Out of the Blue

Shopping Gets the Boot

One size definitely doesn’t fit all

By Deborah Salomon

I needed some new footwear for a trip to Montreal, to visit my grandsons. I can’t say a “new pair of shoes” because shoes, as long we knew them, have disappeared from the racks. Now, a woman must choose from toe sandals, wedgies, clogs, athletic shoes, shooties, booties and boots.

Shooties, in case you’ve gone barefoot for the past couple of years, are mostly shoes, almost boots. Booties are definitely boots, but short. Very short.

I decided on booties of a material and color that would be OK with jeans, khakis and, if necessary, stretchy black yoga pants.

So I went online.

Zappos was my first stop, where I discovered that leather — even shortened, on sale with free shipping and returns — costs way too much. By then, a cookie was in the wind, drowning my browser in every color, material, size and permutation. I saw snakeskin booties, embroidered denim booties, patent “leather” booties, open-toe booties, studded booties in colors from Oreo brown to Wizard of Dorothy red.

In hopes of escaping the deluge I found something that looked reasonable on Amazon and ordered them, not knowing I would receive minute-by-minute email notifications of their progress.

I felt like Mission Control tracking Apollo 11 to the moon.

While waiting, I shopped Belk. Even if it had been the right day and I presented the right coupon and the booties brand hadn’t been excluded, the price was impossible.

My Amazon booties arrived on time. They were awful, pure plastic, stiff as a board. I will never again order footwear online, which is what I said last time.

Back online, I pulled up my order to investigate returns. Miracle of miracles, all I had to do was print out a label and take the box to Kohl’s, where it was packed and shipped back free. In addition, the lady who accepted the return handed me a Kohl’s  25 percent off coupon.

Smart move. Kohl’s (and other retailers) provides this service to get people into the store, since the coupon wasn’t good for online orders.

Fair enough. I’ll look at their booties.

I found a reasonable little number in taupe suede — taupe being the color of granny’s support stockings and suede, a less-plastic version of manmade. They were on sale, like everything else at Kohl’s. But alas, no taupe in my size. Only green and black.

Who wears green booties? I tried them on for size. Definitely Peter Pan.

Not to worry. The saleslady directed me to a kiosk where, 10 prompts later (with her assistance), my booties were ordered and would be delivered free. However, if I chose to order them in the comfort of my home, delivery charges apply.

The booties arrived as promised. Ten minutes after the handover, I received an email saying they had been delivered.

Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I remember how new shoes used to be such an event. The “fitter,” usually a man wearing shirt and tie but no jacket, measured feet on an instrument resembling a wide slide rule. Then he brought out several sizes, perhaps a similar style to keep the sale alive in case the first choice disappointed. Then he pushed shoe polish, or a suede brush, or extra shoelaces.

“Perhaps madam would be interested in a matching handbag?”

Why am I telling you this? Nobody cares about my footwear.

Because ’tis the holiday shopping season, hardly recognizable. I remember movies like The Godfather with scenes of shoppers strolling down Fifth Avenue, laden with packages. I don’t miss standing in line at the post office. I appreciate saving money, time and energy. But something is missing: the thrill of the chase, of finding and touching the cashmere sweater in your mate’s favorite color. Of appreciating the sparkle in a teddy bear’s eye. Of collapsing at a lunch counter for an egg salad sandwich and fountain Coke. This was part of the holiday experience, now devolved into camping out at the store with obscenely huge TVs and coveted video game loss leaders. Besides, you never actually see the gift ordered online and sent directly to a sister, a grandparent. Will it be nice, or awful, like the cheapo booties I returned?

I know, I know. Who has the patience? And where are the one-stop department stores that gift-wrapped free . . . and delivered?

To be fair, the internet stocks every color in every size. Cyber Monday has turned into an orgy of running the list, getting it over in a sitting or two. Gift cards remove the human element completely.

But something is lost in transit, some connection between giver and recipient, a gift itself.

Thankfully, our little towns have lovely options — maybe not in every size and color, but selected, in person, by the giver — no bar code, no back order, no 28-digit tracking number.

No time? That’s what I can’t figure out. With so many time-saving devices at our fingertips . . . why not?  PS

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

Wine Country

Lambrusco Redux

Drink, eat and be merry

By Angela Sanchez

The wine Lambrusco might send shivers of dislike down the spine, recalling memories of the super-sweet, cheap styles produced in the 1970s and ’80s. Times have changed. These days, Lambrusco producers are making wines that are worthy of sommelier recommendations the country over. Several styles and affordable price ranges make this dark red and slightly effervescent wine the perfect choice for any holiday feast.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Lambrusco was one of the largest U.S. imports of wine in general, and Italian wine in particular. Super-sweet and cheap, it appealed to the American palate at the time — think Cherry Coke and Cheerwine, except with alcohol — and it was widely received as part of the country’s growing interest in wine. I remember my dad drinking it out of a magnum, 1.5 liters, and loving it as much as his Diet Coke. Right wine at the right time. Today our taste is evolving toward drier wines and, lucky for lambrusco, so is its production.

Lambrusco is both the name of the Italian wine and the grapes that go into it. There are 60 different varieties of the grape, but six are key to today’s production style: grasparossa, maestri, marani, montericco, salamino and sorbara. All of the varietals are high-yielding and vigorous, which was good for production in the ’80s, but today’s vintners have begun to control yields to produce higher quality grapes making higher quality wines. They are all slightly different in character but share the same characteristics of bright acidity and rich, berry fruit.

There are three distinct styles to help you decide what to buy to match your taste or your feast. Alcohol content for lambrusco ranges from around 8 percent to about 11.5 percent. The 8 percent will be on the sweeter side, while 11.5 will be drier. On the label, look for the word “secco” for a dry wine, “dolce” for a sweet wine and “amabile” for semi-dry. The majority of these wines will have a beautiful dark, ruby red color and a slight effervescence, but lower than a traditional sparkling wine like Champagne or prosecco.

Lambrusco is perfect for the holidays for several reasons. First, it’s versatile. With styles ranging from dry to sweet it can be used as an appetizer, throughout the meal, and at the end. The wine is produced in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, known for its amazing cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, charcuterie, Prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar from Modena. The rule I go by for perfect pairings is: If it grows together it goes together. For an easy, impressive holiday appetizer, start off with a beautiful cheese and charcuterie platter with cheese and olives, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. You can serve either a dry, semi-dry or sweet lambrusco with the appetizer. Add a hearty salami with fennel to the tray to balance out the flavors.

Second, lambrusco goes with turkey, spiral ham or game dishes. Dry or sweeter styles will work. Juicy — key word — juicy turkey and yummy glazed ham will sing with lambruscco. Try a Cheerwine or cherry cola glaze on the ham paired with a drier style of the wine and you’ll have your guests in awe. For dessert, a sweeter style of lambrusco with a chocolate Black Forest cake is my go-to this season.

Lastly we need a fun, festive wine this season. Lambrusco is a dark, rich red color, cherry and raspberry fruit driven, with a nice hint of bubbles. Sounds super festive to me. Try Medici Dolce for the taste of cherries jubilee in a glass, and Medici Solo for the greatest salami and parmigiana pairing any of your foodie friends have had lately. Whatever you choose, drink, eat and be merry.  PS

Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.


Treasures Under the Tree

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

By Bill Fields

There was an episode of The Waltons titled “The Best Christmas” in which mother Olivia is determined to have the merriest of holidays even without sipping a drop of the Baldwin sisters’ white lightning. She wanted her large brood all together for perhaps the last time, but her plans went awry because of a snowstorm, downed tree, car-in-a-pond and other misfortunes.

That show aired in 1976, but my best Christmas — still Santa-believing division — occurred seven years earlier.

As the turbulent 1960s came to a close, for me, a sports-loving 10-year-old, a door opened to what became my favorite sport and, to a larger degree, my life.

Up to that point I had batted around golf balls with a Kroydon putter and a Wilson 5-iron I talked my parents into buying on separate visits to the Sky City High Point. Those implements, though, didn’t make me a golfer like the ones I saw playing around town and on television or read about in the paper. In my mind, I needed a set of clubs for that to be so.

For my parents, those were tiring months leading up to Christmas 1969, because I brought up my desire for a set of golf clubs many times. A Mom and Dad with more Scrooge in them might have denied me, but they weren’t built that way.

Presents from Santa Claus weren’t wrapped in the Fields household, so when I came into the living room on Christmas morning and glimpsed something long and red on the floor with shiny things sticking out the top, I squealed with joy.

It was a Spalding “Tournament” starter set including a rectangular vinyl bag. The driver and 3-wood were made of “Persimmonite,” the Naugahyde of wooden clubs, and guarded by black covers. The irons were Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9. There was a blade putter, which upon use and research I would discover was a cross between a club you’d find on a miniature-golf counter and Spalding’s venerable “Cash-In” model.

The clubs had Palmer’s signature on them — Johnny, not Arnold. I didn’t know who Johnny Palmer was, but his handwriting was neat, and since his name adorned a set that sold for about half of my dad’s weekly pay, he must be somebody special.

The grips were tacky rubber and the whole kit oozed opportunity. I removed each club out of the bag, took a grip — all fingers on the handle, having not discovered the overlapping style — and waggled above the carpet. Mom had a wide cautionary streak, but on this happy occasion I don’t think she warned me once about breaking a vase or marring the ceiling.

Frank Beard was the leading money winner on tour that year, but I don’t think his season was better than mine, thanks to the acquisition of my Spaldings.

Later on, I learned that John Cornelius Palmer Jr. was a fellow North Carolinian, born in 1918 in tiny Eldorado, the same birthplace as my grandfather Henderson. Johnny grew up in Badin and was one of the finest golfers to come out of the Old North State, winning seven times on the PGA Tour between 1946 and 1954. Twenty years before I found his name under our tree, Palmer finished second in the PGA Championship, tied for fourth at the Masters, and also was in the top-10 at the U.S. Open.

I used the Johnny Palmers for a couple of years, as my love for the game deepened, until graduating to a full set of used MacGregors purchased from Frank, a retiree I played with at Knollwood Fairways. The starter set was passed along to my father and subsequently to my brother-in-law Bob, an infrequent golfer.

The Spalding driver has been in my possession throughout adulthood. Only recently has the gang been back together, sans 3-wood, my sister digging the four irons out of a basement where her late husband had stored them, and shipping them from Oklahoma. I reclaimed the putter and bag when we cleaned out Mom’s house. I waggle them occasionally, the grips having slickened and hardened over time. The bag also holds my MacGregor woods, clubheads made of the real thing.

This fall I bought my first fresh sticks in about a decade. I was reminded there is nothing like a glossy new golf club, empty of errors and full of hope. But there is nothing like an old one either, especially when the nicks and scuffs are yours on a starter set that fulfilled its mission.  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

Brussels Sprouts

A superstar in the vegetable world

By Jan Leitschuh

They are a seasonal Christmas holiday staple, Brussels sprouts.

You’ll find them in markets now, fresh or frozen. And despite the fact the marble-sized veggie is “trending,” you either love ’em, or you hate ’em.

If you love ’em, ’nuff said. We shall rhapsodize later.

If you dislike them, there may be a good reason — but all is not lost. You may have gotten old, over-large or overcooked sprouts. It might simply be a matter of positive exposure.

This mini-cabbages-on-a-stalk vegetable was first mentioned in the 16th century. Seems they are native to — surprise! — chilly Belgium, especially the region near the country’s capital, Brussels. World War I spread their use across Europe. Now Brussels sprouts are cultivated in Europe and the United States, where almost all commercial Brussels sprouts are grown in California. 

According to a recent NPR report, their production has quadrupled in the last decade, and the 2,500 acres devoted to the sprouts in the past has expanded to five times that. 

Were Brussels sprouts forced upon you as a child? Overcooked, the sprouts can have a stronger smell, which could lead to aversion. And apparently, as babies, the only tastes we humans favor are mother’s milk and sweet things. Our tastes only evolve over time and exposure, say scientists.

And, by adulthood, many of us just haven’t cultivated a taste for bitter foods, according to nutrition experts, who bemoan that fact — because bitter foods, like Brussels sprouts, stimulate digestion and are some of the healthiest eats on the planet. (Many bitter foods may also be poisonous and bad for us, so perhaps this innate caution has been a good thing over the course of human history.) Newer varieties, says NPR, have less bitterness than in prior decades. 

Brussels sprouts belong to the same family as such uber-healthy, cancer-fighting veggies as broccoli, radishes, kale, bok choy, cabbage, arugula and cauliflower — all slightly bitter veggies due to their health-containing compounds. 

Health experts recommend enjoying at least 3/4 of a cup of some kind, or combo, of cruciferous veggies daily, or five cups a week.

Would knowing that Brussels sprouts have an extremely high nutritional value — indeed, they are an absolute superstar among cruciferous family superstars — change the willingness to try them again? After all, say geneticists, food is information. Food, they say, switches our genes on and off, for good or ill. And crucifers are big switchers toward the “good” side of the health scale.

This famous food family contains glucosinolates, important phytonutrients that have a variety of cancer-protective substances. All cruciferous vegetables contain glucosinolates and have great health benefits for this reason. 

Recent research has brought Brussels sprouts forward into the health spotlight. For total glucosinolate content, Brussels sprouts are now known to top the list of commonly eaten cruciferous vegetables. Their total glucosinolate content is greater than the amount found in mustard greens, turnip greens, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, or broccoli. A cup of Brussels sprouts offers over 243 percent of the day’s vitamin K requirements, and 129 percent of vitamin C, plus almost a quarter of our folate.

Nearly 100 studies in PubMed (the health research database at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C.) focus on Brussels sprouts. Over half of those studies involve the health benefits of this cruciferous vegetable in relationship to cancer. And besides helping our bodies detox unhelpful substances, Brussels sprouts offer powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Thus, they also help protect our hearts and blood vessels.

Food as medicine — the “hold your nose and eat it anyway” argument. Weak, right?

Now, rhapsody. Those that love ’em, anticipate the “fresh” season with pleasure. These tiny cabbages-on-a-stalk are mighty cute, besides being good for you. How you prepare them can make or break your dish, so go for delicious. 

The first tip is to use sprouts of similar size for even cooking. Smaller sprouts tend to be sweeter. Then, don’t overcook them. Overcooked sprouts will release that strong sulfur smell some find unpleasant. Their color should remain an intense green; olive-drab sprouts have been overcooked.

Roasting on a sheet pan is simple and can bring out the sweetness of sprouts. Rinse the sprouts, and if you want, carve an “X” on the base to help cook faster and more evenly — or cut each sprout into halves or quarters.

To roast, toss with olive oil and salt, spread out in a single layer and then pop in a 450-degree oven. How long to roast for? You should be able to pierce them with a fork, so no more than 20 to 25 minutes at this temp. The roasting helps caramelize the exterior, adding sweetness, while the insides remain tender. Dress with you favorite concoction: balsamic vinegar, a honey-mustard dressing, a chili-lime or lemon-herb sauce.

You can also pan-sear Brussels sprouts in oil or butter on the stovetop. This method gives an even and crisp outer coating if the halved sprouts are cooked cut-side down until browned.

Steam them for 5 to 7 minutes, and they can help lower cholesterol by binding together with bile acids in your gut. But don’t overcook, and dress with something tasty and perhaps slightly sweet to overcome the bitter factor, since you won’t be caramelizing with a steaming process.

If you want to freeze fresh Brussels sprouts, steam them first for between 3 to 5 minutes. They will keep in the freezer for up to one year.

Add in various favorites to make a creative dish of your choosing. One friend adds olives and artichoke hearts, dresses the concoction and sprinkles with sesame seeds.

Another friend uses Brussels sprouts as the base of her signature dish. She halves and blanches the sprouts first for about 6 minutes, for best texture. A natural cook, she then dries the blanched sprouts and sautés them and some onion in some bacon drippings, adding some garlic, red pepper flakes and cayenne for savory heat near the end. Then she tosses in some golden raisins, pistachios, crumbled bacon and thinly sliced apple at the end. To dress, she stirs in a little honey, Dijon mustard and shredded Parmesan cheese into the pan. 

“It’s even good cold,” she promises. She thinks dried cranberries might be a nice substitute for the golden raisins, and notes both the fruit and the honey counter any bitterness.

What about the kitchen garden? I have failed twice at growing Brussels sprouts here. The heat, bugs and long growing season did the plants in. They require about four long months to form the marble- to golf ball-sized sprouts, and meanwhile, the aphids and other bugs have a field day. Heat is not their friend. So I am happy to buy them grown in cooler, more sprout-friendly regions. 

And how fortuitous that these little cabbage “Christmas trees” are so readily available fresh this time of year. Or, frozen, if you prefer the convenience.

Here is the simplest possible recipe — if sprouts are new in your kitchen, start here, and build up your signature dish according to your tastes.

Simple Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts 

3 tablespoons good olive oil 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off the brown ends of the Brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Mix them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread them on a sheet pan and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly. Sprinkle with more salt.  PS

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

Golftown Journal

Payne’s Last Stand

A look back at Stewart and the ’99 U.S. Open

By Lee Pace

In 2004, I wrote just under 10,000 words on Payne Stewart’s triumph in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst for one of the foundation chapters in a book commissioned by Pinehurst Resort titled The Spirit of Pinehurst.

I told the story of his evolution as an individual over the decade of the 1990s before that fateful 1999, with his emotional triumph in June and tragic death in a plane crash in October. Stewart morphed from a man who snickered at one vanquished opponent early in his career but had the grace after beating Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst to congratulate Mickelson on the impending birth of his first child.

The chapter chronicled his equipment overhaul beginning in 1998 and how his new clubs and his right-brained constitution were an ideal mesh of feel and style on a golf course dialed in for players who were artists and not scientists. 

It detailed how missing the cut in Memphis the week before the Open allowed Stewart to arrive in Pinehurst early, put in four focused and productive practice days, and be honed to a razor’s edge when the championship began. 

How landing in a sand-filled divot was part of his downfall at the 1998 Open at Olympic but how he’d learned to hit out of them a year later — and did so with aplomb in that final round, most notably on his third shot on the fourth hole, when he surgically picked a wedge shot out of a pit and safely onto the green. 

How he connected with the townsfolk around Pinehurst, joked with them in the grocery store, dined at the Pine Crest Inn and had a heartfelt reunion with former instructor Harvie Ward before the final round. 

And how his impromptu scissor job on a long-sleeve rain jacket on a misty and drizzly Sunday ignited a fashion trend.

Thus I wondered what I might glean from reading Kevin Robbins’ book The Last Stand of Payne Stewart — The Year that Golf Changed Forever. The book was released in October, two decades after Stewart was killed when the plane he was taking from Orlando to Dallas malfunctioned and sent six people to their death. 

The answer was, quite a lot.

Robbins does an excellent job chronicling Stewart’s upbringing in Missouri in the 1960s and early ’70s and how he developed his game under the tutelage of his father, Bill, and Sam Reynolds, the club professional at Hickory Hills Country Club in Springfield. Stewart was weaned on steel shafts, persimmon-wood heads, forged-blade irons and balls wound with rubber bands inside covers of balata rubber.

Stewart “churned a lot of dirt” as a youth and learned to develop “a sense of the shot through the soles of his shoes and a clear, crisp picture of the way he wanted the shot to look and feel off the club,” Robbins writes. “He learned to visualize shots before hitting them, to develop rhythm through his feet.”

The book traces how Stewart found his niche on the PGA Tour in the 1980s but became an outlier because of an attitude that could be “prickly, cocky, arrogant and brash,” as his sports psychologist described him in the early days. 

“He was a peacock, a Missouri showman, someone who wanted to be heard and noticed and remembered and admired,” writes Robbins, a longtime golf writer with the Austin Statesman-American. “He was loud in a sport that valued silence. He was cocksure in a game that promoted humility and modesty. He was too much for some of his peers who preferred less.”

The book traces in intricate detail Stewart’s maturation over the 1990s, when he struggled professionally and personally but began laying the groundwork for his Pinehurst triumph by challenging for the win the previous year at Olympic, then finally breaking a long victory drought at Pebble Beach in early 1999. 

“Payne went off into the wilderness in 1991,” Robbins says. “He was searching. When he emerged in 1998, he didn’t just talk like a different man, he showed people he was a different man.”

That point was poignantly made in September that year when Stewart conceded a putt and a victory to Colin Montgomerie on the final day of the Ryder Cup at Brookline after the United States’ victory had been assured. Robbins captures the night before in the U.S. team room when Stewart spoke movingly of the pain he’d felt since 1985 following the death of his father to cancer.

“Sitting nearby, O’Meara, Tom Lehman and Hal Sutton — the last of their generation preparing for their last singles Sunday of their Ryder Cup careers — were moved by Payne in a way they never had been before or even thought possible,” Robbins writes. 

That capsule sets the stage for what to me was the most interesting angle of the book — how 1999 was the unofficial passing of the torch with players like Stewart, Lehman, Sutton and O’Meara, all in their 40s, taking a back seat to a younger generation of players and a new frontier of technology. The new guys played with graphite and titanium shafts and the Titleist Pro V1 and spent their spare time pounding dumbbells rather than Michelobs.

“From a commercial standpoint, there was a lot to like about the state of golf in the summer of 1998,” Robbins writes. “The new balls were designed to make shots more predictable, especially in the wind. Graphite shafts and metal woods rendered long holes simpler to manage. The blocky, cavity-backed irons were less demanding of a perfect strike. Golf was getting easier for a greater number of people. But that welcome development robbed the ancient game of some of its art. Payne, Lehman, and their generation didn’t need technology to make shots. They made their own. They were the last true shot-makers of the millennium.”

Players like Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia were playing a different game. Soon to follow were Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and, most recently, Brooks Koepka. 

“Golf came easier to the new guys because the game was easier,” Robbins says today. “This was the emergence of athletes on the golf course. They hit the ball a long way. They didn’t really care if the ball rolled into the rough. Everything was different — the equipment, the ball, the diet, fitness, the psychologists. There was a confluence of forces that came together in 1999.”

Not a day goes by at Pinehurst two decades later that a resort guest doesn’t have a photo taken while making the “Payne pose” alongside his statue beside the 18th green of No. 2. Stewart’s photos and his autograph are still displayed in the lobby of the Pine Crest Inn. The USGA used the occasion of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst to posthumously honor Stewart with the Bob Jones Award, and golfer Rickie Fowler was resplendent that week wearing plus-four trousers, Stewart’s trademark.

Some of those things, I’d forgotten. The year 2019 is a nice round milestone to reflect on 1999.

“The passage of time — in this case, 20 years — allows us to see that year and Stewart’s comeback in a sharper perspective,” says Robbins. “We didn’t know at the time how golf was shifting. The emergence of a 23-year-old Tiger Woods and players of his generation, who played the game with power and athleticism, essentially was making obsolete the kind of finesse game that Stewart and his generation played. I also was interested in portraying Stewart’s maturation — we might call it redemption — on a personal level. He was showing us something: his growth.”  PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about Payne Stewart and dozens of memorable golfers in Pinehurst over some three decades. Write him at leepace7@gmail.com.

Decking the Halls

A Pinehurst Christmas comes alive

By Deborah Salomon     Photographs by John Koob Gessner

Multigenerational families from all over flock to Pinehurst for a picture-perfect Christmas. At the Carolina Hotel they expect the best accommodations, the best food, hopefully a day or two of golf weather and, as a backdrop, the best decorations:

That’s a big order for recreation director Josh Lack and his crew of five women, who work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day for three weeks:

It all starts with trees,

Some short and some tall

Decked out, so to please

The guests, one and all.

Lack estimates 50,000 light bulbs, inside and out, on wreaths, garlands and 17 trees, including Queen of the South, the main lobby ceiling-scraper.

Ribbons and lights

Twine around their green boughs

Creating some sights

Eliciting “Wows.”

Trees and greenery are artificial, therefore reusable.
Practicality trumps fragrance.

Poinsettias peek from behind every column

A nutcracker proudly stands guard.

His face is a blend of happy and solemn

Admiring him will not be hard.

In fact, an entire tree is hung with nutcrackers in many costumes.

A special tree is devoted to birds

Cardinals, of course, center stage.

Flamingoes would be completely absurd

Although they’re a lawn décor rage.

Another dedicated tree, new this year, celebrates
the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Rudolph, poor soul, got no invitation,

Management won’t budge an inch.

And yet, they showed no consternation

In saying “Y’all come” to the Grinch.

Well, maybe . . . but nothing’s Grinchy about a Pinehurst Noel.

The gingerbread village, a holiday prize

Decorated with candies and treats.

The hotel has been shrunk to miniature size

Too bad we can look . . . but not eat.

Tiramisu goes down easier.

Outside, Mother Nature, oh please bring us snow

Like you did in one nine, ninety-five.

A day is enough, then make it go

So the duffers’ eighteen will survive.

However, for those so inclined, a snow golf championship is held annually in Austria.

Beyond decorations Chef Santa has plans

For potatoes, some sweet, others savory,

For turkey and roast beef, Yule logs and flans,

For cranberry chutney and grav-ery.

Christmas buffet at the Carolina deserves its own carol.

For rolls fresh and hot, dripping with butter

For pies filled with pecans and mincemeat

For wassail whose praises the grown-ups shall utter

Imbibing this once-a-year treat.

Eggnog . . . anyone?

Carols, of course, will waft through the air

Classics plus songs, genre “jolly.”

Crosby and Como just might be there

But Chipmunks would be utter folly.

Where is Eartha Kitt when you really need her?

Beyond the hotel the village awaits

Its shops overflowing with cheer.

Your honey, that cashmere sweater she rates

And for you, at Dugan’s, a beer.

Or, trolley back to a toddy at the Ryder Cup Lounge.

Oh Christmas, sweet Christmas, the chapel bells peal

The candles burn sparkly and bright,

Your spirit is something participants feel

As they stroll through the dark chilly night . . .

And into a lobby where, for the next few weeks, not even
Carolina blue outranks red, white and green.

OK, Santa. Your turn.  PS

Simple Life

A Walk in the Dark

The nocturnal world reveals its secrets — and the beauty of an Elephant Angel

By Jim Dodson

Every morning for the past few years, a couple of hours before sunrise, while much of the world has yet to stir, regardless of weather or season, my wife and I walk a mile with our dogs through the darkness. Sometimes a little farther than that.

Neither wind nor rain, neither sleet nor snow — and certainly not dark of night — can keep us from our appointed rounds.

What began as a simple way for two humans and three canines to get their feet and bloodstreams moving has become a daily ritual that seems almost second nature now, the one time during a busy week when we — the humans — have time to talk and walk or simply be together. We talk of many things or nothing at all, frequently walking in a mindful silence worthy of Benedictine monks.

We carry a flashlight to shine if necessary but prefer to travel by the light of the stars and an ever-changing moon, plus whatever illumination hails from the odd lighted porch or lamppost.

Fortunately our neighborhood has only a few street lights, which make night skies more vibrant and provide deep stretches of darkness where we rely on faith and trust that one of us won’t step headfirst into an open manhole or fall over someone’s curbed bag of leaves.

That’s a risk I’m happy to take. We live in a world too full of clamor and noise, and save for those wee hours when maintenance crews at the nearby shopping center operate industrial-sized leaf blowers that can be heard for country miles (against city noise codes, by the way, and something that has many in the neighborhood up in arms). The predawn silence and stillness may be the best thing about a walk in the dark, a healing glimpse of a world that was. “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom,” said Francis Bacon.

Our two older dogs — Mulligan the aging mixed breed foundling (Queen bee, deaf in one ear) and Ajax the golden retriever dandy (pedigreed goofball) — know nothing of Bacon, except the kind they beg to eat, but do know the way by heart though the darkness, chugging bravely ahead. Gracie, the sweet young Staffordshire terrier we rescued from life on the streets, likes to pause and sniff the earth where others have passed, keeping a sharp eye out for breakfasting rabbits, still learning her way through a civilized world. 

Darkness, it seems to me, gets a pretty bum rap.

As kids, we are programmed against the night by popular culture and to fear the darkness and everything that potentially lurks therein — the monster in the closet, the bogeyman beneath the bed, witches who consort with the moon, robbers waiting in the bushes, black cats and burglars on the prowl.

Later in life, of course, it’s the metaphorical darkness that drives the daylight narrative with news of yet another incomprehensible mass murder of innocents in broad daylight by some despondent loner enveloped by his own inner darkness.

Friends — and everyone has them — who’ve made the journey through the Stygian darkness of depression live in a state of perpetual twilight, unable to sleep, untethered from a world that seems to hold scant promise of joy or hope. Their journey back to the light is one of the bravest things you can witness.

Meanwhile, the Web’s dark side is reportedly shadowing all of our lives, spinning fantastic conspiracies while stealing our identities and credit card numbers. Is it a coincidence that the television ads that run in the predawn hours aggressively peddle home security systems, identity protection and male impotence cures? Probably not. These are what we fear most in our darkest hours of the night. 

And yet, it is that very darkness where we take refuge and rest and recharge batteries, snuggle down beneath the duvet, temporarily abandon all cares and set loose on travels through our dreams. For all its magnificent abilities to reveal the workings of living creatures, modern science still cannot fully explain why all living things — even honeybees — need sleep. But thankfully we do. And the best benefits of sleep occur, sleep experts agree, in a dark and silent place.     

A campfire in the daytime seems, well, rather pale and pointless. But on a dark night in the wild, surrounded by the watchful eyes of living creatures great and small, what is more comforting than a crackling fire that sends up sparks to heaven when you toss on another log?

In her marvelous book Learning to Walk in the Dark, spiritual writer Barbara Brown Taylor points out that the human body requires equal amounts of darkness and light to function properly, an ancient circadian rhythm of sleeping and waking that matches the cycle of day and night, allowing natural healing properties in both man and nature to do their thing.

“I have learned things in the dark that I would never have learned in the light,” Brown writes, “things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness.”

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness,” concurs the poet Mary Oliver. “It took me years to understand that this, too was a gift.”

Madeleine L’Engle sagely chimes in from a wrinkle somewhere in time, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”

Which brings us happily back to lights on our daily walk made mythical by the winter darkness.

Beginning in October (seemingly earlier every year), it’s fun to see the year’s latest crop of illuminated creatures of the night that appear on lawns weeks before Halloween  — gigantic black cats, towering ghouls, giant spiders, fake graveyards, skeletal hands reaching up from the azaleas. It’s all in good fun, meant to mock the very thing we are meant to fear: the mysterious darkness.

Our favorite by a wide margin is the Great Lighted Pumpkin that appears every year at the start of October, floating high in the limbs of an ancient white oak near the corner where we turn for home. He smiles benevolently upon us as if he gets the joke — a beacon of cheerfulness in a season of manufactured fright.

Come December — the hemisphere’s darkest month —  it’s the deep winter darkness that makes the lights of our daily trek through the neighborhood such a visual feast, a kinetic pleasure. As the curtain comes down on another year in the life of this struggling old planet, we hopeful types dutifully light candles and build bonfires to politely rage against the notion of going gently into that good night.

As if to indicate our unwavering commitment to optimism in the face of present concerns, we string lights on trees and lampposts, erect illuminated reindeer and waving Santas, blinking constellations of shrubs meant to light the darkened way. Clearly, there is a message in this.

During the years we resided on a coastal hill in Maine, surrounded by several hundred acres of a deep beech and hemlock forest, our little ones lived for the annual lighting of trees around the property, particularly an elderly American beech that stood in the side yard off the eastern porch.

In order to get up into the limbs of the old tree, I needed a large step ladder and a healthy snort of good Kentucky bourbon for courage in order to finagle the tiny lights into the highest branches. Our resident squirts maintained that the creatures who resided in the surrounding forest — a peaceable kingdom that included a family of white tail deer, a lovesick moose who occasionally wandered over the lawn, a fat lady porcupine who waddled past and a flock of wild turkey, not to mention a couple mischievous made-up story time bears named Pete and Charley — needed our lit-up beech to brighten their cold winter nights.

Not everyone grasped this. The UPS guy, for example, wondered why we bothered to put up holiday lights on a forested hilltop where nobody but us could see them.

Before I could reply, my wee son Jack spoke up.

“The birds can see them,” he calmly explained. “And so can angels.”

One year, in any case, I forgot to check whether the current bulbs were still operational and carefully put up several strings only to discover they were dead as Jacob Marley’s doorknocker.

In frustration, I went out and purchased several new strings of holiday lights and tested them before haphazardly flinging them into the limbs as darkness fell and an intense downpour of sleet began.

Upon flipping the switch, something remarkable happened, proof that children see things that grown-ups lose the ability to see without help.

The old beech bloomed to life with glittering lights in the icy darkness and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Look, Daddy,” Jack said matter-of-factly. “An elephant angel.”

By golly he was right. I can only describe what he saw — the outline of an elephant with wings, soaring heavenward — as exactly that.

A few days later, even the UPS guy, delivering Christmas presents from faraway Carolina, was deeply impressed.  PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com. 


Berry Christmas!

For the cedar waxwing, holiday indulgence means feasting on holly berries, and other native fruits

By Susan Campbell

The cold weather is here and just in time for the holidays, with red berries everywhere. The abundant moisture last spring has spurred our local trees and shrubs to produce a bumper crop of fruit. Hollies in particular are covered with plump, ripe morsels. Any time now large flocks of cedar waxwings will be appearing to take advantage of nature’s bounty. 

Waxwings are sleek, brown birds that sport a black mask, yellowish belly and distinctive tail with a splash of yellow on its tip. Although both males and females have a crest of tan feathers, it is rarely raised during the nonbreeding season. These birds get their name from the bright red, waxy spots on their wing feathers. The waxwing’s high-pitched whistle is also singular. The Bohemian waxwing, a close relative, is a larger, grayer bird much farther to the north and west in North America. So far, no individual of this species has been documented in our state.

During the warmer months, cedar waxwings can be found in northerly latitudes during breeding season throughout a variety of moist habitats. A pair will seek out a sizeable conifer and the female will build a nest of soft material in which to lay her eggs. Three to five young are normal and, not long after they fledge, the family will join with other waxwings even before fall migration begins. The species is very social most of the year and in winter it is not unusual for flocks to number in the hundreds.

Cedar waxwings are unusual in that they can subsist for months at a time on berries. Although they do feed on insects in the summertime, they have no trouble consuming only fruit when the weather gets cold. They swallow whatever small berries they can find: seeds and all. This can be problematic in late winter when the sweet morsels ferment to the point that they intoxicate birds. Bingeing waxwings are at risk of being picked off by predators or being injured if they hit a window.

These handsome birds surprise people when they show up at birdbaths. If you are fortunate enough to experience cedar waxwings descending en masse, it is quite a spectacle.  Of course, they can drain a water source in no time if they have been feeding heavily nearby. Also, it is important to be aware that when waxwings come close to buildings to eat or drink, they may make a fatal error by flying into the reflection of the sky on windows. To prevent this, break up window reflection with sun catchers, stickers, hanging plants and the like. The best approach is to hang things on the outside of the window — but this is not always practical.

If you want to attract cedar waxwings to your yard, add more native fruiting trees and shrubs for them and an abundant source of water. You could consider any one of a variety of hollies, or try adding cedar, juniper, serviceberry or wax myrtle. Do not forget that, like all of our wintering birds, waxwings need thick cover while they are here. Many of the berry-producing species are valuable for cover as well while Southern magnolia (many in the bay family in fact), Leyland cypress or even red tips may prove beneficial.

Important note: To those who have nandina bushes in your yards: Remove the berries immediately — or better yet, replace the plants entirely. Nandina is now recognized as being highly toxic (containing significant amounts of cyanide) and is responsible for killing dozens of waxwings at a time in recent years here in the southeastern United States.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.