True South

All Peopled Out

Introverts of the world unite — separately

By Susan S. Kelly

Not long ago I said to some pals, “Heavens, tell me about Duncan. I heard he had four shunts put in.”

“Where have you been?” someone replied with incredulity.

“You know I don’t go out,” was my lame, weak, but honest answer.

Well, there’s the rub. At the core, I’m an introvert. Pause, for clamor claiming otherwise. But as my children like to say in millennial shorthand: “Truth.”

I do not fit the old-school definition of introvert: retiring, withdrawn, uncomfortable in social situations. “She’s just shy” was the old expression — or, as my mother excuses people, “She’s just insecure.” I am not shy. I veer toward that other old expression: “She’s as strong as train smoke.”

Nowadays, anybody with a penny’s worth of psychiatry or Myers-Briggs familiarity knows that “introvert” means someone who gets their energy from being alone, and that extroverts get their energy from being with other people. The old definition of introvert is no longer relevant, has gone the way of Greta Garbo’s famous utterance, “I vant to be alone.”

Take my sister. She so needs to be with people that she can hardly go to the bathroom by herself. In her 20s, she developed polyps on her vocal cords, and had to communicate with a pad and pencil for weeks. When I join her on the beach, unfold my chair, sit down and take out my book, she says, “Oh no you don’t.” She wants to talk. When her children came home from boarding school, she always said, “Let’s have a cookout!” Meaning, invite people over! Yay! “Let’s have a cookout!” has become an oft used, eyeroll mantra in our households now.

We lived in Larchmont, New York, when I was a small child, and my mother says she could put me in a stroller, go to the city and spend all day — shopping, eating, going to museums — without a peep from me. On the other hand, she claims that she’d put my sister down for a nap, open the door an hour later, and the room looked like a bomb had gone off. This could be attributed to undiagnosed ADHD, but I suspect my sister was just rebelling at being left alone. I guarantee you she has never played a hand of solitaire.

Looking back, my childhood strategy of asking a playmate, “When do you have to go home?” instead of, “When are you going home?” was just another way of getting back to my self-entertaining self. Back to playing with Steiff stuffed animals, alone; back to singing along with musicals, alone. Back to reading, alone. All my early, handwritten stories with plotless plots about someone running away to live in the woods and eat squirrels were another symptom. The introvert indicators were all there — I just hadn’t realized it. (There was that one day when I called three or four people to see if they could come play, and when I called the fourth, I opened with, “Can you come over? I’ve called everyone else.” Could be that the fact that I had to call four people to come play and no one could — or would — was an indication of something, too. Hmm. At any rate, my mother made me call the friend back and apologize.)

During a trip, any trip — Europe, the beach, a long weekend somewhere — I unfailingly have a moment when I’m desperate to go home. “I want to be home,” I’ll say to my sister.

“Yep,” she replies, nonplussed. “Been waiting for that.”

“I want to be home,” I’ll say to my husband, who’s lying in bed, reading a guidebook.

“I know,” he mildly answers, and turns a page.

Once, when all my children were small, my husband asked, “Just how much time do you need alone every day?”

“Two hours,” I said.

“That’s too much,” he said.

Still, he knows me well. “What’s the matter?” he’ll ask me of a Sunday morning, “All cuted out?” This is shorthand for my extrovert quota having been depleted. Also, a hangover.

My husband is the reason, as a matter of fact, I know about the Myers-Briggs introvert definition in the first place. When he was senior warden at our church, all the officers and spouses were (gently) required to take the test. Trust me, I’d never have done it on my own. I ventured, once, into a Sunday school class, well aware that we might have to “break into small groups” — an introvert’s nightmare — but nevertheless interested in the topic. The minister caught sight of me (at the back of the room) and called out, “What are you doing here?”

I never went back. This, as opposed to my friend whose wife claims that the main reason he goes to church is that he’s such an extrovert he can’t miss a party.

Existential question: If I post on Instagram, does that negate being an introvert?

Often, introverts are mistaken for aloof snobs. They are not aloof snobs. They’re just all peopled out. I’m an expert at the so-called “Irish exit,” when you leave a gathering without telling anyone you’re going. To all those hosts and hostesses of parties past, I apologize. I had a wonderful time and appreciate having been invited. A friend of my mother’s eventually sold her beach cottage because she couldn’t bear to be away from her yard. Oh, sure. Right. A fellow introvert told me that she hates having her hair cut because she can’t stand all the chatter. So she goes to no-name salons and shows the operator a card she made that reads, “I am a deaf mute. Please take an inch off the bottom.” A friend on the board of Outward Bound offered me an Outward Bound trip at no cost. “You’re the perfect person,” he said. I suggested he find another adventurer for his freebie. Whatever I don’t know about myself by now, I don’t want to know, and I certainly don’t want to find out through shudder-inducing group collaboration and cooperation.

My worst introvert nightmare was the summer Friday I made plans to go see When Harry Met Sally on its opening day. By myself, of course. There, I sit in the quiet darkness, waiting for the movie, eating my popcorn, contentedly alone and anticipating, and . . . three dozen members of the neighborhood swim team troop in. Talking, laughing, jostling, scrabbling to see who sits beside whom . . . nightmare.

On the other hand, as I was all by myself waiting for another movie to begin, a little old lady shuffled in, took a seat, and proceeded to unwrap carrot sticks from a baggie as her movie snack. Was this an omen for a future nightmare? Because it’s common knowledge that whatever you are — punctual, talkative, forgetful — gets more pronounced with age.

I deliberately quit writing novels to go out and be with people again. Because I’m not an irredeemable recluse. Essentially I’m a high-functioning hermit with intermittent FOMO.

Let’s have a cookout!  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

Good Natured

Power of Thought

We are what we think

By Karen Frye

A New Year is always looked upon as an opportunity to change things that can improve the quality of the life we live. Do you often wonder why certain people seem to consistently have the best outcomes, maintaining happiness and that easygoing spirit? Could there be a secret that only those folks know? The answer is . . . you get what you think about.

We are living in difficult times — stress and worry conflict with happiness, undermine our health, and create disharmony, mentally and physically. Your way of thinking can be a valuable weapon against anything that challenges your success and happiness.

In Hamlet Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

There are many quotes reminding us of the power of our thoughts, such as, “What we think about, we bring about.” The Book of Proverbs says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I’m sure you get the point.

Emmet Fox was an advocate for educating people about the power of their thoughts. Born in Ireland in 1886, he was an electrical engineer by profession, but he’s better know for a book he published in 1943 titled The Mental Equivalent based on two lectures he delivered in Kansas City, Missouri.

People think this is a material world but, in reality, it’s a mental world. Whatever you want in your life — good health, self-fulfilling work, the right friends, abundance in every form — you acquire the mental equivalent first. We are the creators of our destiny. The secret is to develop the thoughts of what you want, and rid yourself of the thoughts of what you do not want. Focus daily on the things that will improve every aspect of your life.

There are techniques for mastering the task. Build your mental equivalents by thinking quietly, constantly, and persistently. Form the mental equivalent of what you want for your life, think about it a great deal — with clarity and interest.

Fox’s The Mental Equivalent and his other books are more popular today than ever, as we yearn to know more about the power of the mind. Understanding simple techniques to control your thoughts can change your life in so many positive ways.

May this be the year that everything you desire is yours. PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Nature’s Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

Drinking with Writers

Songs of Home

The Steep Canyon Rangers celebrate the music of the Old North State

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

What do you do after spending several weeks playing sold-out shows across Australia, some of them with Steve Martin and Martin Short? If you are the Steep Canyon Rangers, you come back to North Carolina and play a lunchtime show inside a strip-mall record store in Raleigh. If you are the Steep Canyon Rangers you even carry your own equipment through the front door and snake your way through the crowd on the way to the stage.

There were no crowds when I arrived nearly an hour or so before the noon show on a chilly Wednesday in early December. The Steep Canyon Rangers had just released their latest album, North Carolina Songbook, which they had recorded live at MerleFest in April. The album is a celebration of North Carolina music, featuring the band’s renditions of the work of some of North Carolina’s most foundational voices, including Thelonious Monk, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotton and James Taylor. The album was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day that many music lovers have come to revere as National Record Store Day Black Friday. In support of the album, the Rangers had decided to play record stores, starting with School Kids Records in Raleigh.

If you want to feel uncool, I invite you to visit an independent record store that sits a stone’s throw from a university campus.

“VIPs only down front,” says the record store manager from behind the bar. I call it a bar because while it is a counter where you can pay for records and merchandise, it is also a bar in that beer is served from behind it.

“I’m friends with the band,” I say. He knits his brows as if he has heard this hundreds of times over the years from lame dads like me. But it is the truth. I went to college with mandolin player Mike Guggino, and I have written about the band and gotten to know them over the years.

I decide to try another tack. “I’m with the media,” I say, which is also true. After all, you are right now reading the media story I wrote, but this was not enough for the manager.

“You have to purchase an album to be a VIP,” he says.

“That’s it?” I ask. “I was going to do that anyway.”

“Great,” he says, not smiling. “You can be a VIP.”

As the clock crawls closer to noon, the store begins to fill to capacity with a mixed crowd that ranges from college students to retirees. Someone has ordered pizza. Beers are being passed from the bar back through the crowd.

“Do a lot of bands play here?” a middle-aged woman asks the manager.

“A couple times a month,” he says. He looks around. “But nothing like this.”

I hear someone say my name, and I turn to find Graham Sharp, one of the band’s vocalists, carrying his guitar case and pushing through the crowd. I say hello to him and pray that the record store manager has seen us greet one another by name.

The rest of the band streams in behind Sharp, each of them carrying an assortment of instruments. The band takes the small stage, nearly filling it. The room is warm and pleasant; everyone clearly happy to be out of the office or skipping class in favor of live music from one of North Carolina’s most famous bands.

“Hey, y’all,” Sharp says to the audience. “These are songs we recorded at MerleFest.” The crowd cheers at the mention of the iconic festival. “But we haven’t played them since April.”

“We relearned them on the way here,” says lead vocalist Woody Platt to the audience’s laughter. And then the band is off into a rollicking version of Charlie Poole’s “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” Platt’s rich baritone playing a wonderful historical opposite to Poole’s higher pitch.

The event soon takes on the feel of a college keg party, a feel that is intimately familiar to the Steep Canyon Rangers. The band was co-founded by Sharp and Platt at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late ’90s, when both were undergraduates. They released their first album in 2001, and they have released 13 albums since then, a few in collaboration with Steve Martin.

“This new album is a homecoming for us,” Platt later tells the audience. “We released our first record with Yep Roc Records, and that’s who’s just released North Carolina Songbook.”

And what a homecoming. The album is not only a celebration of famous North Carolina musicians and their music; it is also a testament to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ ability to blend and bend genres and styles while making a cover song seem like their own.

The band moves through gorgeous covers of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Tommy Jerrell’s “Drunkard’s Hiccups,” Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured,” Elizabeth Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree,” closing out the set with the state’s beloved James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” sung by bassist Barrett Smith, a longtime friend of the band who is the newest addition.

At the close of the show, Platt sets down his guitar and tells the audience that the band will hang around for a little “shake and howdy,” but they have to get over to Chapel Hill for a mic check. They are singing the national anthem at the Dean Dome before tonight’s Tar Heels game against Ohio State. A homecoming indeed, but while so much has changed for the Steep Canyon Rangers, shows like the one at the record store prove that so little about them has.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.


Period Pieces

Vintage cameras can yield vintage shots

By Bill Fields

I’ve decided I’m going to start a new decade with an old camera.

In fact, multiple vintage cameras. I’ve had them for a while as the only thing I really collect aside from a meager stash of old signature golf balls bearing the names of pros you probably haven’t heard of.

But, after a couple of false starts the last few years, I’ve made a commitment to use them regularly in 2020, the challenges of airport X-rays and film loading be damned. (I’m writing this with a view of some stray bits of film leader, the end game of a practice run with a bottom-loading screw-mount Leica.)

Still, it was great fun to take my 1937 Leica IId to the top of the Arc de Triomphe on a trip to Paris in late 2018, where it stood out in a sea of selfie sticks and smartphones. I’ve shot film sporadically over the last two decades, from an 85-year-old leatherette Kodak Brownie to a brand-new plastic Holga and any number of models in between.

An image I made with that Brownie about a decade ago on a beach not far from home is one my favorites. A handheld exposure at dusk, it includes two swimmers, one appearing as a sea serpentlike apparition, the mood enhanced by a bit of motion and the late hour of the day. My satisfaction with the photo is no doubt also influenced by the vagaries of the camera itself, a basic design that wasn’t foolproof in its heyday, much less now. I sure didn’t know what I had when I looked through the cloudy viewfinder and clicked the shutter that evening.

I thought about a one-camera/one-lens approach to 2020, a popular method for simplifying one’s photographic mission. One of my very old Leicas with a collapsible Elmar 50mm f/3.5 lens will likely see the most duty, but I’m going to mix things up by utilizing an Olympus OM-1n from the 1970s and probably the box camera as well. I noticed recently that a couple of places even still sell 110-format film, meaning that I could put my first camera, a Kodak Pocket Instamatic 20 model, in the rotation. What I’m sure of, though, is my vow to have a film camera with me.

I don’t know my way around a darkroom, so I won’t be souping my own film or making my own prints, yet I am energized by the prospects of the photographs I will be producing. Budget alone will force me to pick my spots and compose carefully. I may develop specific themes or it could turn out more random. It will be fun — I think — to experience the hopeful anxiety between shooting and having the film developed as I experienced in shooting golf professionally for more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the most vivid memories of my work life is picking up my slides at a New York City lab on the Monday after the 1987 Masters and quickly going through boxes to find the one containing Larry Mize’s winning shot and celebration. Dinner tasted a lot better once I realized I had the moment in focus and it was properly exposed, no gimme in a less-automated era.

My career won’t depend on what I shoot on film in 2020. In a way, it’s akin to playing golf with hickory shafts or persimmon clubheads — a different game than today’s way. Vintage cameras can be beautiful objects even if they’re just sitting on a shelf. Using them can be rewarding. To consider who before me might have shot with them — and where — is a fascination, and there is romance in film that isn’t in a memory card.

My friend Martin Axon has printed for many renowned photographers and is a master of the platinum process. In 2013, I did an essay about Hy Peskin’s famous image of Ben Hogan at the 1950 U.S. Open. Axon has printed the iconic shot.

“When you hold someone’s negative,” Axon told me then, “you go, ‘This was the actual moment,’ because you know the film was there at that moment in time.”

Here’s hoping negatives will be a positive in 2020.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

The Kitchen Garden

Ode to the Veg

Or: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet

By Jan Leitschuh

It happens every January.

As penance for the rich feasting of the holidays, the unrestrained, celebratory consumption/imbibing of pecan pies, creamy dips, butter sauces, eggnog (and other tipsy spirits), gravies, mocha-mint lattes and, of course, peppermint ice cream, we find ourselves in January, contemplating our softening middles, spreading bottoms and muffin tops. A powerful craving for a Christmas cookie and fruitcake detox takes hold.

So we sign up for the gym and start a diet. We step away from the metaphorical sugarplums.

Can’t help with the gym, that’s on you.

Now, diet, here we can brainstorm. Kitchen gardeners may even have a leg up here. Isn’t your freezer full of produce picked at seasonal peak from the garden or local farmers markets? 

Think about it — so many diets out there to choose from. There are the old classics: Mediterranean, Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, grapefruit, cabbage and more. There are the more recent diet entries such as Whole 30, TLC, DASH, the Zone, the Warrior, Paleo and ketogenic.

There is so much confusing info. Are eggs bad for you — or good? Is dairy a healthy food — or not? Legumes — hard-to-digest gut-disrupter or heart-healthy protein source? Wheat toast and whole grain pasta — dietary staples or ketosis-killing carbohydrates? And don’t even start on meat — blood sugar-stabilizing muscle-builder or cardiovascular scourge?

And yet, there is one simple category everyone can agree on. Virtually every diet and meal plan encourages their consumption.

Vegetables. Yep.

No matter one’s choice of diet, vegetables form the true backbone of a sensible eating plan and healthy weight management program. And let’s get real — it’s just plain hard to start a complicated “diet” in bleak, cold, gloomy, dark of January, but it’s not that complicated to drop the junk and fill that void with more veggies. It’s a simple plan, with health uppermost. Keep it simple and start subbing out the sugar, fat and alcohol for an extra helping of nutrition.

Start with advice from the USDA: “Five-to-Nine a Day For Better Health.” For many people, it may seem like a huge amount, especially if you aren’t a vegetable fan. But there are simple ways to up the veggie ante. More on that in a minute.

We’ll start with some sympathy. If you cling to the “I don’t like vegetables” mantra, it’s possible science has some support for you: It could be your genetics. Researchers with the University of Kentucky School of Medicine recently discovered that a particular gene might cause some people to be particularly sensitive to the taste of the brassicas — radishes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and other bitter-tasting veggies. 

That’s not a “get-out-of-diet” free card, more of an understanding of how one’s preferences might shape a search for produce one might like. There’s still folate-rich spinach, or fat-satisfying avocado, high vitamin-C red peppers, glutathione (the master antioxidant) rich asparagus, or the medium starchy indulgence of a sweet potato.  Zucchini, avocadoes, cucumber, mushrooms, celery, tomatoes, onion, eggplant, garlic, sprouts and microgreens, carrots, yellow squash, green beans, and onions will work too. For starters.

As we learn more about the human gut biome, we are learning how vital plant material is to its (and thus, our) health and diversity. Fiber, found only in plant foods, is one factor. A recent study found that those with the greatest weekly diversity of dietary plants had — surprise — the greatest diversity of beneficial gut bacteria. Eating 30 different plants a week can seem daunting, but this study included nuts, fruits, seeds, grains, spices and more. (Yes, spices are a type of health and taste-promoting plant food. Consider turmeric, basil, ginger, sage, black pepper, garlic and more.)

Fruits are sweet, healthy and tasty, but for some might be less than helpful if weight loss is a goal. The fructose, or fruit sugar, is one type of carbohydrate that can trigger blood sugar spikes in diabetics or those with metabolic syndrome, and may push keto dieters out of ketosis. Yet fruit in judicious quantities is healthy and delightful. During a January push, think low-sugar fruits such as a few blueberries in your almond-flour pancakes, a sprinkle of raspberries atop yogurt or mascarpone, or a squeeze of lemon or lime in dressings or tonic water. Save the bananas, figs, grapes, dried fruit and mangoes for celebratory treats down the line.

Non-starchy vegetables are naturally lower in calories, so if you are pushing for weight loss rather than health and maintenance, you might also want to give the potatoes a miss for a few weeks. Eat the foods on the DASH food plan: fish and lean protein, high-fiber starches, and deep orange and green-colored vegetables, berries and nuts. 

So, let’s huddle about sneaking a few more vegetables painlessly into our daily lives. The secret is simple. Start at breakfast. And then keep it up.

The simplest breakfast veg start is the classic veggie omelet. Sauté a few of your favorites, and whip up some eggs and pour. The sauté could include any combo of chopped onions, mushrooms, asparagus, spinach or other greens, tomatoes, broccoli and more. On the side, add a few slices of avocado or tomato. For a Mexican scramble, add a dash of salsa atop your eggs, and a small side of black beans. For a Greek, spinach and feta. And so on. Or go all Scandinavian and add slices of tomato and cucumber to your breakfast smorgasbord. The classic green smoothie is breakfast rocket fuel.

Lunch is easy. Many folks enjoy a lunch salad, and there are lots of ways to add more vegetable variety here. The advent of prepared veggies such as shaved carrots and beets, cucumber slices, etc., in the supermarket makes things easy. Or run through the market’s salad bar and pick out the items you wouldn’t buy or prepare at home, and add them to your own base of greens. Instead of sandwiches, use lettuce or collards for wraps. Serve an asparagus quiche. A bit of Sunday afternoon preparation in the kitchen could yield, say, a hearty white bean and kale soup or chili one could sup all week.

In fact, vegetable soup is a very good way to pack in both more veggie variety and quantity. Use an immersion blender and puree them all together if you don’t enjoy vegetable chunks.

Snack on your favorite finger veggies, adding a light smear of something enjoyable to, say, celery. Or mash up a batch of avocados and toss in a little onion and tomato.

As for supper, that’s the easiest. Fill the plate three-quarters full with vegetables. Your traditional side veggies will do. A small sweet potato microwaved is a quick side and a treat. Instead of pasta for your next Italian spaghetti, try spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini strips, “zoodles,” as a vegetable-rich base. Use riced cauliflower instead of rice in a soup or dish — they are sneaking cauliflower into everything these days. Asian, Italian and Indian cuisines pack many veggies into one dish — think ratatouille, moo goo gai pan or stir-fries and curries. Any casserole can shelter extra vegs. 

Make spicy “chips” of kale, sweet potatoes and more. For lasagna, use strips of squashes instead of traditional lasagna noodles. Stuff some bell peppers. Grill some kebabs and use a whole lot of grape tomatoes, mushrooms, squash rounds, peppers and onion. Up the veggie ration in your fajitas, or pad out your meatloaf with your friends in the plant kingdom.

No matter your dietary goals, health or weight loss, you can’t go wrong working a few more veggies into your daily feeds.

Now, go forth and detox!  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table cooperative.


Keep Your Eye on the Sparrows

Dark-eyed Juncos return to these parts in cold weather

By Susan Campbell

“The snowbirds are back!” No, not the thin-blooded retirees — you won’t see them until spring. But you will see the little black-and-white, sparrowlike birds that appear under feeders when the mercury dips here in central North Carolina. They can be found in flocks, several dozen strong in places. And, in spite of what you might think, they are far from dependent on birdseed in winter.

Dark-eyed juncos are a diverse and widely distributed species, with six populations recognized across the United States, Canada and Mexico. Some have white wing bars, others sport reddish backs, and the birds in the high elevations of the Rockies are recognized by the extensive pinkish feathering on their flanks. Our eastern birds are known as “slate-colored juncos” for their dark-brown to gray feathering. As with most migrant songbirds, their migratory behavior is based on food availability, not weather. Flocks will fly southward, stopping where they find abundant grasses and forbs. They will continue  traveling once the food plants have been stripped of seed.

Dark-eyed juncos can be found throughout North America at different times of the year. During the breeding season, juncos are found at high elevation across the boreal forests nesting in thick evergreens. Our familiar slate-colored variety breeds as close as the high elevations of the Appalachians. You can find them easily around Blowing Rock and Boone year round. Watch for male juncos advertising their territories up high in fir or spruce trees. They will utter sharp chips and may string together a series of rapid call notes that sounds like the noise emitted by a “phaser” of Star Trek fame.

In winter, flocks congregate in open and brushy habitats. Juncos are distinguished from other sparrows by their clean markings: dark heads with small, pale, conical bills, pale bellies and white outer tail feathers. Females have a browner wash and less of a demarcation between belly and breast than males. They hop around and feed on small seeds close to ground level. Some individuals can be quite tame once they become familiar with a specific place and particular people. Juncos do communicate frequently, using sharp trills to keep the flock together. They will not hesitate to dive for deep cover when alarmed.

So the next time you come upon a flock along the roadside or notice juncos under your feeder, take a close look. These little birds will only be with us a few months, until day length begins to increase and they head back to the boreal forests from whence they came.  PS

Susan would love to hear from you.  Send wildlife sightings and photos to

Out of the Blue

The Kitty Chronicles, Part VI

The odd couple and the cat lady

By Deborah Salomon

Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual kitty column.

Backstory: I love animals. More important, I trust and admire them. As a lifelong rescuer/adopter I have experienced many beautiful food-based relationships with stray and feral kitties, lost dogs, a retired racing greyhound, a pair of Pekin ducks and thousands of grateful squirrels, birds, possums and other wild creatures. Coyotes and foxes don’t make the cut, for obvious reasons.

Once I found homes for 32 kittens before capturing mama and having her spayed.

That year, when my family asked what I wanted for my birthday, I answered a Hav-a-Heart trap.

Enough, I thought, after moving here 12 years ago. I’ve done my part. Then a coal black kitty with satin-smooth fur and expressive eyes appeared at my door. He had been left behind by a family that moved. He made a nest beneath the bushes. I fed him outside for six months. Finally, on July 4, 2011, I opened the door to Lucky. He walked into the kitchen and sat down, awaiting bowl placement. After a good feed he hopped on the couch and fell asleep. He was home. I felt relieved.

Black cats are special, soulful. I cannot resist them. I probably needed him more than he needed me.

A year later I did the same for Hissy/Missy, who the neighbors called Everybody’s because she was fed by many. Hissy had a notched ear, indicating a spayed feral. She is a widebody, a patchwork of soft white underbelly fur and coarse mottled gray on top. One eye is crossed. She waddles.

Lucky — sleek and shiny — had been neutered and declawed (horrible) but no microchip.

I study them. I learn from them. They make me feel better.

Go ahead . . . laugh. At least I’ll never need opioids. And I’ve met interesting people, uh, pawing through bitsy cans in the cat food aisle.

Lucky has the best disposition I have ever encountered in an animal. He is a quiet gentleman, a thinker, a cuddler who literally looks before he leaps. I can honestly say that in eight years I have never heard Lucky hiss or growl, except when an unfamiliar cat passes by, and Lucky is safely behind a closed window. He gets along fine with a neighbor’s kitty. They hang out together on the porch, two old men sharing stories.

Hissy, in contrast, is a fussbudget. I almost named her Edith after Archie Bunker’s “Dingbat” from All in the Family. For the first month or so, she hissed at me, at Lucky, at everything. Hence the name. Then, suddenly, she became sweet as sugar so now it’s Missy, although she will always be Hissy to me.

They couldn’t be more different. But opposites attract, as evidenced by their relationship mimicking some marriages. He stands still when she grooms him. She follows him around, pushes him off his food bowl and his windowsill perch. He has nests all over the house, which she tries to share. When he asks to go out, she follows . . . and is not far behind when he meows to come in.

He accepts her affection and ministrations without noticeable response, let alone reciprocation. Except when Hissy was at the vet all day for treatment Lucky seemed unsettled, watchful.

They communicate by nuance, by intense stares and twitching whiskers.

“Supper could have been better,” Lucky twitches. “I like grain-free kibble laced with chicken livers best.”

Actually, he likes to lick the underside of my yogurt cup top best. Greek vanilla, please.

She reports the weather to him. “I went out. It’s raining. I came in. I went out again. Still raining. I came in. Went out again. Drizzling.”

Come winter, each has a flannel-covered heating pad on the bed. His, for an arthritic hip. Hers because she pushed him off his. I try to position one for me (arthritic shoulder) — a lost cause.

Since my catspeak is rusty we communicate physically. When Lucky wants something he finds me, paws my leg, makes eye contact and leads me to his objective — usually food or the door — front, in the morning, back in the afternoon, according to where the sun warms the chair cushion. If he wants laptime he just jumps. Missy is needy. She lives on attention, probably a result of a deprived kittenhood. Soon as I sit down, she’s there, kneading with her claws and purring. She thinks mealtime is whenever I’m in the kitchen. She rubs my legs, gets underfoot at the risk of having her paw stepped on.

At least she doesn’t wake me at 3 a.m., asking for treats, which I keep in the bedside table drawer to pacify Lucky when he quietly but persistently paws for a snack.

I rise early anyway, so I forgive him for reasons best expressed by Paul Simon:

When you’re down and out . . . when evening falls so hard . . .  I will comfort you . . . When darkness comes and pain is all around . . . I will lay me down, like a bridge over troubled water . . .

You think I’m crazy, right? Did you hear about Dean Nicholson, the Scottish welder who decided to cycle around the world? He found an abandoned kitten in Bosnia, did all the necessary vetting, bought Nala a vest, a leash and a bike carrier and continued his journey for thousands of miles. When Nala gets tired of the basket she drapes herself around Dean’s neck and falls asleep. Their story made The Washington Post.

As for sweet Lucky . . . and to a lesser extent, Missy, they prove that I’m a nutty old cat lady.

But they’re just cats, right?

Yes, just cats. That’s the best part. PS

Deborah Salomon is a staff writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

In the Spirit

Oleo Saccharum

Three ways to create a simple base for your cocktails

By Tony Cross

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many ingredients, recipes and gadgets — all aimed at making my job easier. I mean, c’mon, my business is built on the premise of pulling a handle to get the finished product. You can’t get much lazier than that. Some of these experiments have been disastrous, but from time to time I’ll find a winner. In this case, the winner is oleo saccharum and a few ways to make it.

“A few ways to make what?” Oleo saccharum. It has the same number of syllables as REO Speedwagon, but is waaay better. Trust me. Latin for “oil-sugar,” this combination is the base for most punches and certain cordials/cocktails. (My very first article in PineStraw, circa 2015, touched on the subject briefly.) It’s a very simple process of mixing certain citrus peels — grapefruit, lemon or lime — with sugar. After some time, the sugar draws out oils from whichever citrus you used. Science! And this is coming from someone who failed high school chemistry. Let’s go over several ways to achieve this.

If you’re a beginner:

Combine the peels of one grapefruit and 250 grams of baker’s sugar (or plain granulated sugar) in a bowl. Use a muddler (or, if you don’t have one, a wooden spoon) and press the peels into the sugar for about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand about four hours, or even overnight. When you return to the bowl, you’ll see that what was sugar is now a syrup mixed with peels: oleo saccharum.

Now, you can do a couple of things. Add the oil-sugar to a pot with 1 cup of fresh squeezed (and filtered) grapefruit juice — it might help to add the juice to the bowl after trying to get all of the oleo saccharum into the pot. Once it’s all together, stir on medium heat for a couple of minutes. Strain out grapefruit peels and refrigerate after it cools. Or, you can skip the juice and simply strain out the grapefruit peels and refrigerate (if there’s undissolved sugar, muddle your heart out). You can mix this basic syrup, in sparkling water for a fresh non-alcoholic cooler, or you can whip up a quick little riff on the classic Champagne cocktail:

4 ounces chilled Champagne (or other dry sparkling wine)

1/4 ounce grapefruit oleo

2 dashes grapefruit bitters (or Angostura, if you don’t have any)

Add oleo and bitters in a flute glass, top with Champagne. 

If you’re a seasoned vet with a vacuum sealer:

Combine the same specs from above, but this time place in a food processor. Blend until all of the grapefruit peels are completely obliterated. Place the mix in a vacuum seal bag and use the vac-seal machine to suck out all of the air from the bag. Place it in the kitchen and come back in two hours, or put it in the freezer if you’d like to use it at another time.

If you’re a chemistry cowboy:

Bring out the sous-vide machine. Meaning “under vacuum,” this style of cooking has been very popular for years now, but I like to use it when making certain syrups, including oleo saccharums. I use the Anova Culinary model, but I’m sure there are a few others on the market that will do the trick. Ditch the food processor and combine the peels and sugar into the vacuum seal bag, and seal. Oh, and by the way, if you’re not a fan of grapefruit (who are you?), you can most certainly substitute lemons or limes. I recommend around 35 grams of lemon peels or 50 grams of lime. Grab your sealed bag and place it in a large bath of water. Hook up your sous-vide machine and set temperature to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and the timer to 45 minutes. When the timer goes off, unplug the machine, and take the bag out of the water. Nothing but net! I mean, oil. Pretty cool.

Tying it all together:

OK, you’ve made your oil-sugar. What now? You can use it as a base for punch, or a simple syrup. I’ll leave you with a riff on a Tom Collins cocktail.

The Cleaner

1 ounce Durham Distillery Conniption Navy Strength Gin

1/2 ounce TOPO Vodka

1/4 ounce St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

1 ounce grapefruit oleo saccharum cordial (syrup with the grapefruit juice, like in Step 1 from above)

1/2 ounce lemon juice 

Pinch of salt

Sparkling water

Combine all ingredients (sans the sparkling water) in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake hard for 10 seconds. Strain into a long (Collins) glass over ice. Top with sparkling water. Use a barspoon to stir together ingredients briefly. Garnish with a swath of a grapefruit peel.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

Sporting Life

Black Dark

Sleet, snow, ducks and a dog

By Tom Bryant

Old duck hunters call it black dark. That’s when you crawl out of a warm bed at three in the morning, wander sleepily to the door of the cabin in your skivvies, stick your head out to check the weather, and report back to the boys. The guys are slowly muttering, pulling on long underwear and heavy socks before grabbing a cup of coffee. You report, “Men, it’s sleeting mixed with snow, colder than Aunt Sylvia’s horse holder in January, and black dark. It’s perfect!”

That’s the way it was on one of my last duck hunts at Bob Hester’s duck club right off Lake Mattamuskeet. Black dark. When we trooped out of the little motel where we were staying for the duration, sleet was falling, bouncing off our hats like little grains of sand. As we loaded up and drove out of town toward Bob’s barn, the headquarters for the day’s hunt, Bryan said, “Man, it’s black dark out there.”

The little town of Engelhard has a few pole lights on street corners, and some of the stores were lit with night lights, but it didn’t take long to leave the town with its soft glow and move into the blackness of the country.

Bryan followed up his darkness statement with, “I hope y’all brought your flashlights.” I remembered the little Mag flash I had repacked with new batteries. I remembered the batteries but didn’t remember putting the little light in my gunning bag. Could be trouble, I thought.

The headlights of the truck pierced the coal-black night with just enough brightness that we saw the turn to Bob’s farm as we rode by it. Bryan stopped the truck, backed up, made the turn, and it was a short ride to the barn where we would get our marching orders.

There were two big pole lights on either side of the barn, creating a halo effect with the sleet and snow reflecting back on the building. Bob was inside his walled-off office with his feet propped up on his desk, leaning back next to a glowing, cherry-red woodstove that radiated heat across the room.

Bob Hester is famous across the Southeast with diehard duck hunters. He has gained his reputation after many years of studying species of ducks and their habitats. As Big Tom, a resident of Fairfield and the owner of a thriving duck cleaning business, says, “Mr. Bob knows more about ducks than ducks know about ducks.”

“Well, boys,” Bob said as he dropped his feet off the desk and stood up, “I hope y’all are ready to do some serious ducking. The weather’s right, and the ducks are here. It ought to be a good hunt. Grab your gear and let’s load up. You’ll need flashlights. It’s black dark out there.”

We hustled to the truck, pulled on our waders, grabbed our gunning bags and shotguns, and lastly, pulled out our flashlights. Luckily, I found my light just where I had stowed it, in the top pocket of my bag. It’s one of those waterproof stainless steel Mag lights about the size of a candle and works great in close quarters, but if I had to light up any distance, I was out of luck.

We crammed ourselves in the open bed of Bob’s pickup, and he looked in the back just before cranking up and heading out. “You boys all loaded and ready? It’s about a 15-minute ride. Hang on to your gear. There’s a couple of wet spots I’ll have to negotiate before we get there. Could be some slipping and sliding.”

He was right. The dikes we were driving over had holes from the weather and from regular wear and tear. Muskrats didn’t help as they dug and undermined the sides of the dikes in some cases.

Bryan’s little dog, Babe, snuggled up under my legs trying to escape some of the snow that was coming down harder. Babe was a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and will retrieve anything from a duck to a squirrel; and as it worked out, she would see a lot of action before the morning was over.

After a short time, Bob’s truck slowed and came to a stop. He stepped out of the cab and said, “OK, boys, this is the jumping-off point.” He shined his big handheld spotlight out across the black water. As we unloaded from the bed of the truck, we watched with some trepidation as the light illuminated the tree line.

“The boat with the decoys is right here on the bank. If I was you, I’d put my coats in the boat until you wade across the canal. The water is a little deep and will come up right high on your waders, probably wet your coats if you leave ’em on. The canal ends right yonder.” He pointed his light to the low growing brush at the beginning of the swamp on the other side of the deep black canal water. It was about 30 yards.

We loaded our gear along with our coats and prepared to shove the skiff off the bank. Bob pointed to me. “Tom, you’re the tallest, go ahead and step in so we can see how high the water is on you.”

“Why don’t I paddle the little boat over to the other side and then step in where it’s shallow.”

“Naw, wouldn’t work. That skiff wouldn’t hold you. She’d sink.”

I looked down at the inky dark water, took a breath, and eased myself down. The water came up over my hips, but I had enough free board on my waders to make it across, unless I stepped in a hole.

Bob shined his big light toward what looked like a cut in the brush on the other side. “See that hole in the brush? You can put your coats on when you get there. It’s relatively shallow after that. Red survey tape placed on some trees will mark the way to the blind. It’s a couple hundred yards. I’ll come back and pick you up around noon. Y’all wear ’em out.”

He climbed into his truck, and we watched as the glow of his taillights disappeared down the dike. It was black dark, and our little lights were like pinpricks in the darkness. It started sleeting in earnest, looking like little pebbles splashing in the canal channel.

Bryan put Babe in the small skiff, and I pulled it over to the cut in the brush, then put on my hunting coat. The sleet changed to snow.

It didn’t take long for us to assemble on the other side and start our forced march across the sleet-covered marsh toward the blind. Bryan’s little dog stayed in the skiff with the gear and decoys as if to say, “I ain’t getting out there. Are you crazy?”

The hunt was many years ago, and it was to go down in the journal as one of the best. Hester has since taken his club super private, which means I can no longer afford it. Neither can any of my hunting buddies. All we have now are memories of what Hester called the “woods blind,” the snow on that winter morning, and that expression of old duck hunters: The night was truly black dark. PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.