Weekend Away

Not Your Average Farm Town

The Madcap gents lap up the small-town pleasures of Farmville, Virginia

By Jason Oliver Nixon

When John and I think up ideas for our weekends away, it’s easy to consider obvious road-trip destinations such as Charleston and Savannah (stay tuned . . . they’re on our list). But we also like to shake it up with locations that are off the beaten path.

Like Farmville in central Virginia.

Situated 2 hours and 40 minutes north of High Point, Farmville, population 8,000, isn’t exactly your average farm town.

In fact, it’s something of a design mecca. Truly.

But that’s not all.

It turns out that it’s a charming and supremely walkable college town with stately brick architecture, a handful of spot-on restaurants and heaps of green space, including the awe-inspiring High Bridge Trail with an entrance that sits smack on Main Street.

Plus, the town serves as the perfect home base for visits to nearby historic sites such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and lesser-known Poplar Forest — without the crush, say, of bustling Charlottesville.

John and I discovered Farmville’s recently overhauled, 1930s-era Hotel Weyanoke while trawling possible road-trip destinations online. We were smitten with the images of the hotel’s sympathetic renovation that mixes period architecture with modern flourishes. But the hostelry is, in fact, far better than the online images suggest.

The Weyanoke boasts 70 sleek, contemporary rooms and two restaurants — the Taproot Tavern and Effingham’s. Expect craft beer, cool cocktails and smart cooking (think coal-fired pizzas, crab cakes with creamy rémoulade and a terrific burger with homemade pickles atop a brioche bun).

It’s also dog-friendly.

The pound-rescue pups — Weenie, Cecil, Amy Petunia and George — accompanied us for the weekend, a frolicsome quartet that relished everything about the comfortable junior suite, including its sitting area, sprawling bathroom and Juliet balcony. And at just $150 per night, the room was a steal.

The Weyanoke’s rooftop cocktail bar, the Catbird Rooftop Terrace, was closed for the season, but we plan to return in a more clement season for a little rosé with a view. We loved the hotel’s signature green bikes, perfect for exploring next door Longwood University with its pedestrian friendly, postcard-perfect campus.

Hotel Weyanoke ticks off one Farmville design box. And then there’s Green Front Furniture, a sprawling discount furniture company that comprises 13 buildings over several blocks of downtown. Should you seek any type of furnishing, accessory, rug or patio set under the sun, Green Front is your nirvana. Its showrooms are housed within various storefronts up and down Farmville’s main street, including former department stores and dramatically lit tobacco warehouses that look as if they were plucked from the canals of Amsterdam.

Traditional furniture brands such as Theodore Alexander make a big presence. As does Kindel. Gabby and Summer Classics. Hickory Chair. And on and on.

Lest you feel overwhelmed, Green Front has a great map that will give you the lay of the land.

We cross paths with the charismatic 20-something Den Crallé, a Farmville native and the force behind Green Front Furniture.

“We love being an inherent part of the Farmville community,” Crallé tells us. “The town is super dynamic and only getting better and better. You can shop for furniture, dine, spend the weekend at a great hotel, wander the wonderful campuses and really enjoy a classic American small-town experience.”

John and I walked. We hiked. We trotted the dogs up and down Main Street. We browsed furniture at Green Front for clients. We visited nearby Hampden-Sydney College and brunched on BBQ at The Fishin’ Pig. We dined at Mex-centric one19, where we savored uber fresh scallop tacos paired with prickly pear margaritas and a mountain of chips and homemade salsa.

Speaking of mountains, on Saturday morning, John and I made the hour-long, bucolic drive to Monticello in Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop masterpiece is stunning, of course, the iconic architecture paired with a gorgeous panorama. Visitors can learn about the plantation’s history, sip local wines, wander amidst the vegetable gardens and visit Jefferson’s grave. But be prepared for swarms of people, loads of guidelines and — should you miss your social distancing marks — a quantum dose of admonitions. 

“Don’t come any closer, stay away,” lectured a particularly Teutonic guide when I humbly asked for directions to the loo from behind my mask.

Harumph. There went my warm and cozy feelings for Monticello.

Sunday morning’s hour-long pilgrimage to Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s less-celebrated retreat near Lynchburg, Va., restored my optimism. There was nothing didactic or dictatorial about our visit to Jefferson’s folly-like pavilion. And there were no crowds. John and I were two of eight people on the property for a 12:30 p.m. guided tour. Surrounded by suburban sprawl, Poplar Forest has managed to cobble back 600 acres to its original 5,000 and offers stunning views in certain sight lines (and, sadly, perspectives onto vinyl-clad ranch houses in others). The home itself is amazing — a cube surrounded by a Palladian-inspired symmetry that, lacking furniture, celebrates Jefferson’s architectural masterstrokes. Restoration work continues. Happily, there is a master plan for Poplar Forest that will help reduce the suburban vistas and celebrate the estate’s extant surrounding nature. Interesting factoid: Poplar Forest was rescued in the 1980s by a High Point doctor who saved the property from development before selling it to the nonprofit that currently runs the estate.

Back in Farmville, John and I finished off our busy weekend with a languid dinner at the groovy North Street Press Club eatery, housed in a super-cool former printing plant next door to the hotel. We sipped kicky Paloma cocktails and noshed on Vietnamese street tacos with tangy nuoc cham sauce from a vast around-the-world menu.

Our assessment of Farmville?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Noted John, “I really like this town, who knew? What an unexpected, wonderful little gem.”  PS

The Madcap gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

Theater In The Year Of Corona

Indefinite Intermission

Theater life in two acts

By Morgan Sills

New York

You can only imagine the indescribable complexities of closing 41 Broadway theaters. When Broadway shut down March 12, there were 31 shows running, including eight that had begun their preview period. Eight more shows were scheduled to begin performances before the end of the season. Mrs. Doubtfire, the musical, got through three previews. Plaza Suite with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker was set to begin previews the next night.

Right away, prominent creative New Yorkers were dying, from my former acting teacher Mark Blum (Mozart in the Jungle, Desperately Seeking Susan) to Broadway actor Nick Cordero (Waitress, A Bronx Tale) to legendary Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally (Anastasia, Ragtime). In March and April, social media was flooded with friends who had contracted the virus. Some had mild cases; others miraculously rebounded from near-death and are now dealing with what seem to be permanent after-effects.

The deaths of places are concomitant with the deaths of people. Like everything in crowded Manhattan, all too often it comes down to real estate. Buildings you never thought you’d see empty suddenly are. Favorite restaurants, bodegas and other shops have gone out of business practically overnight, some without a chance for customers to say goodbye. Among the pandemic’s consequences were the permanent closures of huge rehearsal spaces like TheaterworksUSA’s Chelsea studios and Shetler Studios. Smaller off-Broadway indie theaters are just hanging on, and there are very few of those in locations that get tourist traffic anyway.

What will come of the skyscrapers full of corporate office space now that so many are working remotely? Just as in the theater, that special connection that happens with a group of people together in the same room has been temporarily lost.

Around 97,000 workers rely on Broadway for their livelihood. Actors and musicians. Theater staff, from the box office to the bar. The shop workers who build the shows and the backstage crews who run them. Press, marketing, advertising, legal. Families whose lives depend on the Broadway mill turning out eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year. What can creative people do when even their traditional fallback work has fallen away? Waiting tables, teaching and coaching, personal services like yoga and personal training, are all cut back or completely gone. People are getting out of the business, getting out of the city, going back to school online. What if they never return?

In 2019, leisure travel accounted for 53 million visitors to New York. Culture is a huge part of what gets them there, with a side trip to the big Apple store. Broadway sells more tickets annually than all the NYC metropolitan area’s professional sports teams combined, with an annual economic impact of $14.8 billion, and 2019 was the best-attended year in Broadway history. Nationally, arts and culture production is second only to retail in the value it adds to the nation’s gross domestic product. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the arts and culture sector contributes $15.3 billion to North Carolina’s economy. Most Broadway shows have to play their eight weekly performances to around 60 percent of capacity to break even. A large musical would have to sell around 7,000 tickets per week just to get by. Social distancing isn’t possible inside theaters that pack 1,000 or more people into a place where space is at a premium.

Broadway means large audiences from around the country and around the world. Broadway means prestige and talent. The creative and economic spark from the theater industry powers everything around it. The shutdown has a ripple effect on restaurants, hotels and tourism. The needs of all these industries, their workers, their customers and the city are irrevocably intertwined.

In March and April, friends kept saying, “Don’t come back unless you have to.” Excuse me, what? As an adopted New Yorker I’d been there for both hell (9/11) and high water (Hurricane Sandy). Those disasters weren’t fitting comparisons to this ongoing one.

These days, the five-minute walk east from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment to the theater district is fairly bleak. The hullabaloo and bright lights of eight shows a week has been replaced with scaffolding and boarded-up windows and doors. The Broadway shutdown has reached its fifth extension, and when shows return, it will be on a rolling basis. Which show will be the canary in the coal mine to see if the audience is ready to come back in numbers large enough to make it financially viable? The longer Broadway stays closed, the more shows won’t reopen. Shows have expenses, even when they aren’t running. Among the early casualties, Disney permanently closed Frozen. Others will follow. And no Broadway means no Broadway tours stopping in North Carolina.

Whenever people ask what I love most about New York, my usual reply is: A person can’t ever look around and say there’s nothing to do. People come to the city to invent themselves, to reinvent themselves, to find their tribe and fully become themselves. Twenty-five years into my life as a New Yorker, I know the city knows how to cope with anything . . . anything. My barber can cut hair while I keep my mask on and still do a great job around my ears. Restaurant Row has been turned into a great big makeshift sidewalk café. Art museums are reopening with capacity controls and mask mandates. Times Square feels more cautious, slower, grimmer — but there are signs of life.

Here’s the big question: Will Broadway come back? In order for New York to come back, it has to. And our nation can’t come back without New York.

The Sandhills

The actors were getting nervous. “Can we get more hand sanitizer and wipes?”

“Is the stage manager cleaning everything during the breaks?”

“How often does the drinking fountain get cleaned?”

We knew Judson Theatre Company’s March 2020 production of The Odd Couple (Female Version) would be funny, and we knew it would be a hit. Advance ticket sales and group sales were the strongest we’d ever had. The ads were running; the eye-catching pink and blue 1980s-style posters were up; we had done our mailing. There was even a feature story in this magazine on our two stars.

JTC completed its eighth season in the fall of 2019 with the first theatrical production to open at Bradshaw Performing Arts Center, Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, and it broke our box office record. We’d tripled our audience in eight years.

Rehearsals for The Odd Couple had a promising beginning. Our stars Amanda Bearse (Married . . . With Children, Fright Night) and Teresa Ganzel (The Tonight Show, The Toy) had arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, along with the rest of the company. The three of us had a loving, laughing lunch together at the Woman’s Exchange amid a flurry of local publicity. The play had been blocked in three rehearsal days and was scheduled for a run-through Saturday afternoon.

Daniel Haley, the director of The Odd Couple and JTC’s artistic director, and I had a post-rehearsal meeting after the third day. “Morgan, we should shut down,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “It’s cowardly to give in to fear. It’ll all blow over. Besides, the actors are here. The tickets are sold. The set is built. The money is spent. And the virus hasn’t hit Moore County yet. We should keep to ourselves and sweat it out.”

Daniel continued, “The actors are starting to get nervous. If travel gets restricted, they might not be able to get back home.”

I was wrong, Daniel was right. Be proactive and decisive in a crisis. Don’t look back. The decision was made to gather the company at the rehearsal space the next morning and tell everyone at the same time. We agreed that I would do the speech. Driving home that night after what suddenly felt like the world’s longest day, I remembered it was Friday the 13th. How apt.

With difficulty, I found the words. The production shut down, taking with it a great deal of what JTC had built up financially over the past several years. The company consensus was “this is a bad situation, but you’re doing the right thing.” There were no raised voices, though there were some quiet tears. They understood, but nobody likes to lose their job. The last thing we did as a group was make a company photo.

We announced the shutdown at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Airline tickets were booked. The actors returned to the hotel, packed, checked out, returned their rental car keys. By 12:45 p.m., the first car was on the way to RDU. A second group of actors flew out later that day, bound for New York, and by Sunday morning everyone in the cast and crew was safe at home.

Driving back from the airport (with Daniel on speakerphone), we made our plan to get the set, costumes and props out of the theater. We figured out the logistics of notifying our audience and processing the flurry of refunds, exchanges and donations. Gratitude to the patrons who donated the cost of their tickets, knowing it couldn’t begin to cover the losses.

Like most not-for-profit theater companies, Judson Theatre Company depends on the box office for roughly 50 percent of our income, with grants and corporate and private donors providing the balance. We work extraordinarily hard to keep costs and ticket prices moderate.

After dinner Saturday, Daniel and I pored over The Odd Couple budget line by line, searching for any dollar that could be saved without damaging long-standing relationships with our vendors. They would no doubt soon be hurting, too. Nearly all were understanding and gracious, refunding anything we hadn’t used or crediting it forward to the next show.

Nonetheless, a worst-case scenario had come to pass. We’d shut down a production at the worst possible time: after rehearsal had started, but before performances began. Nearly the entirety of The Odd Couple’s budget was gone. Financially, it was as if we had done a big production that didn’t sell a single ticket.

And the hits kept coming as the pages fell off the calendar like a montage in an MGM movie. We were forced to postpone our fall 2020 production of A Few Good Men. Our friends at Sandhills Community College chimed in with their full commitment to JTC remaining part of the BPAC family. It’s worth remembering that once live performances are back, it’s going to sink in at a deeper level what a major turning point having this new facility is in the lives of the college, the county and the region.

But what is a theater company when it is not producing live theater? It’s not like selling Helen Keller’s water pump from The Miracle Worker or the knife from Twelve Angry Men would raise a bucket of money. Crisis time for arts organizations has shown that the starving artist model doesn’t work — not long term.

We resisted the temptation to do something just to do it, just to stay busy. We couldn’t accept lowering the quality standard the company stands for. And yet the opportunity to pivot to a new world is intriguing. Thus it was that our first streaming show came to pass in December: a new holiday play, Yes, Virginia, by the writers of Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives, starring Mindy Sterling from the Austin Powers movies, and Arnetia Walker from Nurses and Dynasty. We partnered with Laguna Playhouse and some other theaters around the country. We stepped outside our boundaries to reach an audience beyond the Sandhills. Many of the tasks for a streaming production are the same as for a live show: choosing the material, getting the rights, casting, grant writing, selling tickets. There will be more streaming programming in JTC’s future — a silver lining.

Companies that stream theatrical shows have been around for a while, but suddenly, as Irving Berlin wrote in 1911, “Everybody’s doin’ it.” A new theater ecosystem is evolving. There are victories like Hamilton on Disney+ or even the capture of my most recent off-Broadway production, Happy Birthday Doug, on BroadwayHD.

We can all look forward to a future where live performances resume in coexistence with digital offerings. Thanks to the increased accessibility streaming provides, theater as an art form has the opportunity to get closer to the center of popular culture than it has been since the golden age of Broadway.

Streamed programming in no way replaces a live performance, but it has its own merits as an entertainment experience. It pulls down several of live theater’s longstanding barriers: geography, financial, scheduling. Audiences can explore offerings they might have been reticent to sample on Broadway at full price. There have been Zoom readings with casts we might not see live and in person: Sally Field and Bryan Cranston in Love Letters. Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore in Same Time, Next Year. And if you don’t like it, you can multitask with it on in the background while you eat your Chipotle or scroll your Instagram . . . or just turn it off.

But take heart. Live theater won’t be gone for good. The pandemic is an ongoing opportunity to hit the reset button on your life. What is worth your time, your money, your attention? Theater is worthy of all three. There is nothing as electric as the live interaction between performer and audience. That moment of connection is as irreplaceable as it is priceless. And that connection must not be lost.

Theater is stories told and witnessed. Artists collaborating on a distillation of the collective experience of being human. Most importantly, theater is the audience. What a pleasure it will be when we’re all together again.  PS

Morgan Sills is a theater producer and director with Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theater credits. A Moore County native, he is co-founder and executive producer of Judson Theatre Company, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, professional theater company in residence at BPAC in Pinehurst (JudsonTheatre.com).

Magic in the Park

Shakespeare in the age of pestilence

By Jonathan Drahos   

Under the majestic night sky, fretted with the golden fire of the stars, Shakespeare’s plays sing out, piercing through the vastness of space. It is magic.

For me personally, I have been living this dream ever since I heard his words spoken in the outdoors. The plays were written to be performed at the Globe Theatre in London during daytime hours under the open English sky. It is no wonder that when Shakespeare’s words are spoken outside today, they come into agreement with how they were first conceived. It is like time travel. It is magic.

I am what has been described as a “bardolater” — one who reveres Shakespeare and stands in awe of his artistic achievement. Since I was a small child, Shakespeare has captured my curiosity. The passion of the language and the intricacies and genius of his poetry have captivated my attention (bordering on obsession) since first I was exposed to what George Bernard Shaw described as Shakespeare’s “word music.” The rhythm of sound boldly reverberates into the heavens, it seems, but the rhetorical power lands on us with a surprising gentleness and perfect ease. No other playwright before Shakespeare, and no playwright since, has been able to capture such effortlessness in expression.

Shakespeare in the park has been an enchanting tradition in the United States since the early 19th century — and the lyricism of the Bard’s language has perfectly melded with the beauty of the outdoors for centuries. It is almost impossible to think how Shakespeare’s plays, written in early modern English over 400 years ago, could become such a distinctly American tradition. Shakespeare in the park has become as American as outdoor barbecue, lemonade stands and swimming pools.

What better place than the historic village of Pinehurst to engage with this eloquent language as it dances through the pines like a mystical sprite? The Uprising Theatre Company has been producing Shakespeare in the Pines on the Village Green since June 2017, and we have reached thousands of patrons from all over the Sandhills and beyond.

Producing plays outside offers unique challenges. We are at the mercy of the elements, which in the North Carolina summer can be quite tempestuous. Our lighting equipment, set, costumes and sound equipment must be diligently protected. Wearing heavy costumes in the heat can be challenging for the actors. Safety concerns on wet surfaces with stage combat choreography, dance, and the sweeping physical elements of Shakespeare’s plays are a real challenge. But these pale in comparison to the benefits.

The community has truly responded to the cause of bringing the highest level of theater to our village, enriching lives through Shakespeare’s unique investigation of the human experience. Our patrons include individuals and local businesses who believe that theater is important, and that Shakespeare, in particular, is important to our time. In the age of short attention spans and the devaluation of language, Shakespeare offers us eloquence. Our patrons know that when we devalue language, we devalue communication; and when we devalue communication, the danger is that we might begin to devalue each other. Shakespeare is a great unifying element.

I have witnessed firsthand how Shakespeare can be transformative. In my work as a professor and director of Theatre at the most diverse campus in the Southeast — the University of North Carolina, Pembroke — I have seen the transforming power of Shakespeare. I have witnessed how this unique work has changed young people’s lives by delving into the complexity of his characters and epic themes that teach us so much about ourselves. Students who have never been exposed to the plays before have experienced a kind of awakening to the relevance in our contemporary world of Shakespeare’s introspection. As Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright Ben Johnson wrote of him in 1623: “He was not for an age, but for all time.”

But it is even more than Shakespeare’s extraordinary characters and universal themes. Our patrons in Pinehurst tell us that experiencing Shakespeare under the summer sky is unique. We run the plays over two weeks in Tufts Park, and the green takes on a festival atmosphere. Children play soccer, families throw the football, golf carts line the perimeter of the green, and we are surrounded by a sea of lawn chairs, picnic blankets and baskets.

The play itself seems like only a part of the experience. The warmth of the weather is matched by the warmth of the diversity of people coming together in the public space. There is a powerful feeling of community.

The coronavirus has taken this feeling away from us temporarily. The worldwide pandemic has forced us further apart and has damaged the fabric of what theater is made of — community. But we will not be deterred. This is not the first time that theater has been challenged. Being outdoors can be an asset for us. As a director at UNCP, I recently directed Macbeth, and we rehearsed the entire play outdoors, distanced, and masked. We rehearsed the play for 12 weeks, and no one in our cast, crew or staff were infected with the virus. We had smaller audiences watching the play from a distance, and we filmed the performance to be streamed online.

In the Elizabethan era, the consciousness of sickness and death during plague caused shutdowns and quarantine, and this is keenly (but not overtly) referenced in Shakespeare’s plays. He was working in London when the bubonic plague surfaced in 1592, and it closed the theaters again in 1603. Two years before he wrote Macbeth, London experienced mass death of over 30,000 in the city of just over 250,000. Yet Shakespeare never left London during these plagues. He stayed to create art when many playwrights did not make the same decision. He knew his responsibility to his moment. Shakespeare was a healing force in his society during the most brutal times imaginable.

Shakespeare reaches through the millennium to teach us that division is fiction in America. Cultural experience is a great unifier — a wonderful way for an audience to share an artistic experience with their neighbors. Even during a plague, artists will find ways to create. The times ahead will be challenging for us all. We are committed to a 2021 season. It may look a bit different, but we feel a responsibility to bring the magic back.  PS

Jonathan Drahos is co-founder and co-artistic director of Uprising Theatre Company/Shakespeare in the Pines. He is a professor and the director of the Theatre program at UNC-Pembroke. He and his wife, Carolanne, make their home in the village of Pinehurst.

Stage Craft

Return of the artist

Fiction by Joyce Reehling

Dear God, this is why I shouldn’t do interviews!” June Talley shouted.

“Why is that?” Tom shouted back.

“You remember I agreed to meet a reporter at Joe Allen’s?” June shouted again.

“I’m right here.” Tom turned the corner from the kitchen with a cup of tea in each hand.

“He makes me sound like a nut job,” June said.

“Hardly,” said Tom, who had already read the Times.

“You know how I am always whining on about the shoes? Look here what it says:

As this experienced character actor munched on her Cobb salad the conversation turned to shoes, not her shoes, but the shoes of the woman she is playing. She simply must have them right away, she says, “to be comfortable, not comfortable within the play, but comfortable within this person — the way one always wants to feel about oneself. This is sounding very hoity-toity but we build the character to inhabit that person for several hours a day and it must be worn as one wears one’s own skin, lightly but deeply held. That is why I must have my shoes within the first week. Nothing says who you are so much as what you stand in.”

June stopped reading, picked up a piece of dry toast and crunched down on it. “I shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a handler.”

Tom leaned over her shoulder to look at the newspaper.

“He said Cobb salad? Unforgivable.”

“And look at the picture! It’s not me. It’s my feet crossed in those dog-tired loafers.”

“They are your favorite.”

“That, my darling husband, is not the point.”

“Forget about it. It’s Wednesday’s paper. No one reads on Wednesday. Besides, people always like a peek backstage. Eat your toast and get out the door before I hear how you cannot possibly be late.”

Tom smiled and went back into the kitchen to get his eggs and bacon. He didn’t have to eat light to beat back the nerves of the first day of rehearsal.

As she gathered her stuff in her NPR tote bag June turned and said, “You know, I would love for a scientist to explain why that happens. I mean we rehearse, we are solid, we move into the theater with lights and sets and up in smoke we go — sometimes for a day or two — it makes no sense.

“And another thing. I hate all this digital stuff. iPads and things. Playwrights are rewriting before we even have a chance to ground ourselves. You can hear the ping of a PDF before you even get the line out. They used to have to go home and think about it. It slowed them down and gave us time to maybe make the damn thing work, but now, jeez Louise, you no sooner open your mouth . . . ”

“Darling,” said Tom, waving a piece of bacon, “it’s 2021, not 1975, so best get on with it. You can sit at lunch and tell the young ones how pencils work and what paper is.”

Tom rose, napkin in hand, and pushed her toward the door. “I love you. Don’t be late. How’s coq au vin for dinner?”

“Yes, please,” she said from the hallway.

“May the Gods be with you,” he said and closed the door.

June hummed random notes to herself in the elevator. Out on the street she started to recite, in her head, her first scene in the first act as she strode down Central Park West to the subway.

Learning lines was dogs body work, and she wasn’t blessed with a photographic memory like some lucky actors. She went line-by-line until she hit a snag and then went all the way back to the beginning, started again, and added one more line. It took hours and focus, and she hated this part.

She was well into her 50s and memorizing was not the snap it once was, so she used the travel time to run through as many lines as she could and tuck them into her brain.

“Oh, hell,” she said out loud at the entrance to the subway when she stumbled on a line and knew she’d have to struggle to put it right in her mind. “Just get it in your head. Just get it in your head.”

At Columbus Circle she ran up the gray concrete stairs and headed to Eighth Avenue and the rehearsal studio. Eighth was always a bit dirty and crowded and wonderful because it was the canyon that housed anything from Broadway musicals —with all those lithe chorus kids — to a one-person show. “How do they do that?” she thought. “I love being with actors not being the only actor.”

As she pushed Studio 3’s door open she could see the folding chairs around the table for the read-through. Fred, her old friend and favorite stage manager, rose and gave his usual greeting.

“Well, look who just came in from the Actors Home. How is Englewood?”

“Shut up, you old fart, and hug me.”

They had sailed at least a dozen shows into various theaters together and trusted one another beyond reason. Fred knew that she would be no trouble, knew how to guide her, knew how to make her feel safe enough to risk being wrong and how to keep her from fear. The blocking of moves, the notes, the general theater stuff was his job description, but he was far more father, brother, confessor and principal than administrator to the director.

“How is Tom? Still taking money for doing nothing in the corporate world?”

“For God’s sake, don’t say that too loud or we’ll be living on my income and that means . . . soup, soup and soup.”

Fred pointed at the table. “You sit here. I can’t wait to see the faces on the young things when it dawns on them what a character actor can do. So you near me, Angie and Terry will be there, Jonathan — did I tell you that Jonathan is your brother in this?”

“What happened to Robert? I loved auditioning with him, thought he was very good.”

“So did everyone, but he slipped on some ice about two weeks ago and is in a walking boot — not the look we were going for. On top of that it might mean an operation. So, we are with Jonathan. It will be like old times. What was it, six years ago, when we all did that show?”

“Don’t ask me about time, I gave it up. New Year’s resolution. No, no, it’s great about Jonathan. Remind me to get Robert’s address, he deserves a note and some flowers, poor lamb.”

The door swung open and in came the playwright and director laughing about something when they turned and said in unison, “Darling June, how the hell have you been?”

The director she knew very well. “I am older, wiser and still begging for work — and you?” Marshall hugged her and turned her toward the playwright, Milan.

“I don’t know if you have seen each other since casting,” Marshall said. Milan said he was delighted that they were working together at last.

“It is a lovely, lovely role and the second act has grown so much since you sent me the earlier draft,” said June. “This is going to be such fun.”

Fred spied Jonathan coming through the door. “Here he is, our favorite brother.”

He rushed to June to hug her, offered his hand to Fred and at the same time made eye contact with Milan and Marshall, taking everyone in at once.

“Good Lord, who would have thought it — together again. What a lucky chappy I am,” said Jonathan.

The rest of the cast drifted in one at a time, a mix of excitement and fear on each face. The young ones, in their late 20s and early 30s, had the confidence of those not yet tested too much. In turn they felt a little intimidated by the older actors and, of course, the director and playwright.

“OK, kids,” said Fred, meaning each and every one of them. “Silence your cellphones and put them in this basket. No peeking. The coffee urn is over there. Bottled water there. You passed the loo on your way down the hall. We’ll do a fast read of the first act, then get all the Equity paperwork out of the way.”

iPads came out and they sat to read, climbing into the small boat they would share for either a short time or a long run — who knew — and all wanting to hurry up and feel like a tribe together.

“Let’s take a second to remember what we don’t know as the play begins. Don’t get anywhere too quickly,” said Marshall, the director. “Remember what you do know and sit with that.”

Milan said very little but would read each and every one of his words as they spoke them, still looking for a better phrase or fewer words.

The director glanced at the script as they read but mostly watched their faces, taking mental notes of where everyone was headed. He wanted to know if they were brave enough to listen to one another before they spoke. He nodded to Fred to begin and suddenly, in choreographed unison, everyone ducked to their right and bent down to look under the table.

Confused, June did the same. “What are we all looking . . .”

“Your shoes!” they shouted.

She looked at Fred.

“How many phone calls did it take to set this up?”

“Just one email, darling. This morning.”

They were all laughing, including June, and the ice had been broken. They were beginning to be a company.

Fred read: “Trees in the Dark. Act One, scene one: the porch of a once beautiful house now looking as if no one cared about it any more. The upstage door opens from inside and out step Ellen and Rod.”

And so the young ones began while June looked around the table feeling very happy to be in yet another rehearsal. She was content not to carry the show, content to know that in her world having a job at 50-ish is a little like a miracle. Her cue came and off she went, stepping into the boat with the rest. This was the beginning of the life of this play and a bond among them that would never break until the closing notice went up on the call board at the theater. It could be the night after they opened or months later. The days would grow more difficult as they put the muscle and skin on the bones of the words. They would agree and disagree — collaboration is a tricky business, balancing assertion and cohesion, like a marriage that demands both loving loyalty and the ability to still be one’s self.

Two days later June traded her loafers for stilettos and began to find the soul of a woman she, at first, barely knew. There would come a day when she would be able to walk into the theater and cease to think as June. It would not be the shoes doing the job, of course, but a day would come when “Emily” was as real and present as anyone could be. A time when Trees in the Dark was, for a little over two hours, a real place with real people who had real lives. And shoes.  PS

Joyce Reehling spent 35 years in New York theatre, TV, commercials and film. She is a frequent contributor and good friend of PineStraw.

The Creators of N.C.

Bottling the Past

In Robeson County, where the grapes grow sweet, a Lumbee-owned winery thrives

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Two legends persist in North Carolina, both of which have spread like twining vines from Roanoke Island westward across the state. One legend is about grapes, the other is about the Lost Colony, and both converge in Robeson County.

First, the legend of grapes: It is believed that when British explorers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh arrived on Roanoke Island in 1584, they were greeted by the sweet aroma of muscadine grapes hanging ripe on the vines. Centuries later, the “Mother Vine,” which is believed to be the oldest known grapevine in the United States at 400 years old, is still thriving on the Outer Banks, roughly two feet thick at its base and covering nearly a half-acre.

The second legend is the legend of the Lost Colony. Most North Carolinians know that Raleigh’s 1587 expedition, led by John White, disappeared while White was making a return trip to England for supplies. Three years later, when White came back to the colony, he discovered that nothing had been left behind aside from the word CROATOAN, which was etched into a gate, and the letters CRO that had been carved into a tree. What happened to these British colonists? Among the many theories, one is that the settlers moved inland and befriended Native American tribes, eventually intermarrying and joining the vast network of Native people who had been living in the region for centuries before White settlers arrived. Many believe that descendants of the Lost Colony moved as far inland as present day Robeson County, eventually calling themselves Lumbee in honor of the Lumber (or Lumbee) River. Perhaps that would explain why the Lumbee Indians, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River with a population of over 70,000, have always spoken English as their common language.

Not so, writes Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, who is herself a Lumbee Indian who was born in Robeson County. In her book, The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, Lowery writes, “The Lumbees are descendants of the dozens of tribes in that territory, as well as of free European and enslaved African settlers who lived in what became their core homeland.”

According to Lowery, the Lumbee’s use of English as their common language is not due to their being founded by the members of the Lost Colony, but was more a matter of convenience as a mixture of tribal communities began to coalesce in the area after migrating to escape disease, warfare and slavery. Native people have lived in what is now Robeson County for 13,000 years, long before Sir Walter Raleigh had his earliest notions of empire.

If the Lost Colony cannot explain the existence of the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County, it probably cannot explain the westward expansion of the muscadine grape either. According to the North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association, “in the early 1800s, North Carolina was a national leader in wine production and in 1840 was the nation’s top wine producer, with an industry built entirely on muscadine grapes.” There are currently 200 licensed wineries in North Carolina, generating $375 million each year in wages and $89 million in state taxes.

One of the 200 licensed wineries is Locklear Vineyard and Winery in Maxton, N.C. For the past 15 years, Charlie Locklear and his two sons, Charlie Jr. and Daryl, proud members of the Lumbee tribe, have been growing muscadine grapes and making a plethora of wines on the land that has belonged to the family for generations. The elder Charlie, who was born in 1942 and grew up farming tobacco, corn, cotton and “a little bit of hay” with his family, started making wine as a hobby. “I just loved to do it,” he says on one bright day in early fall, only a few weeks after the vines have been harvested.

The operation is tightly run, primarily by family and close family friends, with everything from the growing to the harvesting to the bottling happening on the Locklears’ property, where an old barn has been converted into a winery that features a tasting room and retail space. Outside, the land stretches for miles. Charlie, whose likeness appears on all of Locklear Winery’s bottles, remembers a time when the family was no less tied to the land, but simply had more land to tie themselves to. His great-grandfather owned 3,000 acres, and his grandfather came to own and farm roughly 300. “If you’re not farming the big way now, you just can’t make it,” Charlie says, referring to the boom and bust of the agribusiness cycle that often finds farmers relying on huge yields to pay down debts for machinery and land. Now, the Locklears own 70 acres of land, considerably less than in the past, but the land is put to good use, much of it comprised of the vineyard where two variations of muscadine grapes — Noble and Carlos — are grown. The Noble muscadine is red, the wine sweet yet crisp. The Carlos is a white grape, resulting in wine with a sweeter, smoother finish.

“I like to experiment with different ways to make wine,” Charlie says. “If you make a good product that tastes good, people are going to buy it.” And people have bought it, and word of the sweet wine from Robeson County continues to spread. While their sales are highest in the local market, Locklear wines are sold throughout Eastern North Carolina, across the Piedmont and into the western part of the state. The winery now employs more people than ever before.

Robeson County can be a conservative place, and one has to wonder what the locals thought when Charlie Locklear decided to turn his wine-making hobby into a family business. “Most people embraced it,” he says. “Probably 90 percent of them. You’re never going to get 100 percent on nothing.” But folks will go easy on a local boy, especially when the family name is nearly as old as the land itself. Along with other surnames — Oxendine, Chavis, Dial, Lowery or Lowry or Lowrie among them — Locklears have a long history in the region, and Charlie has the roots to prove it.

“I was born here,” he says, “and in 1948 we went straight across the road and built a house. And when I got married in 1964, we remodeled this house, which was my grandfather’s house, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Locklear is a prominent name, he continues, and there are a lot of them.

“Our ancestors were here, and we were people with high education and businesses. We’re just continuing to promote the family tree, businesswise.”

And what does it mean to Charlie Locklear to work this land and create a family business from it?

“Well, I hope it’s an encouragement to Lumbees,” he says. “And I hope it’s an encouragement to Whites and Blacks too: If you want to achieve something, you can achieve it. Don’t let other people tell you what to do. It’s like target practice: If you shoot at it long enough, you’ll hit it.”

After centuries of his people being on this land, it’s clear that Charlie’s aim is pretty good. PS

Wiley Cash and his photographer wife, Mallory, live in Wilmington, N.C. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Story of a House

Cabin Fever

Historic homes and life lessons

By Deborah Salomon     Photographs by Laura Gingerich

Walls can’t talk. Except for creaks, neither can rough-hewn floorboards or unscreened windows. Too bad, because their stories would describe a life primitive in comparison to ours. A life without air conditioning, indoor plumbing, electricity. A life where large families were the norm, as was burying a child or two.

A life where women stayed home. A life that fascinates for its simplicity and hardship, considering how complicated and automated ours have become.

These lives may, after all, speak best through their homes.

A Village Grew Around It

Shaw House sits, stoically, on a downtown Southern Pines corner within sight of a bank, a pub, a gas station, a gym and a Mexican restaurant — futuristic anachronisms, given its weathered boards and sloping porch. The date on one of two massive sandstone chimneys reads 1842, although the house itself was constructed in 1820 by Charles Shaw, a first-generation Scottish settler, on 2,500 acres of farmland. Perhaps the later date reflects addition of the porch and “travelers’ room,” usually with a separate entrance, occupied by itinerant preachers or craftsmen.

Water was drawn from a well. Houses of this era lacked kitchens; food preparation took place in an outbuilding distant enough so the inevitable fire would spare living quarters.

Step through the front door into a dim antithesis of 21st century bright-and-beautiful homes. Windows are small, unscreened and low-set — some shaded from blazing summer sunlight by the front porch. Walls, like floors, are random-width pine boards weathered gray, with the occasional decorative beadboard or faded green paint. Floors slant noticeably toward the doorsills. Low tables and chairs accommodated people of smaller stature, but no one seems to know why ceilings soar.

Obviously, utility was the architect here, yet few provisions were made for Shaw’s children. When not working the fields, they must have gathered in the “greeting” room just inside the front door. The dining area also seems cramped for that brood, as does the parlor. During winter months, perhaps they drew close to one of three fireplaces to finish their lessons. Since the house has but a single designated bedroom, the eight surviving siblings (two died in infancy, two encamped during the Civil War) must have slept in the narrow loft with angled ceilings, a tiny window and no insulation.

Imagine the heat, the insects.

Yet this dwelling housed a family of substance, ambition. In 1887, son Charles “Squire” Shaw became Southern Pines’ first mayor. The house remained in Shaw family ownership until acquired by the Moore County Historical Association in 1946. Period furnishings were hunted down, climate controls installed, a kitchen added. The house became a museum, a tea room and headquarters for the MCHA.

The Shaws peer down on the upgrades from photo portraits. The men appear quite nice-looking with thick silver hair, but the women . . . a bit frumpy. Obviously, smiles were frowned upon.

All well and good, though no re-enactment could replace the musty aroma, the passage of time, and the aura that cannot be synthesized.

Happy Birthday, Bryant House

Two hundred years and still standing, quite a feat considering how many dwellings have perished in the interim. Sad that COVID-19 canceled your party — but it had no effect on your historical clout.

Bryant House, on a knoll past McLendon’s Creek in Carthage, surrounded by ancient sycamores and enormous crape myrtles, has a wistful Andrew Wyeth quality in silhouette and hue. Yet on this milestone occasion it stands tall and well-preserved, like a silver-haired matriarch unbowed by the decades.

Joel McLendon built the adjacent one-room cabin, known as McLendon’s Place, in the mid-1700s, selling it to Robert Graham in 1787. Graham’s daughter married Michael Bryant. Their son James inherited the cabin, purchased surrounding land, married and constructed a homestead. This visionary’s project, completed in 1820, suggests the input of an experienced carpenter, with an eye to architecture. Everything is even, plumb, squares up. Floors pass the rolling marble test.

Careful — doorframes aren’t sized for 6-footers.

Wallboards are milled to match. The layout allows cross ventilation in the bedrooms (designated guest and granny) which, like the gathering area, are large — a good thing, since a successive generation of Bryants produced 13 children. They slept upstairs, divided into two rooms accessed by dangerously narrow, steep steps. Space under that staircase has been closed off as a bedroom closet, unusual in an era of “wardrobes,” armoires and pegs.

Even without running water, toilet facilities and a kitchen, the house was occupied well into the 20th century. It was gifted to MCHA and restored in 1970, including a fine collection of period furnishings, within guidelines set forth by the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, had home tours existed during Abraham Lincoln’s tenure, Bryant House would be a top pick.

Tracing genealogy can be like navigating a corn maze unless you’re a part of it, like Kaye Davis Brown, a sixth-generation daughter of the Bryant clan. Her father was one of Flossie Bryant Davis’ 13 children. Brown reels off a list of relatives — and rattles some skeletons, like Leandy Bryant’s love child, who bore her maiden name.

Brown describes how kids bathed in the creek in summertime, using smashed leaves as “soap.’’ During the winter a tub was placed near a fireplace, then surrounded by blankets draped over chairs for privacy. Half a dozen little ones later, the murky water got dumped outside.

Brown points out a cross engraved over Mom and Pop’s bed, now blurred by white mold. She repeats the legend of how Flossie, an animal lover, coaxed her pet foal up that narrow staircase. Just don’t assume the bullet hole near the front door resulted from a military skirmish, as at the Alston House in the Horseshoe. Instead, blame neighborhood pranksters.

With minimal improvements, Bryant House was occupied until the 1940s. As a child, Brown remembers visiting cousins there. The grounds are beautifully kept; events draw crowds who enjoy the music, crafts and food — just not this year. A spring open house was postponed until December, then canceled, leaving only chilly ghosts to hear the tales, sing the songs and play simple games on the edge of this Wi-Fi world.

Have Cabin, Will Travel

The Shaw and Bryant homes have board walls constructed from heart pine. The Woman’s Exchange gift shop and café, a Pinehurst landmark, is a true whole-log cabin.

Naturally, it comes with a story — beginning with “Thanks, Mrs. Tufts” — from Exchange board President Barbara Summers.

The cabin was crafted without nails in 1810, several miles from Pinehurst at Ray’s Grist Mill. After the Civil War it was purchased by the Archibald McKenzie family as a kitchen. James Tufts, while developing the resort, was so charmed by this relic that he purchased it in 1895, had it disassembled log by log and moved near the village, where he could show it off to friends from New England.  He compensated the McKenzies by building them a new cookhouse.

At first, the cabin served as a museum. Its opening was reported in the Pinehurst Outlook in an 1898 story that spoke of a foot-long, iron key originating in a Fayetteville jail, a spinning wheel, candlesticks and deer antlers. The one-room cabin was later home to freed slaves Tom Cotton (a caddie on the resort’s golf courses) and his brother.

But all the while, Summers relates, Mary Emma Tufts had other ideas. Mrs. Tufts supported the Woman’s Exchange movement, begun in Philadelphia, in 1832. Gentlewomen who had fallen on hard times consigned handiwork in the shops, affording them not only financial aid but marketing skills toward future employment. Some exchanges opened tea rooms where forward-thinking women could socialize and share ideas. At its height, in the late 19th century, 100 Exchange shops attracted 16,000 consignees.

Mrs. Tufts died in 1922. In 1924, perhaps as a result of her influence, the cabin became an Exchange shop. Now, Summers continues, the pandemic has forced closing of four of the 20 remaining federation outlets but not the Azalea Road log cabin, which has spread in all directions from the original dark room with low door frames and a huge fireplace suitable for cooking. Sun streams in the showroom skylights; display cabinets have been painted white; and the café, usually full, specializes in soups, quiches and a turkey-avocado wrap. Artisan gifts and estate items are one-of-a-kind.

The garden surrounding the cabin has been replanted, heating and air conditioning improved, the computer system upgraded without changing the image of that solitary space and porch where, over the years, lives were led and business conducted.

Nothing succeeds like success. Leave it to the gals. And, pandemic notwithstanding, better show up early for a socially-distanced lunch.  PS


New Birds on the Block

You never know. You could spot a western tanager

By Susan Campbell

The most exciting part of watching birds is that you never know who might show up — and when. After all, they have wings. They can and do show up, almost anytime, almost everywhere.

Here in the Piedmont and Sandhills of North Carolina, western wanderers suddenly show up, soaring overhead, perched in treetops or even at our feeders.

Like the western tanager, for instance, which we’ll get to shortly. But a few words on the wanderers first.

Some birds are more prone to vagrancy than others. Whether this behavior is aimlessness — getting lost or being blown off course — is hard to say. Not surprisingly, long-distance migrants are at highest risk for becoming confused en route. And while it’s been studied at great length, the truth is that we understand very little about migration.

Here’s all we know: most birds are successful at migration, which allows their genes to be passed on to the next generation. This is not to say that those birds that end up off track are bound to stay lost forever or perish as a result of a wrong turn along the way. In fact, researchers believe that, in some cases, these out-of-place individuals represent the beginning of a range expansion for their species. It’s documented: Bird populations move into new areas of the United States.

A species that has been observed well outside of its normal range in the winter more and more frequently is the western tanager. This small and colorful songbird is found in the warmer months throughout most of the Western United States in a variety of wooded habitats. Come fall, they traditionally head for Mexico and Central America. But in the early 1990s, one showed up at a feeder in Wilmington. It stayed for the winter and, amazingly, repeated its winter stay twice, happily feeding on suet, shelled seeds and fruit.

Since that first visitor, more than two dozen western tanagers have been documented along the southern coast of our state. What does this mean? It’s probably too soon to tell. But bird lovers in our southeastern counties are keeping an eye out for westerns each year.

This winter, a male western tanager has reportedly settled into a yard in Apex. The host is pleased. And more than likely, the handsome bird is one of two that were in residence there last season.

All tanagers molt twice a year. Because they’re drab looking from early fall through early spring, western tanagers are sometimes hard to identify when they appear in the East. Unlike our more common summer and scarlet tanagers, westerns have noticeable barring on their wings and are a bit brighter yellow on their under parts.

I would wager that very few people reading this column have ever seen a western tanager out of its seasonal range. But it pays to be prepared with binoculars and a good field guide should an unfamiliar visitor appear. Wherever you are, rarities are always possible, even in your own backyard. PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at susan@ncaves.com.

Good Natured

It Works!

A simple plan for happiness

By Karen Frye

The original copyright of It Works: The Famous Little Red Book That Makes Your Dreams Come True! was 1926. The author of the book did not want his name mentioned, only his initials, RHJ, believing that the greatest good comes from helping others without expecting praise. Even before the book had a title, he sent it to a friend for his appraisal. The friend returned it with a simple reply, “It works.” The title was born.

RHJ believed he’d found an answer to the question “Why are some people so lucky and others are not?” He was successful using his plan and shared the simple instructions for his technique with friends who also enjoyed amazing results.

But this isn’t necessarily about financial success. Your desires may include being healthy, enjoying happier relationships, having success in school or career, basically anything. The important first step is knowing what you want.

You likely know people who, because of a mental roadblock, feel as though the things they desire will remain forever unattainable. But there is within us a “Great Power.” The power is ready and very capable of helping us achieve our desires, but you must be earnest about what you want. Half-hearted desire does not connect. You must be sincere and truthful about what you want — be it mental, physical or spiritual.

The Plan

Write down on a paper, in order of their importance, those things you really want. You can change the list daily, adding or removing things.

Three Positive Rules of Accomplishment

Read the list of what you want three times a day — morning, noon and night.

Think of what you want as often as possible.

Do not talk to anyone about your plan except the Great Power within you. The method of the accomplishment will unfold itself.

Write down whatever your desires may be, even the ones that seem impossible. Don’t analyze the power within you to accomplish these things. If you follow the plan and carry out the three simple rules, the method of accomplishment will reveal itself.

It is natural to be skeptical. When you have these doubts, get out your list and go over your heartfelt desires. Be specific about your dreams. As your plan unfolds, accept the accomplishment with gratitude, happiness and strengthened faith.  PS

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

Mom Inc.

Rescuing Bailey, Part II

Nothing that a lifestyle coach can’t fix

By Renee Whitmore

Jan. 1, 2017. 4 a.m. My alarm buzzed. My eyes shot open. I stumbled to the kitchen and hit the “brew” button on the Keurig. Dark roast steaming in my cup, I turned on the light in my son Kevin’s room. He was 8 and excited about our adventure.

Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road, southbound. Our purpose? Meet my Aunt Nancy halfway, in north Florida, to pick up the newest addition to our family.

Bailey-girl. A 2-year-old full-bred Rottie. She had heartworms, and Nancy swooped in to rescue her and nurse her back to health. Now, she would be mine. I had Facetimed Bailey already, and today was the day we would bring her home.

We met at a gas station. Bailey bounded out of Nancy’s vehicle, straight to me, and as I leaned down to welcome her, she knocked me backward on the grass. I sat down cross-legged, and this 70-pound dog climbed on my lap, claiming me forever.

I have written about Bailey-girl before. I wrote about the time she fell into a depression after we adopted a cat and, passive-aggressively, sneaked into the bathroom to steal the cat food. Then she’d put herself in timeout because she knew what she’d done was wrong. She’d walk into her dog crate and lay down, licking the flavor of cat food from her lips. I know I’m in trouble, but it’s worth it.

I wrote about the time she ran outside the front door, down the driveway, and attacked one of our neighbor’s free-range chickens. She pranced back to the door, feathers flying everywhere. Humiliated, I marched her over to the neighbors to confess and offered to replace the chicken. Unamused, they declined. Instead, they bought a pen for their chickens. It was the death of the free-range era, too.

I wrote about the times she acts as if something randomly takes over her body, and she starts racing around the living room, full speed, jumping on the couch, jumping down, racing through the kitchen, back into the living room, back on the couch. Then she curls up and takes a nap. All it takes is the UPS woman delivering a package, and she’s in hysteria mode again.

This past summer Bailey-girl started acting weird. She no longer barked at the UPS woman; she no longer cared about the cat food; she no longer ran around the living room hysterically. She no longer cared about, well, anything. She drank enormous amounts of water, waking us up through the night for more.

In July, I took her to the vet. Bailey-girl weighed in at 100 pounds. Yikes. She’d gained 30 pounds in three years. Not good. The vet tech took some blood, put it in a blood sugar checker, and her expression fell.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s, um, a little high. The vet will talk to you about it.”

“You can’t tell me?”

“The vet will talk to you,” she said as she slipped out of the room.

Longest 10 minutes ever.

“Her blood sugar and the constant thirst indicate signs of diabetes,” the vet said, “but we will send off the blood sample for more testing.”

Tears started rolling down my face.

“It’s not a death sentence, but it takes work to maintain,” she said. The vet told me to change her diet to “high fiber, low fat.” Bailey-girl needed to eat twice a day, and she needed insulin shots after meals. She could stand to lose some weight, too. And if I think her sugar is low? Smear Karo syrup on her mouth.

We went straight to the pharmacy to pick up her insulin and then bought her new food for a complete diet makeover. I Googled everything about canine diabetes. I took notes, screenshots, and joined online canine diabetes support groups.

I had never given a shot in my life. I practiced on a banana. Then an orange. Then, I gave her the first shot. A success! She didn’t even seem to notice. I was scared to leave her side. It was a good thing we were already quarantined and working from home.

Gradually, she felt better. I learned not only to give her shots but to check her sugar levels. She adjusted to her new food and is on an exercise regimen. She joins me during my Zoom workouts, and we go for walks. She’s already lost 15 pounds.

Today, the UPS woman came to the door, and Bailey showcased her barking hysteria. She’s in serious trouble if she sneaks the cat food these days because the cat food is “off plan.” But she still tries, so at least she cares.

Six months after her diagnosis, she’s herself again. And she still thinks she’s a lap dog. Lucky for me, a few pounds lighter. PS

When Renee Whitmore isn’t teaching English or being a professional taxi driver for her two boys, she’s working on her first book.

The Omnivorous Reader

We Got the Beat

The richness of North Carolina’s music

By Stephen E. Smith

In his latest book, Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk, music critic David Menconi lays it out in the prologue: “Music is North Carolina’s tuning fork — not tobacco, basketball, NASCAR, or even barbecue — because it’s not just in the air here, but also the soul.”

Barbecue gobbling, nicotine-addicted NASCAR/Carolina fans might take exception to Menconi’s premise, but for North Carolinians who have wandered through life with their ears pricked forward, there’s no denying that the state’s popular music scene has played a significant role in defining their identity. Charlie Poole, Blind Boy Fuller, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Nina Simone, James Taylor, the Red Clay Ramblers, Ben Folds, Mandolin Orange, and hundreds of other talented musicians, have, at one time or another, called the state home, and although a self-serving parochialism is at work here, there’s good reason to take pride in the music North Carolina has contributed to the world. We can’t claim a Nashville or an Austin or a New Orleans, but popular music would be a lot less interesting without us. And although the state’s boundaries are an arbitrary and artificial device for identifying musical movements and influences, there’s nothing new in employing “sense of place” as an organizing element. The Oxford American, for example, publishes an annual state music edition, with North Carolina featured in their winter 2018 issue.

If sex — oh, all right, true love — is the primary inspiration for most pop tunes, race has been a troubling subtext in much of the music North Carolina artists have created. What could be a more revealing example than the “beach music” craze of the 1950s and ’60s where crowds of privileged white guys, decked out in patch-madras britches and alligator wing-tipped tasseled Nettletons, shuffled to sexually implicit dance candy produced almost exclusively by Black artists who wouldn’t have been allowed admission to the venues where they were performing?

Menconi’s compendium is generally arranged chronologically, with scant attention paid to music as folklore (we’re talking “popular” music here), and Bascom Lamar Lunsford is as close as Menconi comes to crediting traditional influences. The rough and tumble antics of Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers is his starting point in “Linthead Pop.” Poole, who was born and raised in Randolph County and spent much of his life working in cotton mills, thrived musically in and around North Carolina in the 1920s and ’30s, and his influence on popular music has waxed and waned with changing tastes. Nevertheless, he remains an essential, almost mythical figure in the history of the state’s music.

Piedmont blues artists who worked the Bull City tobacco markets receive their due in chapter two: Blind Boy Fuller, the Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker are credited with influencing popular artists well into the 21st century.

“Through the Airwaves” is a much-deserved tribute to Charlotte-based Arthur Smith, whose superb musicianship and entrepreneurial savvy brought North Carolina music into the mid- to late-20th century. Menconi writes: “Smith didn’t just figure out syndication and diversification but vertical integration, controlling the means of production” by establishing a studio in Charlotte that catered to “the likes of Statler Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, James Brown, and Johnny Cash.” Smith’s copyright infringement suit over “Dueling Banjos,” a 1972 hit from the movie Deliverance, is explicated in detail, correcting lingering misconceptions concerning the tune’s authorship and Smith’s strategic lawsuit against industry giant Warner Brothers.

Greensboro readers will appreciate Menconi’s focus on The 5 Royales, a Triad-based gospel-inspired group who enjoyed nationwide popularity in the ’50s and early ’60s. Best known for having written and recorded “Dedicated to the One I Love” — later covered by the Shirelles and the Mamas and the Papas — the Royales’ story is one of hard work and little pay. What should have amounted to considerable income from record royalties never materialized. After the Royales’ singer-songwriter Lowman Pauling’s death, his wife received a check for $6. “I hate to say it,” Pauling’s son observes, “but in the Jim Crow South, black people got the shaft.”

Doc Watson, the Appalachian flat picker who’s an institution for North Carolinians, is the subject of a thoroughly researched chapter that will enlighten even longtime Watson fans, and the benighted beach music craze is given more than adequate attention in a chapter ironically titled “Breaking the Color Lines at the Beach.” The hit-and-miss career of Eastern North Carolina’s Nantucket is detailed in “The Eight-Track Era of Rock and Roll,” and Chapel Hill is dubbed the “Next Seattle” in an essay that celebrates Ben Folds and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Menconi examines the rise of North Carolina record labels, including Colonial, Sugar Hill and Merge records, and the popularity of Americana, Alternative, and Hip-Hop is explored through the music of the Avett Brothers, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Kruger Brothers, Mandolin Orange, the Backsliders, and 9th Wonder and Little Brother.

Of particular interest is Menconi’s appreciation of the great Nina Simone, a Tryon native whose immense talent was shaded by her railings against racial injustice. She and other Black artists fled the state. “That’s especially the case with jazz,” Menconi writes, “starting with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Max Roach. . . . And after Blind Boy Fuller died in 1941, his Durham blues peers Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Rev. Gary Davis all decamped to the North.”

Sprinkled throughout the text are sidebars that recognize artists of particular merit — the Steep Canyon Rangers, Chatham County Line, Shirley Caesar, Tift Merritt, the Embers, James Taylor, John D. Loudermilk, Link Wray, Rhiannon Giddens and many others. Still, it’s impossible to get it all in. There’s just too much good stuff to fit into 300 pages, and many fans will be mildly disappointed to find their favorite musician omitted.

Still, Menconi provides a valuable service to North Carolina music lovers, a well-researched and beautifully written primer that’s essential in understanding the state’s contribution to popular music. Moreover, he establishes a jumping-off point from which yet-to-be-written books might explore with more specificity the state’s musical diversity by region and genre.  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He is the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.


TRUST BUT VERIFY: As our communities deal with the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus, please be aware that events may have been postponed, rescheduled or existed only in our dreams. Check before attending.

Music to Our Ears

The musicians of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra will play personal favorites like Mozart’s Oboe Quartet to highlight their virtuosity on a streaming concert from Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. Then, on Saturday, Jan. 30, the orchestra will perform J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, also streaming from Meymandi, at 8 p.m. For more information visit www.ncsymphony.org.

Dueling Authors

In an embarrassment of riches, celebrated novelist John Grisham will join six-time New York Times bestselling author John Hart to discuss Hart’s new novel, The Unwilling, in a free Zoom event at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Copies of the book can be obtained at The Country Bookshop. For information visit www.tickmesandhills.com.

Ruth Pauley Lecture Series

Linda Carrier, the uber marathoner, will talk about “Seven Marathons, Seven Days, on Seven Continents” on Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Despite having type I diabetes, she ran 183 miles in 168 hours — and intends to do it again. Her lecture can be streamed on Facebook at @RuthPauleyLectureSeries or through ruthpauley.org.

Return of the Stampede

For a second year 12 painted horses will appear on the streets of Southern Pines beginning Jan. 30, and will graze there until the end of March in the Painted Ponies Art Walk and Auction. Afterward the horses will be sold to the highest bidder with the proceeds benefiting the Carolina Horse Park Foundation. For more information visit www.carolinahorsepark.com.

Out of the Blue

New Year (of the Cat)

Cameos for Lucky and Missy

By Deborah Salomon

Seven years just flew by since I first designated January as Cat Column Month. This was necessary because otherwise, my companions Lucky and Missy (formerly Hissy) would creep in regularly. Mustn’t let that happen; I realize some people don’t appreciate cats, or even animals.

As the French say, à chacun son goût. To each his own (taste).

My affection traces back to a lonely, only-child childhood in a New York City apartment. My parents finally relented to a puppy. I was too young to walk him alone. That lasted about six weeks. Next came Dinky, a quite manageable stream turtle who lived to 10. When we moved into a house elsewhere, I was allowed a cat named Horowitz, for pianist Vladimir, because he walked across the keyboard on the piano I hated to practice. Sadly, when I returned from a month at sleep-away camp, Horowitz was gone.

Thank goodness my grandparents had an ever-pregnant kitty and a sweet dog.

I made sure my children had pets — big, friendly dogs. Then, after they were grown with big, friendly dogs of their own, a youngish calico showed up at my door. Since then, I have been home sweet home to a parade of kitties, usually two at a time, who just showed up, usually in dire need.

I decided to retire in 2008, when the last one crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

Then, one December, a hungry black kitty with fur as sleek as a seal peered in the window. Black cats are my weakness — especially their forlorn eyes. Lucky made himself a bed under the bushes. I fed him outside until July 4th. Then, in a moment of weakness, I opened the door. He has rewarded me with 10 years of affection, intelligence and antics.

A year later, “Everybody’s,” the wide-body gal fed by many, spayed by one, got wind of my open door policy. At first she rewarded my kindness with hisses and growls. That lasted about a month. Now Hissy, renamed Missy, drips sugar.

I discovered that Lucky — neutered and declawed — had been abandoned by his family when they moved. He gave Missy a long, hard stare which, I surmised, established the ground rules. They have been best buddies since, rather like an old married couple: she, a fussbudget; he the head of the household.

Wish I’d named them Archie and Edith.

Just because cats can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. My Lucky’s eyes plead, smile, show surprise, fear, displeasure. He is a man of dignity, of routine, governed by a solar clock. He asks to go out just as the warm winter sun hits his chair on the porch. After sunset, he begins leading me to the bedroom because I keep kitty treats in the bedside table. I dole out three morsels. Upon hearing “That’s all,” he retreats to the down comforter folded at the foot, where he sleeps until 3 a.m.

During this ritual, Missy sits at a respectful distance, knowing her time will come. A feminist, she’s not.

Speaking of time, every night at 7 p.m. I watch Jeopardy! The kitties have chosen this moment for their daily aerobic workout, triggered by the Jeopardy! theme music, which triggers some angry-sounding music of their own. They pounce, roll around. Then, like a summer thunderstorm, it’s over. He lowers his head and she licks it clean before they trot off together.

Cats, especially elderly ones, sleep upward of 20 hours a day. Mine have nests, some self-styled, others mom-made like a fuzzy blanket in a box.

Lucky prefers a dark corner of my closet. Missy sleeps around. The first chilly days I position two heating pads on the bed. I started with one, since Lucky has an arthritic hip. Missy claimed half. Now, mesmerized by heat, they nap there for hours. I barely cop a corner for my arthritic shoulder.

Another behavioral oddity concerns the water bowl. I feed them in the kitchen — two feeding dishes, one water bowl. In the winter, they spend so much time on the heating pads that I put a water bowl beside the bed, a wide soup bowl decorated with flowers. Lucky will walk from the kitchen into the bedroom for a drink. Same water, changed twice a day.

Cats . . . aloof? I can’t sit down to watch Wolf Blitzer without a lapful. A pause in rubbing and scratching nets a paw. OK with Lucky, but Missy has claws.

Food is usually an issue with cats. I mix best-quality kibble with best-quality canned, or something I’ve cooked for them, like chicken, liver or fish. I once had a kitty who accepted only cod and pork liver — wouldn’t touch tilapia or chicken liver. People tuna costs half as much as Fancy Feast, so sometimes they get a spoonful. Of course they have favorites off my plate. Missy goes berserk if I’m eating slivers of smoked salmon on a bagel. Lucky loves to lick the cover of a Greek vanilla yogurt container. The best is watching him lick the salt off a potato chip, leaving it limp. Spaghetti with plain tomato sauce is another winner . . .  just a strand, because I wouldn’t want to spoil them.

No, cats can’t talk. They fascinate with wordless actions, instincts, habits. Connecting with an animal is a proven therapeutic. I can feel the tension flee my shoulders as I stroke Lucky’s satiny fur. Missy makes me laugh on the grimmest day. Best of all, a trust once established endures.

Too bad the same cannot be guaranteed with humans.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.