Senior discounts, empty nest

A couple of milestones, recently.

A few weeks ago, I turned 55. Last night, I noticed that IHOP offers meals for seniors (over 55) half price on Thursday nights. What a deal!

And last week, I took my daughter, Emma, to college.

Emma is our third, and youngest.

This is the last time we’ll do this. It’s been ten years since we left Sarah at at UNCG and eight years since we took Aaron to Brevard. So Emma had plenty of time as the only child in the house. And plenty of attention from her parents. Now she gets to check out the rest of the world.

Emma is at Warren Wilson College. Wednesday was an exciting day. The excitement was mixed with long gazes at the beauty of the mountains, and sudden surges of emotion, getting choked up at the thought of leaving her behind there.

Warren Wilson College

But we did.

She’s on her own now. And we have an empty nest.

She’s in a remarkable place. When we drove up, a couple of students rushed to our car and unloaded it, carrying all of her stuff to her 2nd floor dorm room.

I thought of the line from the movie: “You had me at hello.” They had me at “Park here and we’ll unload your car.”

Warren Wilson is a “work college.” Every student has a campus job. They have a farm, and raise much of their own food.

Unlike most colleges, wherein students complain about the food in the cafeteria — the students at Warren Wilson talk about how good it is. After all, they produce it and prepare it. They have a vegetarian section. They have a vegan section.

And it’s a service college. Everybody contributes to making the planet a better place in which to live.

It’s also a great place for traditional learning, but with a slightly different twist. I noticed talk of research and learning and poetry, but little talk of academic fear and competition.

Back home on Thursday morning, I was visiting with a customer and telling them that this was my first day with an empty nest — and suddenly I had a thought that I’ve never had before.

Is Alicia (my wife) okay? I better check on her! And I rushed home and did that. She was fine — albeit tired from the previous day of moving Emma in.

I notice myself talking to our dog a lot, telling her… well… what a wonderful dog she is. And she is.

And thus begins this exciting time of life for me…

bright lights, little city

This was a beautiful, coolish, pre-autumn night.

The playing fields at Catawba were brightly lit — with remnants of activity.

Only the soccer filed was dark tonight.

The band had just finished practice on the football field.

A guy was doing a bit of grooming on the baseball field.

The volleyball court was lit, awaiting activity.

A pick-up threesome competed hard on the basketball court.

And there was a ladies doubles match on the tennis court.  As I was leaving, one of them poached into the server’s side of the court — fully stretched — and popped a hard backhand volley for a winner.  In my day, girls didn’t play doubles that way.

I grew up next to this campus, here in Salisbury, NC (my parents house).  And for the past twenty-four years, I’ve also lived next to the campus (my house).  That adds up to most of my life.  I guess I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else.

It’s like living next to a park.  I enjoy observing the ebb and flow of life that school years mark.  The deadly quiet summers with brief flurries of camp activity.  The excitement of fall.  The inwardness of winter.  The bliss of spring.  The sudden vacancies of Christmas and spring break.  The students getting younger and younger — and younger — every year.

Cell phone tower in my neighborhood! Okay.

Ever get a phone call and run outside, hoping to get a decent signal before the call drops?

One of our neighbors came ’round with a petition the other day.

There are plans to build a cell phone tower on the Catawba campus, near our house.  The petition was asking the planning board to postpone a decision until the neighborhood has time to study “the situation.”

The board met last week, and I haven’t heard from anybody who knows what happened.

We’ve had a few battles in the past over zoning.  If they want to build a dorm or parking lot across the street from my house, I want to register my voice against it.

But I’m not that unhappy about a cell phone tower that’s on the other side of the campus.

In fact, it would be kind of nice to get a better signal at home.

A few years ago, we did away with the home phone.  We noticed that we never used it and it cost a lot.

At that time, we seemed to enjoy a better signal on cell phones than we have recently.  I think the AT&T signal has degraded a bit because of the iPhone’s popularity.

But if it weren’t the iPhone, it would be something else.  These devices are a fact of life.

I’m not sure if we’ll be able to see the tower from our house or not.  I doubt it.

I’m pretty sure I’m not nearly as hypocritical as some of the politicians I see on TV.  Consider the adulterers leading the battle to impeach a President for adultery.  The deficit hawks leading the battle for massive tax cuts for the super wealthy.  Or even those who have had government health care since the day they were born railing against the adequacy of government health care.

But I also know that I’m not Gandhi or Henry David Thoreau.  I’m a normal human being, limited in knowledge and point of view, capable of arranging my thoughts to justify what I do — and probably equally as hypocritical as the next guy or gal.

Wouldn’t protesting a cell phone tower, while making daily use of a cell phone, make the hypocrisy a little blatant?

So I see no need to fight this one.  If Catawba College can lease a bit of property and make a few dollars for higher education — and enhance the quality of our phone calls — I’m okay with that.

Of course, I’m about three blocks away from the site.  I’m sure I’d feel different if I lived right next door.

St. Thomas Players Production of Yasmina Reza's Art

for The Salisbury Post

Salisbury has always been a good theatre town. I know there’s a rich history dating back to the previous century. And I know I’ve missed a few in my time (almost five and a half decades).

But it seems like Salisbury theatre has made some strides in recent years that sets it apart.

We don’t just have a community theatre offering shows every two months on a fairly big stage to a fairly big house.

We’ve also got a full season at Catawba, one of the finer college theatre programs in the state, if not the country.

And we have smaller companies, and some professional actors who live and perform here, offering a rich menu of quality theatre on a frequent basis.

I’m pretty sure that’s not normal for a town this size. I’m pretty sure it’s remarkable.

Just two weeks ago, Joe Falocco — a consummate actor with a Salisbury address — presented Shakespeare’s Villains at Lee Street Theatre. It was delightful, smart, and incredibly funny.

A couple of weeks before that, St. Thomas Players gave us a thoroughly engaging production of Rabbit Hole.

Now, as it does each year, St. Thomas Players knocks out another summer with another one-two drama punch, following Rabbit Hole with an excellent production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, currently on view at Catawba’s Florence Busby Corriher Theatre.

The acting here is very, very good — but it doesn’t get in the way of a play that’s quite fascinating.

Near the end of Art, Yvan, the character who gets in the middle of his friend’s argument, sums up the play we’ve just seen when he says something close to this: ‘Nothing beautiful has ever been created as a result of rational argument.’

Good point, but the larger point is that while isolated statements in an argument can seem rational, the argument as a whole is absurd.

Just as arguments for isolated bits of a war can sometimes make sense, even though the war as a whole is absurd.

The war in Iraq began for one reason and continued on for a variety of entirely different reasons. Same for Afghanistan — and other conflicts between nations, races, municipalities, friends, people, families.

In the moment, there’s always somebody who can explain it like a champion. And then there’s always history, wherein the absurdity rises to the surface.

People still debate what really started the Cvil War.

This is the idea that gets distilled into Art, a very tight play that is not absurd, as a play, but instead is a play about absurdity.

We’re talking about a guy who attacks his friend for buying a painting that’s simply blank — white paint on a canvas.

It sets off a barrage of complicated, personal, hurtful argument, wherein the absurdity becomes as stark as the white painting that begins the ordeal.

As the play unfolds, the characters get heated about ideas, and the judgmentalism escalates. Sometimes it gets so complicated that I can’t follow the argument. I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, but I know exactly what they’re saying and what they mean — and I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

This big mess doesn’t seem to challenge the actors. They don’t miss a beat as they whip through each other at a brisk pace. They’re exceptionally well prepared, and they seem to understand the nuance of each and every verbal dagger they throw.

Craig Kolkebeck directs the play and acts. He plays Serge, a dermatologist who buys a white painting and knows how to get under his friend’s skin.

Kolkebeck possesses the gift of naturalness. He’s always immersed in the play itself, never on a stage or aware of an audience.

I first heard about Art, the play, in the 90’s, over a glass of wine, from Bob Paolino, who had seen it in New York. We were talking about theatre and he said “I like Art.” This sounded like a weird thing to say, and I probably said something like “I do too.”

Bob straightened me out.

“The play, Art,” Bob said.

Soon after, I read it and discovered that I liked Art too. I’m glad I got a chance to see it, and I’m delighted I got to see Bob’s exuberant, winning performance in it. He plays Marc, the friend who instigates the argument when he notices that, like The Emperor Who Has no Clothes, the painting has no color.

One mustn’t play favorites with an ensemble cast of three that thoroughly clicks, but the manic moment of the evening obviously belongs to Anthony Liguori. He plays Yvan, the neurotic scapegoat, whose monologue about his wedding invitations provides the comic peak and is a sheer delight to watch. As long as it is (and it’s a long monologue), I’m sure everyone in the audience would have gladly granted him another five minutes.

The set is tasteful, white, and stark — and it’s also for sale. Upon leaving the theatre at the play’s conclusion the audience is invited to bid on the pieces in a silent auction.

This is a great show. I’m sure the army of volunteers involved in the production are proud of their work, and they should be.

Catawba Theatre's "Working" is excellent

Catawba College Theatre’s current production of Working is excellent.

I’ve been too busy the past couple of years to go to all the shows, like I used to — but I did see The Boy Friend, earlier this year, and tonight I saw Working.

Catawba College Cast of "Working"

Perhaps I think it’s awesome because I haven’t had much time for theatre lately, such that anything seems awesome to me.  Or, perhaps I think it’s awesome because it’s awesome.  I’m pretty sure it is.

Ironically, I had reservations about going to this show about working because I’ve gotten behind on my work this week and had to leave a good bit of work undone in order to go.  I’m glad I did.

These kids are putting up some sweet, delightful musicals.  They have a ton of talent.  Strong voices.  The acting is nearly perfect; they’re incredibly well prepared.  They understand the story they’re telling and never do anything to get in its way.

The four piece orchestra on stage isn’t bad entertainment, either.

I’ve got Studs Terkel‘s book, Working, here in my office, right here beside me.  It’s been here on my shelf, beside me, for over 20 years.  I’ve never read the whole book.  But occasionally I open it and start reading — and no matter which page I turn to, I become mesmerized for some time.  It’s a masterpiece.

The show captures the poignancy of working Americans also.

The Catawba Theatre faculty — the brains behind this production — does a wonderful  job with multimedia.  Moving characters in silhouette, behind changing photos projected on screens, make the background as fluid as the performance on stage.

There’s a lot to watch, and a lot to hear.  The songs tell simple, clear stories.  The photos provide a powerful montage.  But it’s all organic.

There’s one more night, tomorrow (Saturday, April 17).  There were a few empty seats tonight.  Not many.  If it’s possible to get a seat tomorrow, it’s worth it.

For Salinger, with Love and Squalor

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is when I first read The Catcher in the Rye and how it influenced my lousy adolescence, and how all of us phonies read it and all that kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

What was it about J. D. Salinger?

J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger

He wrote so little, and his stories were read by so many (over and over again).

I say it was his style.  Catcher is the American idiom, like Huck Finn.  And the stories have that versatile, ingenious subtext that allow for some interesting mind games.  The perfect choice of words and never one out of place.  And his characters.  The relationships.  The incredible dialogue.  Whatever — volumes have been written by worldly scholars.

In college, in freshman English, Dr. Lee Potter, our professor, had a conference with each student in the class.  He assigned each of us a book of stories.  The choices were Salinger, Hemingway, Philip Roth, and Flannery O’Connor. Whoever we got, we were married to for the entire semester.  Every paper would be about that one book of stories.

I remember him saying that he wished he could tear off the covers of the books so we didn’t know the titles, who wrote them, when they wrote them, or anything about them — so that our response to the stories could be pure.

This was my first month of college, and I remember sitting in that little office, scared to death of this professor (who was an exceptionally nice man).  I said I thought I should have Hemingway. Dr. Potter told me he thought I was the Salinger type.

He told me that Salinger and Roth were both Jewish, but with Roth, it was obvious in every sentence.  With Salinger, you’d never know.

I did my best.  I remember sitting in the stacks for hours, searching the old issues of Story and Colliers magazines, finding Salinger’s early, pre-New Yorker, short-short stories, and devouring them.  And I tried my best to unlock the hidden, deeper meanings of those Nine Stories he assigned.

In the end, I missed the mark, by miles, with every paper I wrote — and Dr. Potter set me straight every time, spilling gallons of blood on my papers.

Every grade was the same:  B-/C+.

It was like high school French class.  For three years — 12 quarters — I got a B every time.  No matter how well I did, or how bad I did, I never got an A or a C.

The problem is, you can’t get a B-/C+ as a final grade.  As I recall, Wake Forest did not have plusses and minuses on final grades.  It was either a B or a C.  I can still feel that anxiety — hoping that some brilliant insight in one of my papers would impress Dr. Potter enough to tip the ultimate mark towards B.  It didn’t.  The final grade was, and still is, a C.

One day, while home for a weekend in college, I was reading Esquire magazine in the bathroom when I came across a fascinating story.  It was written by Anonymous, and it sounded exactly like J.D. Salinger.

Well!  That was a discovery!  I stormed into Dr. Potter’s office first thing Monday morning, Esquire in hand.

“It’s Salinger!” I said.  “He’s published a story!  Look at all these words in italics!”

He read the story and said he was proud of me.  “That means something,” Dr. Potter told me.

Newspaper reports endorsed the cleverness of my discovery.  The world was abuzz with speculation about Salinger.

A couple of months later it was reported that the story was written as a hoax, by one of the magazine’s editors.

I took three courses under Dr. Potter and never got a B, but I loved listening to him talk about literature.  He had an accent.  At first, I thought he was from England. (He was from Georgia).

And I loved watching him switch eyeglasses throughout his lectures.  He had at least three pair — identical frames in slightly different colors.  He’d read a passage, look up, and take off his beige framed glasses.  He’d talk for a minute, then grab the brown ones and begin reading again.  It’s been over 30 years, and I still remember the time he held all three pair in his hands, looked down, blindly, trying to decide which ones to wear, and said “Good God!”

Towards the end of that first semester of college, back when the drinking age was 18, he invited us all to his house for “a cup of Christmas cheer.”

Salinger is the literary giant, but Lee Potter, with his passion for story, was the one who made an impression on me.

For Esmé, with Love and Squalor” is often cited as one of the best American short stories ever written, and has always been one of my favorites. I probably read it five times before I finally looked up the word squalor.  Gotta find it and read it once again, in honor of Salinger’s death.

It will be interesting what happens now.  Will Salinger’s estate be as secret as his life?  If not, what’s he been doing for the past 50 years?  Any new stories in the closet?  Are they under the bed?  In the safe, soon to be released?  Will his lawyers and heirs be loyal, or will they squalidly sell the rights to The Catcher in the Rye to James Cameron.

Shunning fame made Salinger famously famous.  If he had not been a recluse, it’s likely he would have lost the mystique and adoration.  He would have written a really bad book or two, and could possibly have gone down as a writer who wrote a couple of hits and lost his touch.

So if you really want to know the goddamn truth about it, I hope he’s able to keep his privacy, his zen, for chrissake, and his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.