whirlwind

It has been a heck of a week so far, and it’s only Wednesday.

Last night, of course, was the annual Nashville Symphony concert at Calsonic Arena in Shelbyville, for which I’m a co-chair. Of course, I probably shouldn’t take credit for that this year; I’ve been spending my days in Lewisburg for the past month, and that meant that Dawn Holley had to do most of the heavy lifting. This was, without going into it, a really difficult year for the concert. We didn’t think it was going to happen at all, and then when we found out we had gotten a reprieve, we were already late hitting the ground. But I have spent more than 20 years now working to promote this concert, and as frustrated as Dawn and I became with the process this year, all was forgiven the moment that Vinay Parameswaran picked up his baton Tuesday night. I love this event. Check out the photos here.

This morning, I went in to the Times-Gazette – remember the Times-Gazette? – in my role as certified master tour guide. Most of the tours I give are for small collections of scouts. But this morning, we had two large groups of kindergarten students from Cascade. We gave the tour to the first group (two classrooms, or about three dozen kids), then they traded places with another group which had been down at the fire station.

We’d been worried about how things would go with two such large groups, but it all worked out fine. I did my normal routine as tour guide, but I can’t take credit for a couple of special additions to the program. With each group, we took a group photo before they started the tour, and then a few photos during the course of the tour. Our paginators put together a mock front page of the newspaper featuring each group, and we printed out copies on our color copier, so each child got to take home a mock front page featuring his or her tour group. (The teachers held on to the front pages until, I suspect, the end of the day.) 

Our first group had finished its tour and was waiting in our front lobby for the other group to return on the school bus from the fire station and switch places. Our publisher, on the spur of the moment, brought out an end roll of newsprint and unrolled it on the floor from one end of the room to the other. We scrounged for every Sharpie or highlighter in the building and just let the kids draw on the giant strip of newsprint. It was so popular that we let the second group do the same thing, even though we didn’t need to kill the same amount of time.

roll of paper

Just as soon as the tour was over, I was out the door and on the way from my permanent employer to my temporary employer, the Marshall County Tribune, where I’ve been spending my days lo this past month. In Marshall County, I had to put together a Lewisburg election results story and then cover a meeting at Henry Horton State Park involving our U.S. congressman. In between, of course, there was other routine stuff – formatting school lunch menus, typing up marriage license listings and real estate transfers, that sort of thing.

I rushed back from Lewisburg to Shelbyville in time for normal Wednesday night dinner at First United Methodist. My lunch had consisted of a bag of potato chips, so I eagerly tore into Andy Borders’ meal of ham, pinto beans, turnip greens and hoe cakes.

So it’s been a hectic 24 hours, and the rest of the week will be busy too. Tomorrow night, even though I am not a cancer survivor, I will attend the annual Relay For Life Cancer Survivor Dinner here in Shelbyville. I, in my role as a Relay organizing committee member, will give a brief “Why I Relay” testimony among several other speakers. Relay is less than a month away, and you can give towards my participation by clicking here.

On Friday night, my father and Ms. Rachel will take me out to dinner to celebrate the relentless passage of time. (I will turn 53 on Friday.)

the elusive sicilian

UPDATE: I found the coupons after all! They’re round, and like Frisbees they flopped out a little farther than I had looked for them. Apologies, Screamin’ Sicilian; you did a great job after all.

A week or two ago, I posted this photo to Facebook:

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I explained that I had an online coupon, loaded to my Kroger Plus card, for something called Screamin’ Sicilian pizza, a brand with which I was not familiar. The pizza box includes a punch-out moustache on the back.

The pizza was wonderful – outstanding for a frozen supermarket pizza, with really good flavor. It is priced as a premium product, not surprisingly, and so I tried to go to the company’s website and sign up for its e-mail list, which supposedly gets you a dollar-off coupon. I tried from two different computers, a Mac at work and a PC at home, and the signup process wouldn’t complete – the site took me to a page with an error message and some HTML code. I posted about this on Facebook, and the company – which does a commendable job of following social media – responded and asked me to send them my mailing address.

I did, and sure enough, today in my mailbox I got a hand-addressed envelope from Screamin’ Sicilian Pizza. The letter apologized for my trouble and invited me to use one of the enclosed coupons and give the rest to my friends.

The only trouble?

There were no coupons in the envelope. I looked in the envelope to see if I’d missed them, I looked on the floor to see if they’d fallen out without me noticing. There was nothing.

I know it was an honest mistake, but I swear it reminded me of some dialogue from an old Marx Brothers movie. Groucho is dictating a letter to someone, probably Zeppo, to one of his creditors. The letter ends with “enclosed, please find 20 dollars.”

“Do you want me to send them 20 dollars?” Zeppo asks.

“You do, and you’re fired,” Groucho shoots back.

singin’ in the grain

For some years now, Betty Crocker has sold its “Suddenly Salad” line of pasta salad kits. The kit contains dry pasta, maybe with a few tiny little veggies, plus an envelope of dressing mix. You boil the pasta, mix the dressing mix with mayo (or some other ingredient, depending on the specific flavor) and you have a pasta salad. You’re encouraged to add other ingredients, of course.

harvest-grains.jpgWell, they’ve now expanded the line to include three grain-based salads. I’m trying the “Harvest Grain” flavor tonight. It has brown, white and red rice, plus quinoa, all in a boil-in bag. There’s a separate package of cranberries and almond slivers to stir into the finished salad, and there’s a dressing mix that you combine with oil and water. (The tanginess which would normally be provided by vinegar or citrus is in the dry mix.)

It’s not bad. It makes me want to go and get some quinoa by itself, though, and make it with a nice chicken stock.

There are also southwest and Tuscan flavors. I have a box of the southwest flavor in my cupboard and will try it out later in the week.

Other Space

I didn’t binge-watch “Other Space” all in one sitting, but it only took me a few days to get through the eight-episode season of this quirky science-fiction comedy. I thought it was terrific, and I’m hoping against hope for another season. I don’t know if that’s likely, since creator Paul Feig (who originally pitched this show to NBC, years ago) is now better known for movies like “Bridesmaids.”

This isn’t for everyone. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “Red Dwarf” or even “Futurama” — a playful comedy which has some fun with science fiction tropes.

The thing that caught my eye in advance was the participation of not one but two veterans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Joel Hodgson plays a live-action role, while Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Clayton Forrester and one of the voices of Crow T. Robot) is the voice of another robot, named ART. The show also, strangely enough, has actors from two different AT&T advertising campaigns. Karan Soni plays the closest thing the show has to a central character, and he played one of those two technicians who appeared in several different ads about AT&T upgrading its network. (“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”)

Milana Vayntrub, meanwhile, is nearly ubiquitous (unless you watch everything by DVR and skip through the commercials) as Lily, the perky AT&T wireless salesperson.

Anyway, the show is set in an future where space travel has become sort of routine. There’s a space agency called the Universal Mapping Project, or UMP, but most of Earth has lost interest. There are still those with the itch to explore, however, including the cheery, eternally optimistic Stewart Lipinksi (Soni) and his hard-driven, ultra-competitive sister Karen (Bess Rous). Stewart, somewhat improbably, gets command of his own ship, with his furious sister as one of his crew members. But Stewart, Karen and their largely-incompetent, misfit crew have just begun their journey when they get bumped into an unknown alternate universe. They must find a way to stay alive — and keep from killing one another — until they can figure out how to get back home.

The whole ensemble cast is excellent, including the names already mentioned plus Neil Casey, Eugene Cordero and Conor Leslie. Hodgson seems to be having a ball as the ship’s somewhat-addled engineer.

It really is fun, if you’re any sort of science fiction geek, and I really do hope they get to make another season.

Here’s the first episode. You can watch others at the Yahoo! Screen web site or by installing the Yahoo! Screen channel on Roku and similar devices. (“Community” is also available there.)

bread head

My friend Sue Thelen was baking bread today, with a sourdough starter I gave her, and posted about it on Facebook. Something in her post reminded me of something I heard once – there are cooks, and there are bakers. Cooks tend to change and adapt recipes to suit their taste, their imagination, and whatever happens to be in the cupboard. Bakers, however, have to follow a recipe a little more closely. In many baked goods, for scientific reasons, a slight difference in, say, the ratio of flour to water can make a big difference. Bakers care whether they use bread flour, all-purpose flour or cake flour, and they know the difference.

I tend to be a cook, and I’m not the type to bake desserts or pastries, but I do love to bake bread, and I can generally stick to a recipe well enough for bread to turn out. I’m still amazed that I’ve been able to keep my home-grown sourdough starter alive for so long now.

Father Dominic Garramone, an actual Benedictine monk, used to have a show on public TV called “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic.” Yes, baking can be picky, but you can’t stress over it too much; Father Dominic used to say, repeatedly, “It’s bread; it’ll forgive you.” I’ve found that to be true. Even if a loaf of bread is a little denser than expected or a little softer than expected, it’s still usually good.

After I told Sue that earlier today, however, I had a less-than-forgiving moment tonight. I had reserved half of the bread dough from this past weekend, frozen it, and then thawed it overnight last night. I let it rise today and put it in the oven tonight. So far, so good; I now know I can safely freeze bread dough.

The trouble is that the rickety oven in my apartment does strange things sometimes, and I had the thermostat turned up a little too high tonight, causing the broiler to turn on, burning the top of the loaf before the center had even started really baking. I had to throw it out.

Sue’s loaves today turned out well, and since that was my starter I can at least take some solace.

I was happy that our conversation made me think of Father Dominic, by the way; I had no idea that he had a website, and a blog. There are some short videos, “Breadhead Minutes,” which apparently still run on some public TV stations (I haven’t seen them locally, but I may have just missed them).

Interestingly enough, my tech column in today’s Times-Gazette referenced Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network and the new relaunch of “The Screen Savers,” both of which feature another Catholic father who dabbles in television on the side – the likable and knowledgeable Father Robert Ballacer, a Jesuit priest. If the Wittenburg Door were still active, I’d be pitching interviews with both of them.

just loafing

Today, of course, was my second Saturday in a row to spend eight hours working a Relay For Life fundraiser – in this case, the Times-Gazette’s second annual Community Yard Sale, which was a huge success.

It was early in the day – not long after the official start time – when, wandering around, I found this:

loaf-pan

It’s a cast iron bread pan, from the fine folks of Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, Tenn. I love cast iron cookware and have several pieces of Lodge product in my kitchen, which I use constantly. I got to tour the plant once for a newspaper story, and I love their factory outlet store. (They have a store in South Pittsburg and two stores up in the tourist mecca of Sevier County, but the South Pittsburg store is best because it’s the only one with factory seconds.)

The pan had obviously never been used, although the little Lodge tag was kind of stuck together, as if it had gotten wet. Because Lodge now factory-seasons its products, the pan has the black coating which you used to have to build up through repeated use. The pan itself was in perfect shape.

It was only $7, and I snatched it up immediately. I immediately started thinking about using it.

I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately since creating my own sourdough starter. The recipe I’ve been using most often makes two loaves, so I’ve generally been throwing one loaf into the freezer and thawing it once I’ve finished the other loaf. But now, I have a dilemma. This cast iron pan obviously has different thermal properties than the matched set of non-stick loaf pans I’ve been using. I don’t want to bake one loaf in the cast iron pan and another one next to it in a much lighter-weight pan.

After checking online, I think what I’m going to do is freeze half of the raw bread dough. The sources I’ve found online say it’s best to do this after the first rise and before the second rise.

Even though I was exhausted, I ran by the grocery store on my way home from the yard sale because I was running low on bread flour. Now, I’ve got a batch of dough mixed up that will rise overnight. Tomorrow morning, I will knead it and then divide it into two portions, one of which will be frozen immediately for later use. The other portion will rise all day in the cast iron pan and then be baked that night.

I’ve been very pleased with my sourdough starter, and I’ve even shared it with a friend. (Let me know if you want some.) I have no green thumb, and have trouble keeping plants alive, but apparently I’m better with yeast.

I also know how to take care of cast iron. I never immerse mine in soapy water. I occasionally use a soapy sponge or rag from the sink to wipe it out, but because of the non-stick properties of properly-cared-for cast iron soaking is not required. I usually just rinse it out while it’s still warm, using a brush or one of those little flat nylon pot-scrapers to dislodge any stubborn particles, then give the piece a quick hit of cooking spray and wipe it down inside and out with a paper towel.

A piece of the Rock

I enjoy walking down to Riverbottom Park, just off the Shelbyville square on the banks of the Duck River. Most days, I’ll get out of the office and walk from the Times-Gazette to the square, then from the square down to Riverbottom Park, then back up to the square, stopping by First UMC on my way back to say hello to whoever’s in the office. On weekends, sometimes I will walk from my apartment up to Riverbottom Park and back.

I didn’t want to let my walking go by the wayside while I’m on temporary assignment here in Lewisburg. I’ve been walking every day, going in different directions from the square each day, exploring a little of the area near the square. This paid off on the very first day; I saw the marquee at First UMC Lewisburg advertising an appearance by H.K. Derryberry, whom I’d met only a week or two earlier and got a story out of it.

But it wasn’t until yesterday, after going in pretty much every other direction, that I stumbled across the Rock Creek Park greenway. I walked part of it yesterday and walked more of it today. I took about a 40-minute walk today and still didn’t cover all of it. What a treasure. I wish Shelbyville had a walking trail this long and this nice. I know that there was an original plan for a greenway that would run from the square to Never Rest Park, but they haven’t been able to get all of the necessary property or develop it. Well-maintained, well-designed, and beautiful, with benches and trash cans and a pedestrian bridge over the creek, and so on. Plenty of geese (not surprising, since there’s one of those coin-operated geese food vending machines near the pedestrian bridge). It’s convenient to the square.

While I’m over here, I’ll enjoy having that greenway for my daily walk. I just wish there was someplace to eat on the square. Shelbyville has four restaurants on or close to the square: Pope’s Cafe, Coffee Break, Bocelli’s and new arrival P&B’s Kitchen. Lewisburg has zero, although I found a Mexican restaurant just a little farther out.

Mom’s birthday

Today would have been my mother’s 75th birthday.

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This is one of the last photos I have of her, with my sister Elecia at a party following my niece Jacey’s high school graduation in May 2010. She died of pancreatic cancer in August of that year. I am so sorry Mom won’t be around for Jacey’s wedding next month. I think of her often, as we all do – I’ll see something that she would have liked, and be instantly reminded of her.

In 2013 and 2014, I happened by pure chance to be working on Relay For Life stuff on Mom’s birthday, and this year I only missed it by a day (in either direction – I had Bark For Life yesterday, and Relay For Life committee meetings tomorrow night). Raising money for the American Cancer Society won’t bring my mother back, but maybe it will give a few more people some more days, months or years with their own mothers and fathers and spouses and children.

Value the time you have with the people you love. You never, ever know which meeting will be your last.

A tale of two cities

It has been a long day — I spent the first half of it working for one newspaper, and the second half of it working for another. I will be filling in at the T-G’s sister paper, the Marshall County Tribune, for a few weeks while they’re short-staffed. I came in to the T-G as usual this morning and tried to get some loose ends tied up, then I went and worked at the Trib this afternoon. I rushed back to Shelbyville just in time (a few minutes late, actually, but they were still serving) for dinner at church.

Tomorrow, I’ll do the same thing in reverse — working at the Trib in the morning, then coming back through Shelbyville in the afternoon to take care of a feature interview I’d already scheduled before I knew about my temporary duties. From that point forward, I’ll be at the Trib most of the time, except on Monday mornings, when I’ll stop by the T-G and do my regular weekly hour at Learning Way Elementary. I’ll also cover a few after-hours assignments for the T-G.

I helped out at the Trib a couple of years ago, but that was just occasional assignments for a few weeks. This time, I’ll be putting in regular office hours. It’s a big change – I’ll have been at the T-G for 30 years this coming July, and so it’s a challenge to drop into a different newsroom and a community where I don’t know very many people.

I’m tired. I will sleep well tonight.

Getting my jim key on

4-BJK-AEDCLast August, during the Celebration, Kate Canady saw me on the grounds and came up to me to ask me if I would speak about Beautiful Jim Key at a meeting of the AEDC Women’s Club.

Kate’s husband, Brent, is a retired Navy captain; they’ve settled back in his home town of Shelbyville since his retirement, and Kate has gotten active in the AEDC club, which is associated with Arnold Engineering Development Complex, an Air Force (and Navy) research facility over in Coffee and Franklin counties. Kate said she wanted a to share a good Bedford County-related program with her fellow club members. It had just been announced that Morgan Freeman has agreed to play William Key in a movie adaptation of the story, and Kate thought this would make the program all the more interesting to her friends.

My first reaction was to turn her down – I’m no expert, just a newspaper reporter who’s happened to write a few stories about Beautiful Jim Key, quoting heavily from the real expert on the topic, author Mim Eichler Rivas. The ideal would be if they could get Mim to speak to them – but Mim lives in sunny Southern California, where she’s a successful author and her husband Victor is a busy actor.

I tried to think of someone else I could refer to Kate to do a BJK program and couldn’t come up with anyone. I told her I’d do it, but I was going to clearly present myself as an interested amateur, not an expert.

Kate got back to me later to tell me I’d been scheduled as the program for April. I’ll be speaking this coming Tuesday.

I’ve been making some notes on my program today. I’ve been re-reading Mim’s book, of course. I also ordered a copy of one version of Albert Rogers’ often-revised promotional booklet about the horse, and scanned the state library and archives’ web site for photos I could download. I meant to try to get someone to show me William Key’s grave at Willow Mount Cemetery, so I could take a photo of it, but I never got the chance. I do have photos of the marker at Beautiful Jim Key’s gravesite south of town.

If you’ve never heard the story, Beautiful Jim Key was perhaps the most famous horse in America at the turn of the 20th Century. William Key, a former slave who made a fortune selling patent medicine, taught the horse (an Arabian-Hambletonian) to spell, do math problems, respond to audience questions, and so on. Skeptics assumed (and still do today) that this was trickery, that somehow William Key was doing the spelling, secretly indicating to the horse which letter tile to pick up at a particular time. But a team of Harvard professors could find no evidence of such subterfuge. If it was a trick, it was a good one. Mim does not believe it was a trick.

A promoter named Albert Rogers – equal parts showman and idealist — hooked up with William Key and his horse and promoted them in appearances around the country. (The movie is still trying to nail down its financing, but Clive Owen has agreed to play Albert Rogers opposite Morgan Freeman.) The appearances stressed William Key’s gentle training methods (today we would call him a “horse whisperer”) and often raised money to launch or support some sort of local humane association in that city. Millions of children and adults joined the “Jim Key Band of Mercy,” a fan club, by signing a pledge to be kind to animals.

The horse’s successes were bracketed by two great World’s Fair-type events. Jim Key performed for President William McKinley at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897, and then was seen by millions at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, the fair memorialized in the song “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Mim opens the book with the story of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-president Teddy Roosevelt, seeing the horse at the fair in St. Louis. William Key asked Jim to spell Alice’s name, and the horse mistakenly – but prophetically – appended the last name of her escort and future husband, Nicholas Longworth.

I enjoy talking about this often-overlooked piece of Bedford County history. I hope I can do it justice on Tuesday.