decided to build a cabin on Niles Row Road and the old dirt track that used to lead out to the mill now connected the cabin with his garden. Niles Row was covered with the shacks of dirt-poor farmers, all of whom Grandpa knew by name. When he moved to town to teach, one of them kept Old George for him.

Some of his friends in town tried to talk him out of building out there.

"That's a nice piece of land," they'd say, "but I wouldn't want to drive past all those shacks every day to get to it."

"I know exactly what you mean," he'd tell them. "I often think how much better Dawson would look if I didn't have to drive by those shacks every day to get to town."

It took many years to complete the cabin. After the concrete block foundation was built, Grandpa drove me out to see it. He lifted me up so I could walk all around the top of the block wall and he explained where the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room would be. I was too young to envision what he described, but it was fun to balance on the wall with him standing next to me in case I fell (he would always be standing next to me in case I fell). What I remember most is the distinctive smell of new concrete blocks and cement.

About that time, grandpa bought two bird dog pups, Jake and a bitch named Dinah, from the same litter. Dinah disappears in my memory and I have no idea what became of her, but she wasn't around long. Perhaps she ran off, or was hit by a car, but I prefer to think Grandpa gave her away.

Jake was acquired for the purpose of becoming a quail hunting dog. Grandpa loved to hunt quail, but Bobwhite quail were on the wane in Kentucky. They had expanded their range after several warm winters, but the cold finally got them. They can't scratch through snow to find food. The call of a Bobwhite quail is burned into the memory of my childhood.

Dinah was almost solid white but Jake had typical bird dog markings and that typical goofy bird dog personalty. Instead of wagging his tail, he wagged the entire rear half of his body. When we'd go on walks, Jake would stay within sight but run constantly in giant circles to nowhere in particular.

Nonetheless, Jake made a great pet and my grandfather loved him fiercely, as he did everyone in his life. After the cabin was finished (well, mostly finished, aluminum siding didn't cover the tar paper exterior for a couple more years and hardwood floors didn't cover the half-inch gaps in the plank subfloor for a while), Jake would lie on the cabin floor in front of the fireplace on cold nights, though he was mostly an outdoor dog.

When you love someone fiercely, I suppose being over-protective is part of the deal. As I grew, Grandpa worried when I went fishing or swimming. Lord knows I didn't dare tell him I sometimes borrowed Billy's Honda motorcycle to cruise around town.

After I had married and moved away, I flew from Washington to Ocean City in a friend's small plane for a day at the beach. I don't know how he found out about it, but the next time we visited the first thing he said to me was, "Son, I'd appreciate it if you'd stay out of small planes."

(He always called me "son", so I guess maybe the relationship was a bit tangled for him, too.)

Sometimes the cautions made me want to scream. Not that they weren't warranted, mind you.

He taught at my high school, so Grandpa and I went home together every day for lunch. One snowy day as we got up from the table and headed back to school, he warned me that the back stoop was covered with ice. “Careful on those steps, they’re slippery.”

I shook my head and rolled my eyes.

 “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I never fall.”

I walked out the back door and immediately fell hard on the concrete, ripping my pants leg and cutting my shin.

“You’d better clean that up and change pants,” he told me calmly, but I was too mad at myself for that.

“I’m fine,” I insisted and I went back to school with a big tear in the front leg of my trousers, blood covering the tear, and a bigger tear in my ego. For the rest of his life, any time he cautioned me against something and I assured him that I would be OK, he’d shrug and say, “I never fall."

He fretted when I graduated from college because I didn't stay and get my masters degree. He was the first college graduate in our family and the first to earn his Masters. He worried that once I started working, I wouldn't return to school. I promised him that I would get mine as soon as possible and I did, though not for ten years.

Grandpa would wake up several times in the night and walk around the house making sure that the lights were still off and the doors all locked from when he had last checked a couple of hours earlier. He was particularly careful to check that the steam iron hadn't replugged itself into the wall. Sometimes he'd wake me tucking in the covers around me because I had thrown them off in my sleep. And that was in high school.

It didn't seem to matter that I had kicked them off because I was hot.

When I visited from college four hours away, he insisted that I call the instant I was back on campus to let him know I had arrived safely. Once I forgot and received a frantic phone call several hours later. "I've been worried sick," he'd tell me.

When Grandpa moved away from Dawson, he didn't have a place to keep Jake. His best friend and cousin, Thomas, agreed to take care of the dog.

Two years later, Grandpa decided he couldn't be away from Jake any longer. He brought Jake home and attached a leash to a dog run in the back yard. We didn't have a pen and he was afraid that Jake, unaccustomed to living in town, might run into traffic.

Jake, the bird dog that never had the chance to live up to that role, was a great pet but a terrible town dog. He dug huge holes, a foot and more deep, all over the backyard under his run. Still, Grandpa loved that dog and when he wasn't walking him, he'd sit in the chair at the end of the kitchen table and stare out the window into the backyard to watch Jake.

My grandfather bought a croquet set and my friends went on a binge. Momentarily distracted from the basketball goal at the end of our driveway where we usually lived morning, noon and night, we played croquet every day for a month or so that summer.

I grew quite angry with my friend, neighbor and classmate, Paul, over those games, probably because he always beat me, but one day I devised a plan to get even. I went to Jake's deepest hole and dug it a little deeper, then dug a tunnel sideways from the bottom. The next time I got a chance to "send" Paul's croquet ball, I aimed for the hole. The ball dropped down it and along the tunnel, completely out of sight.

I began laughing and all my friends came over to stare down into the miniature abyss. To my dismay, Paul began laughing, too.

"Why are you laughing," I asked. "How are you going to get your ball out of that?"

"I don't have to," he explained. "It's your croquet set."

As fall approached, Grandpa sat in his familiar dining room table chair, staring out the back window at Jake, and wondering how he would deal with the coming cooler nights of fall. This shouldn't have been a major problem for Jake, who had always been an outdoor dog, but Grandpa decided to buy a doghouse.

Not just any doghouse would be good enough for Jake, so Grandpa asked someone at the local lumber company to build him one. It was the nicest doghouse I have ever seen.

Grandpa insisted that it be insulated and the outside and inside were covered with a seamless exterior paneling like Masonite.  It had a perfectly-fitted door that was hinged at the top.

Jake would only sleep in that doghouse one night.

Grandpa sat at the window the next morning and noticed that his bird dog hadn't come out of the doghouse. He began to worry, so we walked out to the house, calling to Jake.

That perfectly crafted doghouse had been built airtight, unintentionally, of course.

Maybe the hinged door had stuck closed and Jake couldn't get air. Or maybe Jake had just fallen asleep and didn’t wake up.

----------------------------

Tractor-driven Sawmill Video

Friday, August 23, 2013

I'd Walk a Mile for Good Barbecue

Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, NC gets rave reviews and when Garden & Gun, my  favorite magazine, recently called it one of the best in the South, I decided I had to  find the answer to that age-old Southerner's quandary: Is any pulled pork barbecue worth driving an hour out of your way for?

You may have missed Ayden, NC on previous trips. It's on the way to. . .well, nowhere, really. I love the South and I like driving down two lane blacktop roads through Andy Griffith country, so driving an hour out of my way on a recent trip from Chapel Hill to Nags Head wasn't what I'd call a hardship. 

I could forgive someone with a more pressing schedule for wondering what could possibly be worth the fuss, though. 

Ayden is remote. It's 11 miles from nowhere. (Greenville.)

We pulled up to one of the silliest looking buildings in the South (no small hurdle), adorned by an inexplicable fake dome and absent, oddly enough, any sort of skylight. 

We counted 28 cars in the parking lot at lunchtime, which we estimated to be about half the population of Ayden.

Except they weren't all cars. Most were pickup trucks. 

And they weren't all from Ayden.

There was a long line so we struck up a conversation with an elderly lady standing behind us. She told us she had been eating at Skylight for over 35 years.

"So, you live around her, I suppose?" I asked.

"No," she replied, "I live over in Edenton."

"We're headed that way. It's quite a haul from here, isn't it?" I asked.

"About an hour and a half," she informed us.

OK, so Starlight has at least one customer who has been driving an hour and a half each way for 35 years. That's encouraging.

"What's good?" my wife asked as we listened to the cook chop pork barbecue into tiny pieces with a large clever. "How are the ribs?"

"Well, they're wonderful," the lady answered as she craned her neck to see back into the small kitchen, "but I don't see any today."

And that may be the first important thing to know about Skylight if you're visiting from afar. Ribs and chicken are on the menu, but are not always available, and sometimes they run out of whatever they do have.

Sort of reminds me of the lunch bucket my grandmother fixed my grandfather each day when he worked in the mines. He didn't open it up at noon and ask, "What would I like today?"

He ate what was in the damned bucket.

I heard a lady yelling into her elderly husband's ear over and over, "They don't have chicken today."

"What???"

"THEY DON'T HAVE CHICKEN TODAY!"

"What???"

I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw, the only side available. The cole slaw was a little sweet for my taste, but good.

My wife ordered the pulled pork plate which came with something called cornbread and cole slaw. In other words, they substitute cornbread for a bun.

The barbecue was  excellent. Three squirt bottles adorned each table. One held a tomato-based sauce, one held eastern NC-style vinegar sauce, and one was stuffed with small, hot peppers soaking in vinegar. I grabbed that one and enjoyed the spicy, hot vinegar taste. Besides, the little peppers crowded into the transparent squirt bottle were kinda cute.

I've never tasted anything like what they called cornbread. It was more the consistency of a brownie than cake and the top and bottom were crisp and crunchy. It tasted like fried corn mush and, while my words may not be doing it justice, it was delicious. It just didn't taste like any cornbread I've ever eaten.

As I looked around the crowded room, I noticed that nearly every patron swatted at flies while he or she ate. It didn't add to the experience but it did sort of authenticate it.

Skylight has been in business since 1946 and from the looks of its weekday lunch crowd, it isn't going away soon. They brag that they still cook with wood. Cooking barbecue with wood is a dying technique due to insurance problems. (Allen's Barbecue in Chapel Hill uses wood and it seems like they burn down a couple of times a year.) In all honesty, I cannot tell the difference between wood fires and electric and I eat a lot of barbecue. It's one of the reasons I retired in North Carolina.

The pulled pork barbecue is outstanding. I haven't had better eastern NC-style barbecue anywhere. . . but I've had barbecue that's as good. If I lived near Ayden or passed through regularly, I'd eat there a lot. 

But would I drive an hour out of my way for great barbecue? 

Fortunately, I live in North Carolina, so I don't have to.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hey Babe, Take a Walk on the Wet Side


I had planned to take a walk this evening, maybe into town, but then this rain blew in as we were eating dinner. (It rains at least once a day in Chapel Hill this summer.) 

That made me want to do it even more.

I love to walk in the rain. Here's why.

10. I like when my wife looks at me before I leave and says, “Have you lost your mind?”

9. I like when I come home wet and my wife says, “You’ve lost your mind.”  (I love it when we settle issues.)

8. The rain reminds me of a thousand great rain songs. Like Willie singing Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain, Credence singing Who’ll Stop the Rain, Elvis doing Kentucky Rain and one of my all-time favorites, Eric Clapton.





I love that college kids downtown are asking, "Who's the old guy walking in the rain, playing air guitar and singing Let it Rain?"

7. It’s easier to get a table.






6. Headlights look cool in the rain.



5. Tail lights look even cooler.



4. I love the sound of car tires swishing as they go by.





3. The sidewalks aren’t crowded, so you don't bump into people when they pass.



2. I get to wear my rain hat.


1. Nothing smells better than rain.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Too Happy? Take Two of These


It's Sunday and when I took my morning walk to downtown Chapel Hill this morning an old Kris Kristofferson song, Sunday Morning Coming Down, stuck in my head. If you remember the lyrics, you won’t find that surprising. Maybe it was that line about the “Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken”. This is the South, after all, and Lord knows someone is always fryin’ something.

Heck, over at Mama Dip’s Country Cooking they deep-fry the napkins.

Anyway, I got to thinking about songs that people should listen to when they find themselves feeling too happy.

See, I walk a lot and to paraphrase A. A. Milne, sometimes I walks and thinks, and sometimes I just walks.

Back to Kris, though, this might be the most depressing song ever written; yet, it sticks in my head. Do I like it? Don’t know, but I’ve been singing it in my head all morning. (I sound a lot like Kristofferson in there.)

There ain’t nothing short of dyin’ that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of a sleepin’ city sidewalk with Sunday morning coming down.

Yeah, if I were feeling manic, I could probably stabilize my mood by listening to that.

I heard Kristofferson do the song in concert. In the middle of the tune, he stopped singing and said, “Kinda makes you wanna get up and dance in the aisle, don’t it?”

It don’t.

This week, a friend on FaceBook mentioned what an awesome song Dan Fogelberg’s Same Old Lang Syne is. It is awesome. I loved to play it on my guitar until I noticed that I always seemed to want to jump off a bridge after I did.

It tails off with a guitar solo of Auld Lang Syne. Taps would’ve worked equally well.

I worked with a young lady named Carla years ago and I remember something she said when several of us got together for a beer after work. She said, “I was feeling depressed last week so I went to a record store and bought a Dan Fogelberg album. Never. Do. That.

She got a round of amen’s.

We went to have ourselves a drink or two, but couldn't find an open bar. We bought a six-pack at the liquor store and we drank it in her car.

If there is a more depressing scene for two old lovers having a drink together and reminiscing, I’m sure Dan would’ve found it.

I’ve always thought Janis Ian’s Seventeen, and in fact the entire Between the Lines album, could bring Betty Boop down. It’s a pretty catchy tune, though, and I’d love it were it not for the lyrics. Truth is, I love it with the lyrics.

Besides, if your parents named you Janis Eddy Fink, you’d change it and find yourself writing lyrics like, “I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens”, too.

If I were super-manic and looking for a natural way to dampen my mood, I have always thought that listening to Seventeen and Same Auld Lang Syne back to back would do the trick. I would worry about an overdose, though. 

They should come with warning labels. “Same Auld Lang Syne: Do not take with Seventeen. If you have suicidal thoughts, stop listening and call your doctor.”

There’s no shortage of competition, though. One of my favorite John Lennon songs, Imagine, posits that if we just have a fertile enough imagination, we can envision a world that doesn’t suck. Imagine wins polls for best rock song ever.

My favorite song ever is Fire and Rain. Nothing I’d rather hear. Nothing I’d rather play. J.T created the genre of acoustic singer-songwriters.

But it’s a recovery song. About heroin.  You better look down upon me Jesus, you gotta help me make a stand. Just got to see me through another day. My body’s aching and my time is at hand. I won’t make it any other way.

Would it be my favorite song if I had understood the lyrics the first four hundred times I heard them? Probably. It’s a hell of a song.

Gordon Lightfoot is another of my favorites, but The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald just relentlessly beats the joy out of you, verse after verse. And it’s not like you can’t see how it’s all going to end.

It can’t hold a candle to Gordy's  Circle of Steel, though. A child is born to a welfare case where the rats run around like they own the place. And it goes downhill from there. At Christmas, no less.

One of the greatest hits of the Beatles? Yesterday. And because the lyrics might not totally rip your heart out, George Martin added that damned cello. As a result, Guinness World Records has named "Yesterday" the most recorded song in history.

I wish I could figure out why we love depressing songs so much. I have every song mentioned above. On vinyl. And most on CD, too.

But I can’t figure it out, and my brain is getting tired.

Time to just walks for a while.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation


About 1.2 million years ago, around the time I graduated high school, a section of North America about the size of Ohio and located around the Four Corners (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah) was uplifted tens of thousands of feet. It’s known as the Colorado Plateau and its southern face is the red cliffs seen around Sedona, Arizona. This uplift is the reason the Grand Canyon and several other national parks in the region exist.
There is no other place like it in the world.
Over the last 10 days, we put 1,981 miles on our rental car.
We flew to Phoenix and then drove to Sedona, Flagstaff, Monument Valley, Cortez, CO, Moab, UT, Torrey, UT, then back to Arizona and Page, Flagstaff and Sedona again, then to tiny Jerome and back to Phoenix (but not to Winslow).
I wanted to detour to Winslow on the drive from Page to Flagstaff to have my picture taken standing on a corner, but my wife said she thought that was dumb.
We went from 425 feet of elevation in Chapel Hill to 2,100 feet in Phoenix to nearly ten grand near Boulder, UT. (Nope, I didn’t know there was a Boulder in UT ‘til this week, either. I think the population is like, 12.)
I have no idea what the elevation of Winslow is.
I don’t know exactly how many photos I took, but it seems to be more than 700. Of course, many of those are bracketed shots that I will combine into single HDR photos when I get home, so I'll guess maybe 600. (If you're interested, there are far fewer than the full 700 at HighSW.tumblr.com.)
We learned that Utah skimps on guard rails and oxygen (above 7,000 feet, or so), and offers an absurd over-abundance of privacy. Parts of Arizona are hot as hell in June, though we already knew that, and other parts, like Flagstaff, are delightful.
We loved the southwest corner of Colorado, but we were only in New Mexico for a few minutes and only because we parked in the southeast corner of the parking lot at the Four Corners Monument.
Vicki agreed with my 10-minute detour request to the Four Corners monument (but not to Winslow). I just couldn’t see being so close and not getting a look.
We visited Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park (NP), Monument Valley, Mesa Verde NP, Canyonlands Needles NP, Arches NP, Dead Horse Canyon State Park, Canyonlands Islands in the Sky NP, and Bryce Canyon NP (but not Winslow).
We even stopped twice in Tuba City, on the border of the Navajo and Hopi nations. The Tuuvi Cafe there has great Navajo fry bread.
My vote for Most Breathtaking and Can’t Be Missed would be the Grand Canyon. Most Fun goes to Arches NP and the Most Beautiful award goes to Bryce Canyon.
If I could only go back to one, it would be Bryce Canyon. At the first six overlooks at the Grand Canyon, you think you’ve spoken with God, but by the seventh, you’re like, “Yep. Grand Canyon. Still there.”
I learned that I really missed the Diamond Heels playing in their Regional and Super-Regional baseball tournaments while we were gone. I followed the games on Twitter, but coverage was so sparse I could only get updates when we passed through towns — and that ain’t often in the Southwest.
This photo of a trail at Bryce haunts me. Vicki and I walked five minutes down this trail and back on our way out of the park. I REALLY wanted to hike it.

It looks like promise. There’s some really good stuff beyond that peak in the distance where the trail disappears over the ridge.
This trip was on Vicki’s bucket list. I couldn’t even think of something to put on a bucket list. I’m glad she dragged me along. I may have enjoyed it more than she did.
Vicki brought me sudafed, Kleenex and naproxen when I developed a sinus infection and a few times I had to walk to the parking lot and bring the car back to the trail head when she looked like she couldn’t take another step.
But she climbed steep steps carved into rock and four ten-foot ladders to make it out of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, (I had to climb the ladders holding both our water bottles in my left hand) and she coached me through my fear of heights on the climb up to Delicate Arch.
I was so impressed.
And she didn’t complain once when I sang “Take It Easy” all the way from Page to Flagstaff.
Not much on the radio in Tuba City.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Kentuckian's View of North Carolina


My daughter-in-law recently posted 38 Signs You're From North Carolina. She's from NC, but I'm not. I grew up in Kentucky and then spent my adult life in Northern Virgina. I retired to Chapel Hill in 2005, though, and thought I should give you an outsider's perspective on the "38 Signs".

Here goes.

You don't have to be from Carolina to hate Duke.

Cheerwine isn't very good, but it's cute and sometimes fun.

There is no argument over barbecue. Western Carolina style is very, very good. But Eastern style is better.

I've been to more Asheville brew pubs than a lot of Ashevillians, and yes, it's Beer City, USA. If you haven't tried Wedge Brewing's Golem, you've been sadly deprived. Keep Asheville weird, but the entire state of North Carolina is covered with great microbreweries.

"Y'all" is not grammatically correct, but no one from the South gives a damn and no one from the north matters. (Yes, the capitalization is intentional.)

Tea is not always better sweetened, unless you're eating barbecue or fried chicken.

Not interested in NASCAR or hockey. I grew up in the South before ice. (Well, before air conditioning, anyway.)

Of course, I'd live off Bojangles biscuits. You would, too, if you tried one.

App-a-LATCH-un or App-a-LAY-shun? I know how to pronounce Appalachian State correctly.

It's "App State".

That's like asking whether the capital of Kentucky is pronounced "Louavull" or "Louie-ville".

It's Frankfort.

Grits and biscuits are staples? Duh.

Ohio is not the birthplace of aviation. Kitty Hawk, NC is. Then again, Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois.

I didn't watch the ACC Tournament in class, but we did get a week off to go to the Kentucky State High School Basketball Tournament. The Kentucky Education Association pretended to have teachers meetings that same week next door in Louisville to justify closing schools. . . but we all knew.

Love me some Bluegrass music. If there's a heaven and The Seldom Scene won't be there, I don't wanna go.

I suppose I brag about the NC music scene, but when you've got James Taylor, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Earl Scruggs, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Clay Aiken, Old Crow Medicine Show and the like, it's more fact than bragging.

I love The Lost Colony and Blackbeard. I jumped off Jockey's Ridge a million times before I ever moved to NC.

I don't know anyone who has tipped a cow or anyone who has not tipped a waitress.

I ate Krispy Kreme doughnuts long before they were trendy. Nowadays, I just don't need the extra calories. Still, I'm glad they opened one on Franklin Street. Just walking past the sign makes me happy.

Not interested in the Charlotte Hornets, but then I'm not interested in the NBA until late in the playoffs. Maybe they'll be there one day.

Defend North Carolina even when the state disappoints me? I probably would if we were chatting in person, but privately it pains me to see the current state legislature send the state back to 1950.

Lived through a couple of hurricanes.

And Wagon Wheel?

One helluva song.



Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Family Plot

“This is the Jones cemetery,” the old lady sitting in the chair to my left says. “You know that, right?”

Her look is stern and she says “Jones” with much drama.

I hadn’t noticed her until she spoke.

My wife and I drove the back roads of Casey County, Kentucky in her father’s pickup truck looking for a very old family plot called the Cochran Cemetery. We had come to celebrate her Dad’s 95th birthday this May and she wanted to spend some time searching for an ancient family plot whose precise location she had narrowed through research to an area about the size of two counties.

It was a fool’s errand.

Nonetheless, we spent a beautiful spring morning, with the sun finally shining after days of rain and the fields blooming, driving narrow paved roads and scanning both sides of the road for 150-year old headstones.

Just as we had given up on finding this proverbial needle, I noticed a hilltop with four large shade trees in the middle of mowed pastureland. The wire fence and gate around a small area in the middle of fields of cattle is a tattletale sign of a family plot and then I noticed the outline of a single headstone against the blue sky.


Excited, we drove to a nearby farmhouse. The farmer saw us in the driveway and came out to meet me at the end of his sidewalk. I asked if that might be the Cochran Cemetery on this hill.

“No, sir,” he replied. “That’s the Jones Cemetery.”

He went on to explain that he didn’t own the land but the man who does doesn’t mind visitors, so long as they close the gates behind them.

“Even the gate around the little cemetery plot, please, because the horses. . .”

“Yes, sir,” I assured him. “I grew up on a farm.”

“Then you know,” he said with the wave of a hand and he walked back inside.

There was no gate in sight and the hillside up to the cemetery was steep. I told my wife she could wait at the bottom and I’d check it out. I climbed the fence and walked through blooming red top grass to the summit.

No signs of a Cochran headstone. I walked back down the hill, climbed the fence and got back into the small pickup truck cab with my wife and her father.

“No Cochrans,” I told them, “but I sure wouldn’t mind being buried up there one day.”

“You’d wanna be buried with strangers?” my father-in-law asked incredulously.

“Would I care if I was dead? Besides, you can see beautiful farmland and woods in all directions from up there. There are four large shade trees and a nice breeze that you don’t get down here.”

But then, Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, popped into my head.

In Act III, a bunch of people sitting in chairs in a graveyard, motionless and emotionless, carry on a quiet conversation. We soon realize that they are the permanent residents of the family cemetery. Their eyes are focused far away and they never change their stare.

In my mind, I sit in a chair in the Jones Cemetery and stare at the verdant pastures and tree-covered hillsides circling the horizon. I see the red top grass growing on the hillside just below me and notice yellow fields of blooming sweet clover in the distance, but the predominant color is green.

I notice the breeze.

I notice the breeze blowing through my hair.

I notice that I have hair and I wonder what that’s all about. (A lot of good it does me now.)

My reverie is broken when the woman in the chair to my left speaks. She sits in front of a weathered headstone that is barely legible. I can just make out  “Jones, B. 1750, D. 1801.” I can’t make out a given name. She has the leathery face of a pioneer. Her face is motionless but somehow conveys annoyance.

“This is the Jones cemetery,” she says without diverting her stare from the distant hills.

“You know that, right?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“But you’re not a Jones.”

“Nope,” I answer.

“Not even married to a Jones?” she continues, though I’m sure she knows the answer.

“I knew a Jones kid in high school,” I say.

She ignores me.

“This is the Jones cemetery. You don’t belong here. You’re not family. You’re intruding,” she insists.

“Well, not much I can do about that now,” I say matter-of-factly.

“You should’ve thought of that before you told them to bury you here. We don’t want you here. No one is going to speak to you.”

You’re speaking to me,” I point out, because being a smart-ass worked so well for me when I was alive. Probably why two people showed up at my funeral. One of them was lost and asking for directions.

She ignores me again and continues to stare at the hills in the distance, but I see just the slightest trace of a smirk cross her face before she fades into the background.

I sense others present, but none speaks so I return to my view.

There’s a dog in a pen at the farmer’s house below, where I stopped that day to ask if this was the Cochran cemetery. He barks frequently (the dog, not the farmer), but isn’t otherwise interesting.

I see two pickups pass on the road below all day. Then a John Deere tractor trudges by, more interesting because it is slower than a truck and stays in view much longer and because I can see its driver more clearly. The farmer takes off his cap to wipe the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, keeping one eye on the road ahead, and then stretches the cap back on and continues his journey.

I watch the sun set above the hills to the west and it sets the sky ablaze.

The night sky is clear and filled with stars. I see the Milky Way band across the center of the sky. It’s dark here in the countryside and it seems I can see every star in the galaxy.

We don’t sleep anymore, or perhaps we sleep all the time; the distinction is meaningless.

Eventually, though, the sun begins to rise in the east and my chair faces it without having had to move. It is a glorious sunrise. I hear the bells from the Hustonville Christian Church chime a hymn that I don’t recognize.

It’s then that I notice the lady in the chair to my left again.

“This is the Jones cemetery,” she says sternly.

“You know that, right?”


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Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 technology company. Since retiring in 2005, he has researched and published papers on retirement finance, spoken at retirement industry conferences and events, and regularly posted on retirement finance issues at his blog, The Retirement Cafe. He is currently a Thought Leader at APViewpoint, Advisor Perspectives' online community of  investment advisors and financial planners. He provides retirement planning advice as a fee-only financial planner.

Mr. Cotton holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.

He and his family currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write.

Dirk holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.  He attended high school in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

email: JDCPlanning@gmail.com