for those of you with kids

I was neglectful, earlier in the summer, in giving my usual shout-out to “Essentials Jr.,” Turner Classic Movies’ wonderful – but horribly-named – summer showcase of family-friendly films, hosted again this year by Bill Hader, formerly of SNL.

Anyway, tonight, instead of showing one movie, they’re going to show short subjects from the legends of silent comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, and so on. Depending on your kids’ ages and how open they are to new things, this might be a fun evening ….

daddy’s dyin’ … orville’s rehearsin’

The last play I was in was “It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Show” over the holidays. But when I first saw a notice for auditions for “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” at the Fly Arts Center, I didn’t even think about auditioning.

You see, production dates were in late September – and I was planning on taking a mission trip in early September, right when some of the most intense rehearsals would no doubt be taking place. It would simply not be possible to prepare for, and do justice to, a play and a mission trip in the same short period.

Then, last Tuesday, the mission trip got put off until some undetermined time in 2015, due to the current Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Please continue to keep the people of West Africa in your prayers.

Then, I saw a notice for one last audition for the play, this past Sunday. It was already a busy weekend for me, what with judging two chili cookoffs and attending a church ice cream social. But I figured I might at least go and try auditioning for the play.

I have gotten the part of Orville.

The play, by Del Shores, is a family comedy set in Texas. Buford Turnover (who will be played by my Times-Gazette co-worker Martin Jones, with whom I’ve worked several times before) has suffered a stroke, and isn’t expected to live long. The various family members come together, and immediately start getting on each other’s nerves and (as the play’s title indicates) looking at the impending death through the lenses of self-interest. The humor is a little like the “Mama’s Family” segments on “The Carol Burnett Show” – back-and-forth insults and over-the-top portrayals.

The play was made into a 1990 movie featuring Beau Bridges as Orville. I have not seen this, and I do not want to see it until after our production.

This will be a new experience for me. Although I haven’t read the full play, and won’t get my book until some time tomorrow, the description of Orville at the publisher’s web site, and the scenes I read during the audition, make it clear that Orville is the least-likable character I’ve ever played. He’s a redneck garbage collector, kind of mean, mean to his wife and to the other family members gathered together at their father’s bedside. Now, I believe that all of the characters get at least a little redemption as they come together at the end of the play, but this will still be quite a different experience from any role I’ve played before. It’s a good challenge for an actor.

I have to find the humanity in Orville, and the playwright is clear about the fact that he considers these to be rounded characters, not stereotypes, so hopefully he’ll give me something to work with in that regard.

There is a little language in the play – the worst thing I heard in Sunday’s excerpts was a four-letter term for excrement.

As I said, T-G printing press operator Martin Jones plays the family patriarch, Buford. Since I had only Sunday’s auditions to go by, I thought I was competing with Martin for the part of Orville. But Martin wanted the part of Buford and had already read for it extensively at the earlier auditions. I told Martin today that since I played his father in “Come Blow Your Horn,” it’s only fair that he should now take a turn playing my father.

Retired T-G editor Kay Rose is also in the play, in the part of feisty Mama Wheelis. Kay has been in a number of local theater productions but I’ve never been in a play with her before, so this will be fun as well.

Production dates are: September 19, 20, 26 & 27 at 7 p.m. and September 28 at 2 p.m. All performances will be at the Fly Arts Center, just off the square in Shelbyville. You can call 931-684-8359 or visit The Fly Arts Center Monday, Tuesday or Thursday from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. for tickets.

 

not cucumber sandwiches

When I was a young boy, and company was coming over, Mom would sometimes make what she called Benedictine – a spread of cucumber, cream cheese and grated onion, sometimes left au naturel, sometimes colored with a drop of green food coloring. It was served on white bread in little crustless finger sandwiches.

Then, as now, I detested raw cucumber. But I had to admit the sandwiches were elegant and summery.

Originally, I wanted to make ice cream for the ice cream social tonight at church. But between chili cookoffs, auditions, and the like, I wasn’t able to. I did, however, make sandwiches.

On a whim, I put together a mixture sort of like Mom’s old Benedictine sandwiches but without the cucumber. I served it on pumpernickel bread, and I didn’t bother cutting the crusts off – they looked like gigantic Oreos. When I got to the church tonight and saw how many sandwiches had already been brought, much more attractively laid out on trays, I was afraid that my little square plastic tub of weird-looking sandwiches would go uneaten.

However, all of them were eaten – and I didn’t even take one myself, having sampled one at home earlier. I had several people ask me what was in them.

Here, then, is the recipe. This makes a large quantity – I saved some of the spread and will make sandwiches for lunch tomorrow.

John’s Not-Cucumber Sandwiches

1 medium onion

1 green bell pepper

2 bricks lower-fat cream cheese (sometimes called neufchatel cheese), softened

2 Tbsps. chopped pimento-stuffed olives

2 tsp. celery salt (I’m guessing — did not measure. Try 1 tsp. first and adjust as needed)

Peel onion, stem and core bell pepper, and cut each into large chunks. Place into food processor and chop finely. Add cream cheese, olives and celery salt to bowl of food processor and use food processor on low setting to form a spreadable paste. Transfer to airtight container and chill before spreading.

Serve as a spread on your favorite bread (I used thinly-sliced dark pumpernickel).

behold, I stand at the door and wait to be buzzed in

For some years now, the United Methodist Church has had the marketing slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

And yet, as the result of a daytime, office-hours theft a few years ago, First United Methodist Church has had a locked front door on weekdays, even during its regular office hours. You have to be buzzed in. I understood the reasoning behind it, but it always bothered me.

Now, our new pastor – and this is one of several things I’m starting to appreciate about her – wants to unlock the front door during office hours, both for the symbolism of it and so that people have access to the chapel near the front door if they want to come and pray. She needs help to do it, though. We used to have both a business manager (whose office is near the pastor’s, far from the front door) and an administrative assistant (whose office was right next to the front door). Now, we only have the business manager, and so there’s no one near the front door to welcome people.

So the pastor, in this week’s newsletter, is asking for volunteers to take shifts working the front office. She wants to keep the church open, even during the lunch hour when the office is currently closed. What a beautiful message, and what an appropriate way of living up to our slogan.

hot cha cha

I had to pick up a few groceries today, and I went somewhere I rarely go – Piggly Wiggly – because I wanted to see if they had the same Old Bay Seasoning-flavored sunflower seeds that I bought a week ago at Piggly Wiggly in Gruetli-Laager. They didn’t.

Anyway, in the produce department, they had a little plastic-wrapped foam tray of about 10 habanero peppers for $1. I picked it up – I’m a sucker for hot foods – but then, once I got home, I thought, What am I going to do with 10 habanero peppers?

Then, I remembered that I’d seen a recipe for homemade hot sauce a few weeks ago on the Food Network web site. I didn’t follow the recipe exactly – and it called for a different type of pepper in the first place – but I used it as a guide to technique. I sauteed the pepper and some onion, along with a few mustard seeds (my idea), then added water and cooked for about 20 minutes until the peppers were soft and the water nearly gone. The mixture was then pureed in the food processor.

At this point, the recipe called for white vinegar, and I added that, but I also dissolved in some brown sugar, thinking it would be a good counterpoint to the heat.

At that point, you strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Now, it’s supposed to age in the fridge for two weeks. Even before aging, the flavor isn’t bad – a little bit of the habanero fruitiness, but a little sweetness from the brown sugar.

I saved the pulp from the strainer, too; I may add a little to the marinade the next time I make beef jerky.

The hat that was not to be

A Mountain T.O.P. friend of mine is friends with a fellow who has started a company making high-tech ball caps. There are two kinds. One runs on wafer-style batteries and has a little place on the brim where you can plug in an optional LED light. The other kind, a little more elaborate, has a built-in battery that you can charge up through a USB port and then, in turn, use to provide backup or emergency power to your smartphone or other mobile device.

The Mountain T.O.P. friend knew that I reviewed tech products for the newspaper and contacted me recently to get my name and address so that his friend could send me the hats to try out and review.

They arrived earlier in the week – and while I would normally have wanted to put them through their paces and write a proper review, I was in dire need of a topic for my tech column so I wrote something hasty basically explaining how they worked. It wasn’t a review in the traditional sense of the word, just a story.

I was happy to think about taking the backup-battery hat to Mountain T.O.P., where it would be useful for keeping my phone charged (although I also have another, relatively new, backup battery for that purpose).

Let me explain to you something about how the backup-battery hat works. There are two different pieces that store in the hat band which you use for charging up the hat. One is a male-to-male USB cable, about six inches long. The other is a little plastic dongle with flashing blue lights. It has a female USB connection on one end, and a male micro-USB connection on the other.

When I first hooked up the hat, one end of the USB cable felt a little strange. The blue lights on the dongle flashed for a long time, to the point where I finally e-mailed the hatmaker to ask how long the hat was supposed to take to charge. He gave me some suggestions, but when I went to hook the hat back up the silver piece pulled out of one end of the USB cable. That’s why it had felt loose; it was loose. I e-mailed him back and he promised to send me a replacement 6-inch cable by U.S. mail.

This morning, at the newspaper, one of my co-workers handed me an empty envelope (other than a business card) with a little hole on one end. I can only assume that some mail-handling machine had grabbed hold of the end of the envelope and squeezed out that little cable like toothpaste from a tube. In any case, there was no cable. Again, I e-mailed the hatmaker. I told him I was going to try to find a USB-to-USB cable on my own.

I e-mailed my local computer guru, a man who I know has a lot of spare parts and cables. Sure enough, he found me a long USB-to-USB cable. It wasn’t small enough to fit in a hatband, of course, but it could easily be used for charging up the hat so that I could take it to Mountain T.O.P. this weekend. I rushed over to his place and grabbed the cable. He’s going to have one of his students try to solder the original cable and see if it can be fixed.

Well, when I got home just now I tried hooking the hat back up to finish charging it. The blue lights didn’t come on at all. I didn’t know why, so I unhooked everything.

That, so help me, is when the micro-USB end of the charging dongle popped off.

I swear up and down to you I have not treated any of this equipment (some of which is suggested for use by hunters and campers) roughly or subjected it to anything out of the ordinary. And, of course, the cable being lost in the mail was out of my hands entirely. I’m not about to try to get back in touch with the hatmaker, though, because I’m sure he would assume all of this is my fault, just as I’m assuming its all his suppliers’ fault.

I still have the battery-operated hat, and I can take that one to Mountain T.O.P. and use it to read songsheets and my Bible during evening worship outdoors. But it won’t help keep my smartphone charged. (And the battery-operated hat is camouflage, not really my style.)

Oh, well.

Analog

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of science fiction, went to a couple of conventions, and so on. I got away from the written science fiction at one point while I was in college, and I don’t really know why. I’ve certainly enjoyed various science fiction movies and tv shows since that time.

Anyway, I was a subscriber during that time to Analog, the granddaddy of all science fiction magazines. Analog goes all the way back to 1930, under the original title of Astounding Science Fiction, and many of the genre’s leading names were first published in its pages. Each issue included an article on some cutting-edge or speculative scientific topic (hence the subtitle “Science Fiction & Science Fact”).

I even tried sending them a story when I was a teenager, my first attempt at serious fiction. (It never went anywhere.) I was also a subscriber to another, similar magazine, Isaac Asimov’s – in fact, it was during the period when I was subscribing to both of them that the company which already owned Isaac Asimov’s bought Analog as well.

I happened to think about Analog a couple months back. I went online found that it’s still being published, as is Isaac Asimov’s. You can get them in print, or you can get them on your favorite e-reader, either in subscription or single-copy form. I decided I was going to buy a single copy of Analog at some point, on Kindle, just to see what it was like, but I never followed up.

My brother Michael was in from North Carolina over the weekend to pick up my nephew from Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. (He went to a robotics-themed camp and had a fantastic time.) When I talked to Mike on the phone Thursday night, he said he had something to give me. When I got to Dad’s house after work on Friday, I found out what it was. Mike and Kelly had been in a used bookstore in North Carolina and had found a treasure trove of back issues of Analog for just pennies an issue. Mike bought a huge box, kept some for himself, and gave several dozen to me. They range from the late 1960s up to about 1990. (Mike was under the impression the magazine had gone out of business.) Here are just a few of them:

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Some were even from the period during which I was a subscriber – in fact, one of them includes part of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s “Stardance.” The original short story “Stardance” ran in Analog just before I started reading it, but it was followed a year or so later by a sequel, “Stardance II,” a novella which was serialized over several issues. Then, the short story and the novella were combined and published as a book. My first copy of that book got thrown out at some point, but I went back and re-purchased it later, and it’s still one of my favorites. One of the magazines in the assortment Mike gave me contains the first installment of the novella, and even though I have it in its final book form it’s still a neat souvenir for sentimental reasons.

I just got through reading “The Hornless Ones,” by Paul Ash, a short story from the August 1990 issue you can see at far left in the photo. It made me feel like I was 16 again, looking for the latest issue to show up in my mailbox.

road trip

OK. I had a really crappy first part of the week. There was a special event that I wanted to attend – and thought I deserved to be able to attend – and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. And I was primarily mad at myself, but also projected some of that anger onto a couple of innocent people who I (narcissistically) thought should have been more concerned than they were about my absence, perhaps to the point of calling me about it and getting me to admit the back story.

But if the first part of the week was a low point, this weekend more than made up for it, and exorcised the demons that had been plaguing me.

Here’s the back story:

Many years back, when my brother Michael was single and living in the Dallas area, he starred in a production of “Harvey” which, by sheer coincidence, opened on his birthday. Mom, Dad, my sister and I drove down secretly, watched the play from the back row, and then surprised him afterward. It’s been a beloved family story ever since.

Mike is now married, has two kids, and lives in Fayetteville, N.C. He’s gotten back into theater lately; he was supposed to be the lead in a big production last summer but broke his foot. This summer, he played Leonato in “Much Ado About Nothing” and also had a part in a comedy called “A Company Of Wayward Saints.” Dad wanted to go and surprise Michael again the way we surprised him in Texas. So we’d been making plans for the trip for some time, without telling anyone in North Carolina.

Then, a week or two ago, Mike called my father. My gifted nephew had gotten a chance to go to Space Camp, in Huntsville, Ala., at the last minute and at a deep discount. Mike and Kelly had decided that Kelly would drive the boy down (since Mike would be busy with the play) and then Mike would drive down a week later, after the play had closed, to pick him up. Mike asked Dad if it would be all right for Kelly and the boy to spend the night with him on Saturday, June 14.

That’s right; of all the days in the year they might call and ask to stay at Dad’s house, they picked the night when Dad, and the rest of us, planned to be in Fayetteville, N.C.

Dad covered quickly, telling Michael that he and Ms. Rachel had already made plans to go out of town that weekend (true!), but that Kelly and the boy were more than welcome to use his house while he was gone.

A few days later, we surreptitiously got in touch with Kelly and filled her in on what was really going on.

Friday, Dad, Ms. Rachel, Elecia and I got an early start and made it to Fayetteville by about 5:30. We had originally hoped to catch Michael before he left for his Friday night performance, but we missed him. When we pulled up to the house in Fayetteville, no one was home. Kelly and the kids were out shopping, and Mike was already at the theater. We returned a little later to see Kelly and the kids, while Mike was taking the stage.

Later that night, after Mike’s Friday night performance, Kelly got him to call my father and Dad revealed that we were, in fact, in Fayetteville. Mike was genuinely surprised and now says he’ll never trust any of us again.

The next morning, Kelly and the boy made a very early start for Tennessee. We spent a pleasant day seeing the sights of Fayetteville with Michael and the girl. In the afternoon, we had a little down time, and I got to relax in the Days Inn pool, which I had pretty much to myself. Then, that night, with the girl in the hands of a babysitter, we went to the play.

I found it wonderful. “A Comedy of Wayward Saints,” by George Herman, is a terrific play, and the Gilbert Theater cast, including my brother, was terrific. It starts out as a wacky comedy about a commedia dell’arte troupe trying desperately to impress a nobleman who can give them the money to get home. But in the second act, the wacky comedy gives way to a warmer but still light-hearted exploration of the nature of humanity. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This morning, we started the nine-hour drive home, arriving about 4 p.m. Shelbyville time. Kelly, meanwhile, dropped the boy off in Huntsville at noon today and then headed to Fayetteville from there – no telling if we crossed paths at some point.

It was a great trip, a great play, and a great chance to spent some time with the family over Father’s Day weekend.