Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter Seven

"To be, or not to be..."


Of all of Life's questions, that's one of 'em.  Interesting how so many two-leggeds are focused on 'doing' things in life, as if goals and degrees matter a hill of beans.  We are human 'beings', not human 'doings'.

And, yes, Life is a stage, and there is no dress rehearsal.  It's the real deal, even for those that wish to bury their head in the sand and deny it.  Good ol' Willie Shakespeare was wiser than most of us have any idea.  Far wiser.

Can't say for sure when the 'acting' bug hit me, though opportunities began exploding in the early 90s.  However, I'd always been one to be on stage (literally and figuratively), doing something in a 'Ta-daaah!' manner, with my earliest recollection going back to Kindergarten.

Memories are scant going back that far, but I do remember the Christmas program my Kindergarten class put on for the rest of the elementary school.  Well, I don't even remember the program, except for my 'shining' part: I was Rudolph.  Complete with a brown turtleneck and jeans, cowboy boots, a red ball somehow pasted to my nose, and a barrette-style antler rack, I was the bomb.

The closing number was everyone on stage singing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer", with "Reindeer Bob" galloping like a horse in an oval in the middle of the stage.  At some point, somehow, some way, my beloved cowboy boots betrayed me as I slipped and went crashing to the floor on a turn.  Big-time.  I do remember my nose coming off and rolling off the front of the stage, and the raucous laughter coming from pretty much everywhere, but that's it. I have a propensity to make a splash of one sort or another whenever I do something new.  Welcome to my world.

Insofar as theater work, I never did much of it.  The time constraints are sizable, as most nights need to be free, as well as weekends for performances.  Great training ground, granted, but it doesn't pay bills, not in community theater.  My stage 'curtain call' was in the 90s when I ended with my signature performance as Harold Hill in "The Music Man", a thorough joy to perform.  I can still run through most of that most famous of patter songs 'Ya Got Trouble', which in the script was 4 pages long. 

It was no immediate step for me into the commercial and movie world.  And it began in an unusual way, via a 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood.  To get to that point, I have to back the bus up to a time where I needed to get reliable transportation for $2,500...so I naturally went with a sensible choice of a 1957 Chevy Model 210 4-door post...a basic family car that was a brilliant turquoise and white.  Dateline: the end of the 1980s.  Made as much sense as a snail investing in air brakes, it did.

But it was a wonderful daily driver, that classic beauty.  It had its original in-line 6 cylinder engine, completed with the 2-speed Powerglide transmission...hummed right along with nary an issue.  It accompanied me when I returned to Woodberry Forest for my second teaching stint there, making that gorgeous countryside all the more fun to drive. In so doing I would occasionally pass by a house that had this Caddy needing attention in its front yard, for sale.  The car, not the yard.  My curiosity got the best of me, so I sold the Chevy to get "The Beast". 

If you want to know the story behind that moniker, read Chapter (TBA).  Thanks to that metal monster, I ended up teaching myself how to restore a classic car, and returned it to it's gleaming white and chrome beauty, all 21 feet of it.  Easier said than done, of course, and took the better part of a year to do it...but typical of how I do most things, I taught myself how to do the work that needed to be done.

It was in the spring of 1990 when a radio spot called for Kennedy-era cars for an upcoming Orion Pictures movie "Love Field" with Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert (as I write this he's the spokesperson in the Allstate commercials).  After I sent pics of my '57 Caddy, I got a phone call to bring the car to Richmond for a look-over, and was asked to come in for a 'go-see' audition to be a background actor, assuming I looked the part of a 1963 vintage male.

Knowing my Howdy-Doody look would fit in with no hair trimming needed, I showed up that Saturday and, well, I was hooked.  I was immediately cast as a Secret Service agent, and though nothing more than a background extra, it was thrilling.  Heretofore I had not dabbled in any film, and this felt like the big leagues...even if Orion shelved the movie for 2 years due to bankruptcy concerns, before finally releasing the film in a low-key fashion December 1992.

My scenes took place in a little used area at the Richmond, VA airport, staged to stand in for Kennedy's arrival at Dallas' Love Field that day of the fateful limousine ride.  In fact, my Caddy was simply parked in the background, and earned three times as much as I did each day of work. While being on set was the most exciting, the endless hours of sitting in the hot extras holding tent waiting to be called in got real boring real fast.  As an actor later told me, he 'acts' for free...he considers his pay to be for all the tedium of waiting and remaining in your hotel room 'on hold' to be called in. There is only pocket money to be made as an extra, but the experience is necessary as one earns their 'wings'.  

The motherlode came in unexpectedly one day.  A Red Cross helicopter was landing at another nearby hangar, and made an approach over the set that was a bit too close and loud for comfort.  By close I mean close enough to stir up grit, pebbles, and small rocks, which proceeded to sandblast the classic cars.  Oh yeah.  Mine was not that valuable of a car, certainly compared to the all-original '63 Corvette split-window coupe next to me.  A rock went through his passenger vent window, and the owner was none too pleased.  My original windshield got lightly pitted, and since I did my own paint I knew I could give a quick recoat and be fine.  I didn't give it much of a second thought.

It was a couple of weeks later back at Woodberry, after my scenes were completed, that a letter from the movie's insurance company apologized for the man-made windstorm and asked me to list all damages and replacement costs.  For the classic cars, NOS or 'new old stock' doesn't come cheaply, so I listed my sandblasted concerns and got a paint estimate from a local shop.  No sooner could you say "We want to avoid lawsuits!" did a nice, big check come in the mail to cover my list, with nary a quibble.  That car earned significantly more than I did for my 'first time' in the movies.

It was about the same time the following year that the same person in charge of lining up classic cars was hired for yet another Kennedy-era film coming into town, this time ABC's "A Woman Named Jackie."  The extras-casting agent was also the same as the year before, so I was immediately asked to be Secret Service again...only this time I had some nice 'visible' scenes, one with Roma Downey (Jackie) and John-John as we were either walking to or leaving school.  I do remember during a break asking Ms. Downey how she liked her time in Richmond, to which she replied something to the effect of the 'damned heat and humidity' was intolerable.  She was spot-on.

By now I was really enjoying the movie thing.  For a screen actor, the holy grail is to be eligible for (and then be able to pay for) your SAG card (Screen Actors Guild).  If you are credited for saying one word on-camera, you become eligible...little did I know that in that scene I just described, someone later dubbed their voice in as me when I was off-camera, so I stayed officially in the 'featured extras' column.  C'est la guerre.  Still, it was a blast that summer.

It was during my summer scenes on set I saw an ad for actors to come audition at a local talent agency on Sunday afternoon, which fit in perfectly after a morning scene shot that day.  I knew that in acting, to get anywhere, you have to have an agent of sorts, and here was the perfectly timed opportunity.  When I met Liz and Billy at Uptown Talent in Richmond, the communally respectful bond was instantaneous.  Not only was I cast immediately for a print job the very next morning (THAT never happens), but it started what was a wonderful working relationship in the acting world for the time I was in the area.

Work started to come more regularly, though I had to fit it in with my teaching responsibilities at Woodberry.  I learned as I went along, becoming proficient in being a spokesperson, character actor, and all that comes with ads, movies, and training films.  My favorite area of work was on movies, hands down, and even though 'rejection' outweighs being chosen for a role by a gazillion to one, you go to auditions with the greatest of hopes and crossed fingers.  Too, you hope you don't look like the casting director's "ex"...

"Guarding Tess" (1994, with Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine) was filming in the DC/Baltimore area a few hours north.  My initial audition was in DC...what's interesting about such auditions is you spend hours driving back and forth, spend moolah parking in areas like DC, spend potentially an hour waiting for your audition to begin...and you're in and out with the casting director in 3 minutes.  It's that insane.

But I got the prized 'call-back' to go to Baltimore a couple of weeks later to read for director Hugh Wilson, which would be the setting for the final cut from a whittled down group.  I was up for one of the supporting roles to Cage as a Secret Service comrade (see a common thread here?), and this was basically my audition:

"Yes, ma'am.......yes, ma'am.....yes, ma'am....uh, no, ma'am....yes, ma'am...that's right, ma'am..."  I kid you not.  Subtle and simple.  You as an actor have no idea what they're really looking for, so you do what you should always do, which is be your genuine self.

And I got the role of "Lee Danielson".  This was it, the classic 'break' all actors dream about, and I can't begin to exclaim the sense of exultation I felt inside.  The only potentially complicating issue was that I had left Woodberry and was teaching at a middle school in Richmond, Virginia...and I was going to have to ask off for at least two months to go stay in Baltimore while we filmed.  It was not the easiest thing to do, but the school acquiesced and gave me their good graces.

I remember I was teaching science to my class of 7th grade girls when the phone rang in my office.  It was agent Billy, and he didn't sound so good.  He told me to sit down.  With only 24 hours before the signing of the holy grail itself, the 'deal memo', I was being replaced by their first pick, an actor previously unavailable as he was on a Russian movie set.  David Graf is best known as "Tackleberry" in the Police Academy movies, the large gun-loving cadet that didn't take gruff from anyone.  Alas, his role wrapped early; he was signed, and I was bumped.

(I have to insert here that as I went to his bio page, I read where he died back in 2001 from a fatal heart attack 8 days before his 51st birthday.  Making me swallow hard this morning as I tweak things in this chapter...

From such a joyous high to such a despairing low I went in a flash.  I think taking something like that is all the harder when it slips through your fingers and there is nothing you can do about it.  The good news is that the director (Hugh Wilson) still wanted to keep me on the set, as scripts are sometimes adjusted as the project gets underway.  I didn't have an immediate role, but was written in as "Schaeffer's Assistant", "Schaeffer" (Jim Rebhorn) being the FBI head that flew in to take over after "Tess" was kidnapped.

I still got my hotel apartment for a month and a half...got to sit around the table for the reading of the script, two chairs down from Shirley MacLaine.  I got to be decent friends with the other actors, and if there is one question people always ask it's, "Did you get Nicholas Cage's autograph?".  When you're in a position like mine was, you're one of 'them' and you would never ask for an autograph.  I'm content enough that I got to sit in an RV with him and one other actor, having a few beers and just talking regular life 'stuff' during downtime on a night shoot in the Pennsylvania countryside.

But I got my SAG card, and after coming up with the $1,200 or whatever the 'initiation fee' was at the time, I was in like Flint (current initiation fees have now risen to ~$2,300).  As long as you pay the minimum yearly fee (which is something close to $130) and you abide by union rules, you retain your SAG card, a necessary item to even audition for some projects.  As I write this in North Carolina, the amount of union work is rather limited, with strong competition from other hungry actors hundreds of miles away. Not unlike a lottery, getting SAG roles.

I understood long ago I needed to develop income streams from various areas, as relying solely on acting work is an efficient way to starve.  Oh, there are waves where you are 'hot' and the coffers fill, but just as quickly, and more often, the tide goes out, and it becomes nigh impossible to develop a budget because you have no way of steadying or relying on any level of income.  Lest I forget, to pursue acting is to pursue rejection, which can get to you at low tide, especially.  Just comes with the territory.

One really fun 'experience' on the "Tess" set gleaned from a passing comment from Jim Rebhorn as a small group of us were being driven to set.  He mentioned that he'd forgotten to go get his per diem the other day and was going to go check on it when we got back.  I knew what per diem meant, but I had no idea how it related to a movie set.  Come to find out that even with all the provided lodging, transportation, and meals anytime, actors also get a daily spot of good ol' spending cash, then about $40-50/day.  When I went to the temporary set offices, the lady said, "We were wondering when you'd come by!" and proceeded to dole out almost $900 in cash that I'd not picked up in weeks.

(insert deer-in-the-headlights-look, here...)

(cue cricket chirps, too...)

It's at times like that you really have to be an actor and keep your composure and game-face on.  For many, money is something they're used to; for me, it was nothing short of manna from above.  With the hotel being but a few blocks from Baltimore's Inner Harbor and its plethora of specialty stores, I did something I had always wanted to do: I went window shopping with an 'attitude'.  While a bit risky to walk with such a wad of cash on me, I figured my somewhat youthful and large 6'-4" frame was good enough protection, and so I went looking.

For once, I had the power to buy just about anything I wanted, something to which I'd not treated myself before.  I'd see a nice watch...or a piece of art...or a fossil in a nature store...or a leather coat...it was like shopping for penny candy, really.  For those few hours, the world was my oyster store to peruse with confidence.

Only I didn't spend a penny, that day.  Not one.  The sheer joy was simply knowing that I could, had I chosen to.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter Six

"Headin' to the Hills"

"Study nature, love nature,
stay close to nature.
It will never fail you."

Frank Lloyd Wright

It was the summer after my 6th grade year that Dad accepted a new job up in Marion, North Carolina.  With his being a career textile executive, moves were anticipated every several years, but this was to a new company in a 'foreign' land.  North from Columbus, Georgia we went, into the Foothills and mountains of western NC, where not only the scenery but 'life' and dialect were, shall we say, unique.

My 7th grade year began in a brand new junior high school, West McDowell...the second in the county, if that gives you any idea of the rural nature of things.  Counterpart to East McDowell, if that gives you any idea of the creativity of the local school board for naming schools.  The quintessential 'life in the slow lane', it was.

You know how it is...entering the 'teen' world, new location, new friends, new everything.  But among my richest of memories were the adventures I shared with who became a dear friend, Thomas.  From here on out, this chapter has nothing to do with school; rather, it deals with our myriad adventures into the wilds of McDowell County, and a deepening appreciation for nature.

If the landscape were vastly different, you can imagine the dialect would be even more so.  "Mount'in talk" came with the territory, and Thomas had spent his whole life in it.  To this day, mom talks about the first time Thomas called the house and said, "Is Bob thar?"  Let's just say mom didn't readily find it comprehensible at first.  I took to it like a duck to water, I did, and to this day if I'm in the right setting I'll feel it slip right back in, like a comfortable tennis shoe.

Thomas and his family lived in a small, nearby community called Pleasant Garden, or PG for short.  His dad ran the Lake Tahoma steakhouse where Highway 81 broke north from Highway 70.  Across the street was the vintage mobile home that's been home to "Dot's Dario" for who knows how many decades, set at an angle to a good ol' drive-in theater.  Their house was just a few miles up 81, a most gorgeous drive any time of the year as it heads up into the mountains, past picturesque Lake Tahoma, and crossing under the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Roughly paralleling 81 was Buck Creek, not big enough for a canoe the whole way in low water, but big enough for some great fishing and hellacious tubing after heavy rains.  If you've never been tubing down a raging mountain creek, you are missing one of the most fun-filled times to be had for no money other than the cost of a used truck tire tube.  Our favorite run was to put in below the Lake Tahoma dam and tube down behind his house.  I have no idea how far it was, but it was an hours-filled adventure with occasional lazying stops.

I remember after just putting in that I got snagged on a large boulder in the middle of the raging creek.  It's not as easy as you think trying to get a solid footing on the slick algae-covered rocks, holding on to a large inner tube that the creek wanted so badly to take out of my grasp.  But with one big lunge I got onto that rock and looked for a good place to put back in.  I was not alone. 

Sometimes you just 'know' when someone is looking at you.  Or some thing. Yes, I love nature.  Yes, I respect all animals.  Yes, I prefer to keep twenty feet between myself and a snake, and the quickly calculated three feet wasn't gonna hack it.  Too, it's one of those situations I didn't feel compelled to sit and analyze, going through the mental catalog of species distribution.  I did what any of us would do: I screamed, grabbed the tube, and jumped like a jackrabbit back into the water. 

I have to say the most humorous, unsuspecting tubing situation happened just after a particularly fast set of rapids under a bridge, leading into a deep still area...at a small church...where they were having a traditional baptismal ceremony in the pool, complete with white robes.  So here come Thomas, myself, and another friend or two, hootin' and hollerin' coming through the rapids...only to have myriad pairs of serious eyes staring a hole through each of us.

What do you do?  What do you say?  We kept floating and gave a little wave with a sheepish 'hello!' and were glad to get around the next bend.  Part of me wanted to throw in a "Praise the Lord!" just for the heck of it, but it was such a surprise that I basically clammed up.  Probably a good thing.

Those same waters offered fun fishing with ultra-light gear.  Quarters were tight with all the streamside vegetation, so you would never cast a great distance.  You'd pick and choose good looking pools and structure, and occasionally deal with catching a squirrel (read 'bad cast' that ended up in a tree).  We rarely kept the fish, releasing them if at all possible.  The joy was in being in the great outdoors, wading through the waters, and jumping a mile in the air when a crawdad found the big hole in my right tennis shoe.

The better fishing holes were upstream from Thomas' house, and we often rode our bikes up Buck Creek Road to get to them in a more timely manner than hoofing it.  Before the road starts climbing, there are a couple of long, straight, flat stretches in the valley.  We'd have our fishing rod in one hand, a small tackle box in the other as we held the handlebars, lazily cruising in the sunshine, riding side by side and 'chewing the fat'.

Ever wonder how two ships can collide in the wide open sea in the middle of a sunny day?  That's always baffled me.  One day as we were riding on one of our finned forays, we were in the middle of the last straight stretch, with far away cars at either end heading towards us.  How we did it, I have no idea, but Thomas and I veered directly into each other and wrecked.  Right there in the middle of the road.

We weren't going fast enough to get hurt, outside of a few road scrapes that come with falling on asphalt at any speed.  Moving ourselves and our bikes off the road would have been easy enough...but we had a real pickle on our hands with little time to act.

It must be one of the natural laws that when a tackle box is dropped on a road, that all 47 pieces will spread themselves out as far and randomly as possible.  Entropy was alive and well as we rushed to pick up all we could, laughing hysterically at our predicament. I couldn't help sensing a glimpse of what road kill must feel like before acquiring that name.

We lived there only three years before the next move, three years of endless adventures.  It was the ensuing school year after I finished my 9th grade year that I was enrolled at Woodberry Forest School, another chapter in itself.  While it was tough getting used to life at a boarding school, pastoral rolling Virginia countryside surrounded that incredible campus...with all the memories from Marion reinventing themselves anew.  

When I'm not connected with nature, I'm simply miserable.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chapter Five

“When you least expect it…”


It pays to be prepared.  To be ready, for whatever comes your way.

However, there is nothing more frustrating than thinking you are prepared and ‘together’,  only to find out you were sorely mistaken.

It was back in the fall of 1996 when for the second consecutive year I was hired to emcee a traveling showcase for United Airlines and United Vacations.  Travel agents would be wined and dined at one of 6 venues spread across the U.S., and our troop of actors would do our thing, espousing scintillating vacation destinations.  I love ‘live’ emcee work, so I was fully in my Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch.

The shows provided a great opportunity to travel, though time for sight-seeing was rather limited.  Week One we had shows in New York and Washington, followed two weeks later by  shows in Chicago and Denver, followed in another two weeks with shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Whichever show came second in the week, you had a bit of free time there to explore and snoop around thanks to the travel scheduling.

During the last brace of western shows, my week’s layover was in Santa Monica, just blocks from the famed Santa Monica pier.  Given it was around the first of November, crowds were a non-issue and even some seasonal venues had closed until spring.  We arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, which provided a great opportunity to amble to the pier and stretch my legs.  A little window shopping is always good for the soul, too.

Santa Monica pier must be a sight in the full swing of summer…bit of a ghost town when I got there, though,  as I stood on those well-worn boards, soaking it all in.  I first noticed the paved “Boardwalk” bike path that I knew went for many miles, made famous in just about any west coast entertainment production.  I also noticed a small ice cream stand was open down below, deciding something chocolaty would hit the spot.

Six or seven people were in line with the same idea, as I got behind a couple and a young boy of maybe twelve years.  When he turned around, my jaw smacked the asphalt under my feet.

It was earlier that year in Richmond, Virginia that I had a bit part in the Sinbad movie “First Kid” filming nearby.  That boy was ‘the Kid’, Brock Pierce.  Right in front of me.  He and his mom immediately recognized me as well, so we had a wonderful  talk, almost forgetting about why we were there in the first place.

Small world, isn’t it.  

We soon parted ways with a handshake, and I returned to strolling around.  I don’t remember much else about the rest of the day…after you have such a highlighting ‘coincidence’ take place, you hit the rewind button and mull it over repeatedly.  (By the way, there are no coincidences).

My call time for the following day’s show was not until 5p, so that morning I had already planned to walk down to the other famous destination close by: Venice Beach.  Why I decided to lug my hefty bag of camera equipment I don’t know, except the realm of compact super-zooms were only in the minds of inventors back then.  

I was quite the sight, no doubt. Decided to forgo shaving until closer to showtime later in the afternoon.  I’d also saved my eyeballs from contac-fatigue until the show, sporting instead my glasses along with dapper flip-up shades.  If I’d had on black socks with the shorts and Hawaiian shirt, I’d have been selected for the cover of GQ, hands down.

Venice Beach is interesting to say the least.  Even with minimal foot traffic, there were the ever-present steroid-fed beefaloes pumping iron in the al fresco gym, though it was a little too cool for the bikini fashion show.  I was doing my usual window shopping and looking for photo ops, but pretty disappointed that nothing was really tripping my trigger.  

Figured I’d head over to the beach, which there is rather flatly expansive.  Even the surf was equally as bland.  I figured whattheheck and headed in that direction to take my shoes off, letting a little bit of California sand go between my toes.

It was no surprise the beach, too, was sparsely attended.  I headed down the paved path, ending at the boardwalk beside one of the many bike rental stands…without noticing the grizzled man leaning against the railing to the right.

Dressed in khakis and a khaki jacket, the older man hadn’t shaved in days, had a ball cap slung low on his head just above his Foster Grants, his ears populated with yellow Walkman earbuds.  I didn’t take note of any of that until he spoke.

“Hi.  Wanna go for a bike ride?”

Admittedly, not the kind of thing or situation you anticipate.  I turned to look at this man a mere 6 feet away.  His question hadn’t sunk into my brain very far so I could only feebly respond, “Excuse me?”

“Do you want to go for a bike ride?”

While his question was starting to sink in, it wasn’t making any sense.  Why would a complete stranger want to go for a bike ride?  That was fishy out of the gate.  Something about the man was a bit unusual, I’ll admit, so much so that I flipped up those dapper shades I mentioned earlier…and with a puzzled look on my countenance, I’m sure.

“You look a little bit like David Letterman…”

“I am.  Do you want to go for a bike ride?”

“Or you could be one of those flakes that takes advantage of tourists…”


If I weren’t already on my heels and not ‘getting’ any of this, now I really was fully stupefied.

For anyone that knows me, ‘speechless’ is an exceedingly rare condition.  And I was just that, suspended in an icy time capsule.  My mouth simply stopped working.

“FORGET IT!”   And with that he jerked his earbuds out and turned to walk away.  

I should have recognized that snaggle tooth.  I should have noticed the bicycle built for two with a wheelchair sidecar immediately behind him.  I might have raised an eyebrow at the large production van in the parking lot behind the scene, which concurrently began spilling out all kinds of camera equipment and hidden personnel.  It was David Letterman, alright.

Faster than you can say “uh…”  it was over.  A golden opportunity went wafting in the wind.  Wasted. Gone.  Had I been aware that David Letterman was in L.A. for the week, not in New York City, something might have clicked in my brain. 

Alas, the only thing that was clicking was the mental gas pump racking up the gallons of disappointment flooding my every pore as “The Man On The Street” strode away.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Chapter Four"

A Grave Issue Or Not?

Aren't we peculiar, not only as individuals but as a society...while we espouse our 'freedoms' and 'free will' to do what we choose, in conversation we often hit a verboten wall....




Not many can truthfully say they speak their mind on these topics to anyone other than a very, very short "A" list.  Okay, possibly some will more easily speak about politics, and to a lesser extent religion...heaven forbid anyone talks about sex and preferences and such details, making listeners immediately cover their ears and shout, "T.M.I.!  TOO MUCH INFORMATION!"

Relax, I'm not going there.  Not to any of those topics.  However, I do want to talk about another topic that makes many a two-legged uncomfortable: Death.  In my meandering way I want to back up the bus to my high school days.

My family was moving into a NC county with only one high school, a county which was at the bottom of the then-newly instituted literacy tests in verbal and math categories.  Little did I know that within only months I'd be attending a boarding school in north-central Virginia, Woodberry Forest School.

Situated (then) on 1,400 acres of pastoral farmland with Jeffersonian architecture abounding,  Woodberry was to be one of my positive pivotal points in Life's Journey.  For the purposes of this chapter, I want to discuss my English teachers there, for they instilled in me an appreciation for vocabulary and all things literary.  

If I might add one disclaimer here it's that I never 'got' poetry.  Nothing to do with the teachers involved, poetry never has and never will 'trip my trigger'...except for my favorite of poems:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue;
Some poems rhyme,
But this one doesn't.

Apologies to Frost and Keats and myriad others.  That's just one of my quirks.  As a college professor once said, "We're all weird, we're just weird in different ways."  Poetry and I don't share many chromosomes.

My first year at WFS I had John Reimers for English.  Most classes had a very low student-teacher ratio, and this one was no exception.  Maybe 10 of us sat in an arc around the basement room walls in that Anderson Hall classroom. As class began, some sense of classical music would be playing on a big, green, relic cassette player, with our teacher quietly reading through some journal, paper, or other. When he was ready he would speak and begin creating folds in our cerebral cortexes.  

Some saw him as quirky, but I identified oh so well with quirky that I ate that year up like peanut butter on Ritz crackers.  Hard work and high expectations from the top, mind you, but satisfying in the end.  He was demanding, and for a reason.  It paid off in spades for me.

It was during my senior year in AP English that an assignment served as the basis for this particular chapter.  Young Ben Cameron was our mustached teacher, with a strong  theater background as well...makes for a more interesting classroom experience when you have a demonstrative leader.  Mr. Cameron in action led you to one thought: "You don't need any more coffee, sir."

If you haven't done so already, you must get comfortable with my digressions, as they are as plentiful as rabbits in a spring meadow.  That was my AP English class, at the end of which my exam score placed me out of all English requirements in college.  Not a one did I take, there.  Math?  I was inept in algebra and calculus at Woodberry, and suffered even more at college, never surmounting what to this day is one of my learning obstacles.  Alas, my SAT scores were just the opposite: my Math was always above 700, and my Verbal never reached 500.  I kid you not.  Go figure.

And now to the flash point of this post.  I'm not sure a teacher in public school could get away with this, as stupidly litigious as we've become in our society...but Mr. Cameron gave us a most interesting assignment one day.  We were to write a paper about committing suicide, where we would do it, how we would do it, and what music would be playing.

How did it make you feel to just read that?  Could you sit privately and write such a paper?  I didn't balk, nor did anyone else, that I remember.  The purpose wasn't to make us think about death, per se; rather, it was to give us a jarring topic that forced us to coordinate the brain with the pen-in-hand and deal with something that admittedly caught us off-guard.  Much like the AP exam, itself, I might add.

What I wrote about is not the subject of this chapter.  To satisfy your curiousity (c'mon, admit it!), I wanted to hike up to the edge of Shortoff Mountain on the southeastern rim of Linville Gorge Wilderness Area (NC), and jump of that massive, sheer stone face, with Mozart's "Requiem Mass in D Minor" playing.  Spreading my arms wide like a hawk and but for a moment feeling the freedom of flight.  End of surreal assignment.

In my growth through the decades, I've gotten comfortable with the idea of death.  In fact, I don't like to use words like 'death' and 'dying' because I know nothing ever, ever ends.  "Life" simply transitions to other planes of existence.  I prefer to use the phrase 'crossing over' which is far more accurate of a description.  Oh, many earthly brains wish to see this Life as some sort of end-all, but that is a most blatant illusion in every respect.   It simply isn't so.

Take the flutes I make, for example.  The tree is dead.  Dead by society's terms, that is.  Even dead trees are matter, right?  And they're made of of compounds, made up of molecules, made up of atoms, right?  And atoms are made of protons and neutrons, around which spin electrons held into orbit by a Divine Power, right?  Just because the tree is dead doesn't mean things change at the atomic level...they keep on keepin' on. Cells just don't replicate.  It's just a different 'relativity', for lack of a better expression.  Any woodworker will tell you wood is VERY much 'alive', and I especially sense it in my flutes.  They 'talk' to me, in no uncertain terms.

We're all raised with certain ideologies and beliefs, the majority of which we accept without question and assume we ourselves made the choice as opposed to being handed said choice. I don't need a single soul to view things as I do.  All I can tell you is I'm at peace with the crossing over from this earthly life, and at peace with my sense of a 'bigger picture'.  Some fear it.  I embrace it.  I don't have a problem being with spirits in their last hours, either, and am honored to play my flutes or just 'be' for those that might welcome some relief.

The human mind is a querulous piece of machinery.  There is only the moment of 'now'.  The past is only a memory, and the future is only imagined.  Even so, how many do you know who live in one or the other instead of the Moment?  To truly live to our potential is to embrace what is before us....not lament what once was, nor fear what could be.

We're all going to 'die'.  How will you face it?  With dignity?  Kicking and screaming?  A big ol' smile?  Whining?  I wish for us all to do so with honor.  My thoughts for this chapter really deal with the earthly reaction once we're no longer a 'living' part.

I fully know and accept the day will come I'm no longer sucking oxygen molecules. The proverbial 'given'.  I know that I will have finished what I came here to do, to create, to touch others, to instruct, to laugh and love often.  But to put this into societal perspective is to really put my foot down about some major 'points' immediately after my death.  TOO many 'funerals' are all about the needs of the living, NOT the wishes of the deceased.  Can I get an "AMEN!" from the choir?

First, I WILL be cremated.  Graveyards, burial plots, headstones, mausoleums are a waste of time and space.  Ever notice in almost any community what prime real estate a bunch of skeletons reside on?  "Oh, I want them to see the beauty here..."  Are ya kiddin' me?  You think the 'vision' we have after life is inferior to this earthly one?  It's purely for our own edification, those left behind. Think about it.

Cremate me.  Let loved ones spread my ashes where they know I'd like my leftover molecules to hit terra firma.  I want no stone, and no marker.  I will exist only in the memories of those I touched, or through things I created and left behind.

If a ceremony/gathering must take place after my crossing, then I have some very specific guidelines I insist be followed:

1.  No black allowed.  Period.  Even gray would be frowned upon.

2.  I want people to wear the brightest colors possible.  The more outlandish the better. Sweatpants and shorts and t-shirts would favor better seating, though I understand those items are not always available in wild colors and patterns.  Deal with the discrepancy. Dress up black sweatpants with a Hawaiian shirt, for example, and I'll overlook the pants color.

3.  No slow mud-music, and God forbid NO organ music.  Only upbeat, celebratory music will be played.

4. I would hope someone could gather big trash bags of sawdust and small wood scraps from my shop and have everyone grab a handful on their way out...then spread the spoils wherever they feel so led.

5.  Flute music and barbershop quartet music would be encouraged, to be performed 'live'.  Beforehand, taped music like up-tempo Big Band songs could be played, much in the line of Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five.

6.  After any ceremony there needs to be a big party, where people are TRULY celebrating Life in general.  Dancing, laughing, partying will be strongly encouraged.  Strongly, if not mandated outright.

Life goes on. We're all a part of each other.  We should live every day as if it were every holiday wrapped up into one.  Purposefully.  Live life fully and large, and give, give, give unto others...that way, you do it unto yourself.

I shall now step down off my soapbox.  I have other chapters to write.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Chapter Three"

The “UGLY BOY” Story
Among the many hats I wear is that of a flute maker.  On occasion someone will quip, “that’s an interesting hobby you have there.”  It’s at that point I quietly know they don’t ‘get it’.
It’s no hobby.  It’s no ‘just something I do in my spare time’ (whatever THAT is….).  For me, it is my very Soul’s work, not only crafting instruments but creating music with my singing sticks.  Devotees to the Native American style of flute almost to a one use the expression “how the flute found me”… for me (and many others) it represents things spiritual, medicinal.
This chapter is about how my flutes got their name.  How the flute ‘found me’ could be another chapter in itself, but to quickly explain that it is to give you a keener insight on how purposeful everything is for me as it relates to the Flute.
At the time, I was full-timing in a 31-foot RV on top of a mountain north of Asheville, NC.  Cozy quarters for me, my 2 dogs and a stray cat, which you can read more about in Chapter XX.  A Native American arts and craft store was going out of business in town, and while I had very little spare money, I wanted something special for the RV and my small altar I kept.  For as long as I can remember I have felt a deep connection with Native spirituality, though in this lifetime I’m as white as Wonderbread.
As I talked with the store’s owner while perusing various items on sale, he suggested, “How about a flute?”  Being a long-time singer and piano player, it struck me as odd that I’d not thought of that before, going with something musical.  He had two flutes left, and took them out of the case to show me how easy it was (and is) to play…and within seconds I was making ‘those Native American flute sounds’ that we know when we hear it.
I was hooked.  But my wallet began groaning, so I took a few days to think it over and possibly re-prioritize my budget.  As luck would have it, I returned to purchase the flute only to find it had been sold.   The one flute left was a higher key, and I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to go with.  Already  in my head were visions of all the campfires I’d be playing around, all the sunrises I’d be communing with, all the while mentally hearing the lower key.  The groaning wallet took advantage of the opportunity to make me take yet another couple of days for pondering.
And so it was that I was going to get the remaining flute, knowing I could get another lower one down the road (NOTE: collecting flutes is a powerful addiction!).  Well, I was going to get it had it been there.  Strike two.  The salesperson  assured me they could have a flute drop-shipped to me quickly, and that’s when the proverbial lightbulb clicked on as I gave my thanks and left.
I didn’t know anyone who played the flute.  I was clueless about flute circles, which abound.  I had no idea that one of the greatest flute makers had lived right where I was before he lost his battle with cancer earlier that year, Hawk Littlejohn.  Clueless.  I did a quick internet search for the flute maker, found his site…and found out that I could buy that flute for about half of what the store was going to charge me!
Sold.  I was giddy with excitement…the very thought of my new way of living, and integration of the Flute, the daydreams that flowed like a peaceful river, it all felt like a master design.  I also knew this loud and clear, deep within, as I chose the flute:  the Flute was going to be an instrument of healing and medicine, not only for me but for others.  I was going to be a Messenger,  that I knew with the most resounding of convictions before the flute arrived.  To add, all of this was coming together at a time of a massive personal, spiritual rebirth and divorce.  It felt good.  It felt right.  The flute arrived and I began trying to play it before reading the instruction sheet.
I should have started with the instruction sheet.  Excitement levels exceeded poorly produced music, and I squawked away in oblivion.  Little did I know what was to happen the very next morning to forever change my Life’s path, yea an event that changed the world in many respects.
As I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center that morning, live, I looked through my tears at the flute lying on the dinette table.  I can only explain it as a deep peaceful ‘voice’ that spoke quietly yet loudly, if that makes any sense.  With distinct clarity I remember seeing a mental image of the flute vibrating at high frequency, with these five ‘spoken’ words:  “You have work to do.”
That was it.  I had work to do, whatever that was.  And that’s how my Flute Journey go started.
Still not knowing anyone who played the flute, I taught myself how to play, alone in my own insular world.  Mary Youngblood’s music was suggested to me at a local store, and when I first heard her melodies I felt like I was heading ‘home’ somehow.  Without flute keys matching, I had to memorize the songs in my head then hunt and peck the notes until they could be strung together (successfully).  It was a slow process, indeed.
With spring came a new work opportunity and a move closer to Charlotte, NC.  There I discovered the local flute circle that April.  By then I’d picked up another couple of flutes, and was able to play without making stray dogs run away.  However,  I kept wanting to hear a cleaner, more precise sound than I was hearing in most flutes…after all, when you pay good hard-earned money for an instrument it should play well and accurately, at least in my mind.  There are plenty that don’t.
At that meeting were 3 flute makers there that happily chewed the fat with me…I began casually asking questions about crafting flutes, and my mind started racing.  “I can do that,” I mused…and thus the seed was planted.  Mind you, I didn’t have a shop, much less the tools I needed to even try to make some flutes, so I kept thinking my way through how I could do it with the least possible trouble and expenditure, at least for the time being.
I didn’t have any guidebooks or plans…as I often do, I like reinventing my own wheels, as I learn most effectively that way.  I took a 24-inch piece of good ol’ yellow pine that would have been a typical resident in anyone’s firewood pile, and cut it in half.  With two twelve inch pieces, I marked off nine inches for the barrel, left one inch uncut for the flue area, and with the remaining 2 inches I marked off all but 1/2” at the end for the blowhole.
I did have a router, and had one bit, a 1” round-nose bit, with which I cut out the barrel and SAC or slow-air chamber you breathe into.  After gluing up the two halves, I began whittling away at the corners to round the flute, and as I went along, that yellow pine would give off big chunks, so much so that after I while I quit for fear of cutting into the barrel.  I’d already put a hole in the SAC by accident, and had to put a piece of duct tape over it to make it airtight.
I didn’t look at it as crude or Neolithic…I preferred the phrase ‘folk-art’ to describe that short, stubby,  unsanded, ugly flute.  I guessed where the finger holes needed to go, and didn’t guess as well as I should have.  I refer to the finger holes being large enough for spawning salmon to jump through.  To complete this oddity, I had to use green twine to tie the block on as I had no leather ties to do so.
I had only one goal in mind that day: to put two pieces of wood together and try to produce a musical note.  Little did I know I had many aspects of flute-making wrong, with dreadfully incorrect ratios.  But it played!  Oh boy did it play, a very loud high C, dead –on in the meter.  The chills, the goosebumps, the adrenalized excitement was overwhelming…I made a musical instrument!
‘Twas a red-letter day for my record book.  The flute circle was meeting the following weekend and I wanted to unveil my, shall we say, ‘unique’ flute.   At the typical flute circle gathering, there is a time called the play-around, where everyone sits in a circle and one by one play a song.  The rule was even if you didn’t play the flute or play it well, you still had to blow 3 notes before moving on to the next person.  As each person played, everyone else would supportively listen.  That’s where my unveiling would occur.
Sitting on my sofa and holding the folk art, I smiled lovingly like a dad upon his newborn kid.  “You are one ugly boy!”  As the old saying goes, the rest is history.  With a black marker I signed the flute “Ugly Boy” with the its birthday, July 7, 2002.  As the chairs were pulled into a circle that Saturday, everybody had chosen the flute that they were going to play.

Flutes of all woods, shapes, sizes, styles, keys, you name it, it was probably there, many in fancy cases or bags.  I had put Ugly Boy into a most appropriate case: a brown lunch bag.
I was a little more than halfway around from where the circle started.  The closer it came to my turn, the harder my heart beat in my chest.  “Deep breaths,” I thought, lest I get too excited and talk too quickly and play my special song too fast…and it was a lightning-fast song I’d written just for this loud, wild child.
“Hi, I’m Bob and I am going to play my first flute I just made, “Ugly Boy”…”
“Oh, you’re going to play the beer bottle?” as laughter rolled around the room.  There was no disputing it appeared I was brown-bagging refreshments as I held the sack up.  If you thought there was laughter with that last comment, you should have heard it when “Ugly Boy” saw the light of day.  One of the flute makers immediately said, “That’s not supposed to play!” as the barrel should have been closer to 18” long instead of 9”.  Little did I know.  I let ‘er rip, loud and fast, and that’s how Ugly Boy Flutes sprouted wings.
Not that I was certain that’s what I’d call my flutes…it was just done in humor at first.  But in pretty quick order I realized how perfect that name actually was.  Catchy, yes…search for flute makers and you get all sorts of spiritual, earthy sounding names.  “Ugly Boy” stands out in a crowd much as a purple penguin would.  The hidden beauty is what invaluable Life lessons are embedded in that crude piece of folk art.
I can talk a blue streak about my flute world.  When I finish telling the Ugly Boy story, people always remark what a passion I have for what I do, and they couldn’t be more right.  For in that homely foot-long piece of yellow pine are two very important lessons we would all do well to put into practice:
1)  Never judge anyone or anything by their appearance.   It’s what’s inside and is produced that matters.
2)  Each of us has a ‘song’ in us, which is a Life Passion, musical or not…and we have a responsibility to search within, find our ‘song’ and let it out loud and clear.  “Ugly Boy” transformed from a discarded piece of pine into, well, my whole world of Ugly Boy Flutes.  So, too, should our personal passions be discovered, developed, and shared.  Always and all ways.
That’s why I kept the name. At any point in time, many find themselves at the searching stage, which knows no age limit...searching for their purpose and meaning in Life.  When asked, "How do you know what your 'song' is?", my answer is a rather simple but accurate one: when you get up in the morning, you can't wait to go and do it, to get going, to get creative. 

It'll put a smile right in the middle of your heart.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chapter Two

2. So you wanna be a weatherman…..

Forgive me, but I need to lay these out before I get started…

“Yours is the only job I know of where you can be wrong over 50% of the time and still be employed!”

(on message machine) “Yes, hello, I just wanted to let someone know I JUST now finished shoveling 5-inches of your ‘mostly cloudy’ conditions! Thank you!”

“Do you really know what the weather is gonna be or do you just make it up?”

“I just heard you say tornadoes were coming through tonight. When is that?” 

“I didn’t say that; I said there was a possibility of some storms popping a brief funnel in South Carolina, but I didn’t say Charlotte.” 
“Oh yes you did, I heard you, just a few minutes ago!” 
“Which station were you watching?” 
“And which station are you calling?” 
(click – hang up).

There, I feel better. Got that out of the way. You may or may not be amazed how some individuals behave when the weather gets messy or the forecast goes bust.

In much the same vein as I tell budding actors, when someone wants to become a TV weatherman, my first word is “DON’T!” Sometimes I follow it up with a “WHY???” and then laugh demonically. The drool oozing from the right corner of my mouth sometimes scares folks. Naturally I say that with a smile, as I’m drawn to work that tries hopelessly to please everyone, which we all know is an impossibility. It just won’t happen, even in the best of times.

For close to 20 years I was on the airwaves full-time (dated term with cable and satellite, now), prognosticating and palavering about what people need to wear on any given day. While an ‘ego ‘ comes with a good many public personalities, I preferred telling people, “I do TV weather because I am simply unable to work a 'normal' job.  In TV-land, nothing is normal, except for one thing: poor in-house communication. Saddle us with the responsibility to get word out to the public and we do it with aplomb, but try to find out about what’s going on within the station walls and, well, good luck.

I guess because I’ve worked so many years on the ‘visible’ side, I’ve never really understood why so many of the general public become so attached and personally involved with on-air personalities and the whole idea of stardom. There is this perceived aura of glamour and swankiness that truly is but a wisp of vapor in the night. An illusion. A very big illusion. To coin the phrase (and alter it as it pertains to bears), we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

In TV-land, I’m not sure there is any ‘good’ shift. Many make their shift ‘work’, but in general shifts entail rather significant trade-offs. For early morning weather work you go to bed at sunset and rise around 2am, or for evening shift you get in at 1 or 2pm and work through the late night newscasts, and out roughly just before midnight. If you have kids you either miss getting them up and to school in the morning, or miss having dinner and putting them to bed at night. This doesn’t include the extra public appearances and emergency stuff you’re called on to do beyond said hours.

And it’s not that such schedules are bad things…but they entail trade-offs, as does most any major decision in life. As mentioned in the previous chapter, it’s all about ‘choice’, a choice best made by going in with both eyes wide open. Given the recent trends in media, which a lot began with the 9/11 tragedy, it’s a tricky dance, being in the TV world.

I love speaking to groups. It’s a bailiwick of sorts for me. One of the invariable questions I get is, “How did you get started in TV weather?” Ah, the quintessential million dollar question. Since I rarely do anything by ‘normal’ routes, it should come as no surprise to you that I got into TV weather via the ‘backdoor’, in a way. For several years I taught various science courses at Woodberry Forest School, my high school alma mater that profoundly impacted my life, as you will soon read. Among the electives I taught was Meteorology, using a basic college text that well-covered the basics. The story begins there but gets a bit more circuitous…bear with me.

In my teaching years I just happened to also fall into restoring classic cars as a self-taught hobby. I’d had a nice turquoise and white 1957 Chevy Model 210 4-door post that I drove daily when I returned to Woodberry to teach for a second stint. While there, I kept noticing a 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood for sale at a nearby home …and after months of listening to a little auto mechanic angel on my shoulder, I sold the Chevy to purchase the Caddy, which needed a good bit of work. Another story for another chapter, that restoration.

As I got the Caddy all gussied up, there came radio ads for cars and actors for an upcoming movie in Richmond, VA involving the J.F. Kennedy era, “Love Field” . Why, naturally, my 21-foot long 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood 4-dr. hardtop fit the bill nicely for a ‘background car’ (yet more fodder for a later chapter!).

My Caddy got me into movies, and the movies got me in touch with an acting agent in Richmond, and that agent got me myriad acting gigs in myriad arenas. On a particular hospital ad shoot, I was filiming with a then-Richmond news anchor. In the course of our conversations she suggested I try to become a TV weatherman, which I’d honestly never given serious thought to. Long story short, and I do mean LONG story short, I began my TV weather ‘career’ at WRIC-TV8 in Richmond, Virginia. As the late great Paul Harvey would quip…and now, for the rest of the story…

My first appearance on the airwaves as a meteorologist was a rather surreal, unforgettable moment. I’m sure at first I was wishing I could forget it, but it makes for one heck of a story. Part of this story involves the physical layout of the studio, where the weather computers and prep area were in another room altogether. To go on-air, I would call up the show, put it in ‘play’ mode, then go into the studio and wire up. At that time, I was 100% wired with cords (as opposed to wireless mics and such)…so I went in the studio and clipped on the mic, the back-up mic, and the IFB box which fed my earpiece with words of wisdom from master control. Big, heavy, green, industrial cords they were.

The weather ‘wall’ was located beside the main anchor set, which sat atop a platform. I would begin my weather forecast at the main desk on a shot with the other anchor(s). I would pitch to the forecast and walk to the keywall, deliver my forecast off the top of my head, then return to the main desk, sit, and with a quick cross-talk ended my forecast. Ah, if it were only that simple…

There is nothing like the ‘first time’ for anything. ANYthing. For my first “on-air performance” I was truly nervous and anxious. Ready to go, but knowing all kinds of things could befall me. I set my show into ‘play’ mode. I went into the studio minutes before I went on. I wired up. I checked the camera settings at the wall and then sat in my chair at the desk. I looked to my right back at the set to make sure all was ‘okay’. I turned more to my right to look at the set behind, which was a ‘smoked’ glass front covering multiple TV monitors…I carefully peered and saw that my monitor did have my first graphic in play and ‘visible’. I continued to turn to my right as I chatted with the anchors.

And so I waited through a couple of commercials before it was D-Day. The anchors kept me calm with small talk, which was greatly appreciated. I was not shy in front of a camera, just nervous as in live TV there are no ‘second takes’…this was the real-time, real-McCoy. The last commercial was ending...

“5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – “

We were ‘live’.

In that moment, the world stopped, or at least slowed to the slowest of forward motions. I had reached the TV stage through a non-traditional route, and now the time had come to put the proof in the pudding, to prove I was meant for ‘live’ work, to deliver the weather and make viewers come back for more. I wanted to put a smile on their face.

Boy, did I.

“Time now for the weather, and we’d like to introduce to you the newest member of the TV8 weather team, Bob Child…” The voice trailed off, I was on front and center, said a few words of thanks with a smile, and I turned in my chair to go to the wall and graphics as I knew I had to grab the bull by the horns.

I had a mission. I moved with purpose. I stepped down from the platform and strode to the keywall. In an instant I realized what that big ‘tug’ was as I did so. In ultra-slow motion my brain had an “Aha!” moment of extreme clarity: I had managed to turn a complete circle in my chair with all my wires on. That rolling chair had no choice but to join me as I went to the wall.

The ensuing ‘crash’ and outright mad laughter off-camera from the anchors and camera operators was priceless. Bob lunges to the set. Bob’s chair lunges after him. Bob has deer-in-the-headlight expression. Bob’s chair makes a helluva lot of noise when it hit the concrete floor. Bob’s chair is hopelessly tied up in big, heavy, green industrial cords. Bob’s face sports multiple shades of red.  Lovely.  Just lovely.

My response was automatic and…it was unrehearsed…it was natural, and it was all I could come up with on such an instantaneous notice. Putting on a big smile and even laughing at myself, I looked into the camera. “Well, folks, now THAT’S what I call making an entrance! Give me a second to undo my cords and I’ll tell you what to wear tomorrow….”

Humor is my default in life, certainly for TV weather work. Viewers appreciate ‘truth’. I learned right then and there, at the drop of a hat, not to take myself that seriously and always be ready to be humble and laugh at myself. No more sage advice could once dish up for me. I got through the forecast and went on to do wilder and crazier things as my time there wore on, but nothing could top that crashing chair.

Or all that raucous laughter.


I’ve learned not to take myself so seriously, and I’m thrilled I can laugh at myself. I get plenty of opportunities to do that, too. If it weren’t for my chosen inability to deal with late night hours and cigarette smoke I’d be well into the night-time comedy club circuit by now. I have so much material to work with I wouldn’t know where to begin…except relating stories like this.

I later worked on-air at The Weather Channel for 3.5 years, and for my first on-air segment there I had yet another one of those ‘first’ moments. Being seen in central Virginia was one thing; being seen across the U.S. and beyond is something of a wee bit bigger scope. Friends and family were tuned in to watch my big national debut, which was doing a short weekender segment of 4 upcoming events with the forecast.

To the side were several big-wigs and engineers for support should something go awry…the preview monitors showing the frames were all properly loaded…and so I went ‘live’ in front of the first panel, nice big warm smile and all, and segued into the first event frame, which if I remember was a golf tournament in Milwaukee.

It was black. Totally black. I was standing in front of eternal darkness.

“I’d like to ‘enlighten’ you with the forecast in Milwaukee where there is a chance of….” The humor switch flipped on. You go. You talk. You run your mouth and act like it’s all in a day’s work. You hit the advance button and the next frame pops up normally, and you breathe a sigh of relief after that 2 minute segment that seemed like an hour. Not nearly as entertaining as the chair incident, though.

As it turned out, the boo-boo graphic had been created by an intern but was not saved properly as a file suited for the airwaves. Of the 400+ graphic files the engineers checked, that happened to be the only bad apple.

Just my luck.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Chapter One"

1. A Slice of Southern Life
The fast-lane of life is not one I cotton to or gravitate towards. I was born and raised in the South, where the vernacular pace of life is generally slower, especially in what are often referred to as ‘sleepy little towns’. I imagine that as appealing as that way of life is, many of us find ourselves in ‘frenetic mode’ coping with day to day life that at times feels like it’s beyond our control. Living ‘la vida loca’ in the Rat Race we have come to accept as the norm.
How refreshing it is, then, to consciously choose to slow Life down multiple gears, to not set plans or agendas, and when traveling to take the road less traveled and ignore time. This story is about just that…and about how close I came to having my coffee shoot through my nose.
Can’t remember this sleepy town setting to save my life. Heck, I’m doing well to peg it in the early to mid 1980’s, as I had recently graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was wandering somewhere in what was in, or close to, the Low Country of South Carolina, where oak trees are draped in chigger-filled Spanish moss and everyone takes their own sweet time going about their days. I would add ‘nights’, too, but nightlife in such places is limited pretty much to owls and ‘possums, and the occasional neighbor’s cat.
I was merely casually passing through, en route to some coastal location, purposefully off the main thoroughfares. The time, something around 10am..on a Tuesday, no less. Can’t remember the place or the year, but I can sure tell you the day. Needing that forever important bathroom pit stop, I saw a Hardee’s on my right just ahead.

Keep in mind this was no 6-lane road of strip malls and pop-up storefronts…just your wide tree-lined residential street, with a corner area zoned for businesses and a 35mph speed limit. A quaint and perfect location, well-timed, I mused…and heaven forbid I pass up the opportunity for a buttery biscuit ! That, with strawberry jelly, and a cup of coffee to wash it down, added up to four good reasons to pull in.
Pretty much your run-of-the-mill fast food joint, this one…the morning ‘rush’ was long past, such that it must be in this 2-horse town (there were a few stoplights as I remember). The counter wait was non-existent, and with my food I grabbed the donated day’s paper and had a seat in a Formica-skinned booth.
In describing the scene, I’m arbitrarily assigning the names “Joe” and “Bill” to the two seated retirees that brought the dining area population to 3. Joe was in the middle of the room across from me, facing out toward the large plate glass windows that fronted the quiet main street.
With his back to the very same window sat Bill, the distance between the two created by a couple of empty tables. I was merely the proverbial fly on the wall, and for a minute or so there was just a peaceful silence. Each of us had our coffee and breakfast item at some stage of consumption, biding time. Bill was the first to speak (and in a good ol’ drawl, I might add)…
“You been to that new Food Lion ‘cross town?


It’s right nice.


Big aisles, I like that…”


Joe answered in an equally low-key sloth-like cadence.

“Nope, ain’t got there, yet,

But I aim to.


Thought I’d get a pie there and take it over to Peggy.


A real shame about Harold


but he had been so sick.


One of those blessings, I guess…”

Joe was half-staring, half thinking as he looked down at the steam rising from his coffee.
Small talk. An iconic small town trait, where a lot is said though few words are spoken...or equally argued where very little is said though a lot is spoken. Pregnant pauses abounded. I was simply being the detached, curious observer as I only lightly scanned the local news I knew nothing about.
This was also back in the days where smoking was allowed in such chain food joints. Bill’s cigarette sat more in the ashtray than in his hand, with the smoke curling upward in it's own slow-motion existence. He would look left a bit…then right…then look at his coffee and take a sip…
“I liked that sermon Sunday, “ Bill said.


“That new preacher is alright.

Fits right in.”




As a reminder, I was born and raised in the South. I don’t have to make this stuff up, nor could I. Moments like this happen like clockwork…
Bill drew on his cigarette and let out a slow, steady smoke trail from the corner of his mouth…..
“You been to vote yet?”

Big pause.


Bigger pause.

“Ain’t had no time to, yet.”

The coffee I was preparing to swallow came nigh close to exiting through my nostrils…
At that very moment, time froze for me. The setting, the scene, the environment, the timing…and the beautiful irony of those last words. To this day that story stands tall in my memory and brings a smile to my face.
Knowing how most countrified folk are, as I’m of similar ilk, we tend to get up with the rooster and go down with the sun…and here, through this drawn-out exchange, is a genuine sense of not having enough time to do something. Heck, ‘Joe’ could have voted twice in the time he spent sitting in his own little world that showed no signs of accelerating through the day. His choice, of course.
Am I preaching to the choir, here? Do we not control our perceptions about situations and time/timing and opportunity? Every second of every day we do, but too many of us are guilty of plodding through our waking hours as unconscious robots, automatically going through ‘accepted’ routines with no second thought.
Becoming consciously ‘aware’ and ‘awake’ are critical if we truly want to accept one of Life’s greatest gifts: the power and freedom to make choices. It is through that very power of choice that each of us can truly create our own reality. Unless, of course, we choose not to. A choice in itself.

When I think of 'perceptions' and 'choices', it reminds me of a greeting card I once saw...

Some see a glass as half full. Some see the same glass as half empty. Mothers see that glass as being yet another reminder that someone was too damned lazy not to take it to the sink and put it in the dishwasher!