the best wings ever

I think I just had the best buffalo wings I’ve ever eaten – and I made them myself. I’m not taking any credit; I think it was luck.

I used to have a small kettle-style grill, the kind sold as a “table top grill” or some such. It rusted out, and I’d been meaning to replace it. I found a pretty-much-identical grill Saturday at Dollar General Market, for $14. I thought about how to break it in. I looked for a steak that was on sale, but didn’t find one, so I got some chicken wings.

With the weather yesterday, I decided not to try to use the grill last night. But as soon as I got home from church this morning, I fired it up.

I’d never cooked chicken wings on the grill before. I looked up a recipe yesterday, but there are so many variables I wasn’t at all sure I’d know how long to cook them.

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This is an in-progress photo; they were a little more golden by the time I pulled them a few minutes later. As I said, I think I got lucky. These turned out to be sensational. They were so tender and juicy that, after the first bite, I was afraid I’d under-cooked them. But, no, they were cooked all the way through, with no pink whatsoever. And the smoke flavor came through the buffalo wing sauce.

Speaking of buffalo wing sauce …

franks_redhot_original_cayenne_pepperfranks_redhot_hot_wing_newNever use any of those pre-mixed buffalo wing sauces. The best wing sauce is made from melted (real) butter mixed with the original  Frank’s Red Hot sauce or one of its equivalents (Louisiana, Texas Pete, etc.). Use the ratio on the Red Hot sauce label, adjusting the amount of hot sauce up or down to meet your desired heat level.

If something is labeled as “buffalo wing sauce” — some of them have the same brand names as the hot sauce they’re made from — it probably uses artificial butter flavor, some sort of oil, and chemicals to keep the oil and vinegar from separating. The real stuff only has two ingredients, takes about two minutes to make (Melt the butter and whisk together with the hot sauce. Done.), and is two times as good.

see you at … the festival

A couple of nights ago, I bought a white display board and drew a map of where the booths will be located at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, which is coming up two weeks from tomorrow.

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If you think about this, what it pretty much means is that the number of teams has been established. We’re not expecting any more teams to sign up. And each of our teams probably has a sufficient number of walkers (although I’m sure none of them would turn down additional help if it were offered).

So why, at this point, am I telling people about Relay, or asking them to attend?

Many people have no idea what Relay For Life is all about. I sure didn’t, five years ago. It’s not a running race – it’s not a race at all. And while there is an organized walking component to it, if only the registered team members, the walkers, show up on Relay night our event will be a huge disappointment.

Relay is more of a festival than a walk. Our event – and the local event in your community, if you’re one of my out-of-town friends or relatives – wants everyone to turn out on Relay night.

Here’s how it works: those teams of walkers who’ve signed up for Relay have been raising money in advance of Relay night, through team fund-raisers and/or individual solicitation. But they’ll also raise money on Relay night. Each team has a “campsite” on the Relay track. That campsite serves two functions: it’s a hangout for that team’s walkers when they’re not on the track, and it’s also a concession stand. Most teams will have some sort of food item, from hamburgers to kebabs to sno-cones to French toast.  This year, our local Relay has an “around-the-world” theme, and many teams have chosen food items associated with a particular city, state or country. Some will also have souvenirs of some sort – T-shirts or awareness ribbons or other tchotchkes. Some will have activities – a climbing wall, a big inflatable slide, or pony rides. (The Times-Gazette’s camp site will have the pony rides.)

Our local Ford dealer will be giving test drives, and donating to Relay for everyone who fills out a contact card.

In addition, there will be elements to the Relay itself that would interest anyone. We start off the evening by letting all of the cancer survivors in attendance take the first lap on the track, followed by all of the caregivers in attendance. Later, in the case of Bedford County, we’ll have a live auction, with amazing gift baskets put together by our teams.

One symbol of Relay is the luminaria, a paper bag, weighted with sand, with a little candle inside. We sell luminaria as a fund-raiser; if you donate $10 to the American Cancer Society, you can dedicate a luminaria to a cancer patient or survivor. You can write a message on the bag yourself, or if you order one online, a volunteer will inscribe the bag for you.

After dark, about 9 p.m. at our Relay, we will have what’s called the luminaria ceremony – it’s a standard part of Relay events all over the world. The luminaria will be lit shortly before 9 p.m., and then, as the ceremony begins, all of the electric lights will be turned off, so that the walking track is lit only by luminaria and torches. The luminaria ceremony incorporates music and recitations and other visual elements to recognize the impact cancer has had on all our lives – patients, caregivers, or just those of us who’ve lost a friend or family member.  The ceremony is different each year, and it’s different from community to community.

After the luminaria ceremony, many of the visiting public go home – although you certainly don’t have to. The rest of us will be up all night. In Bedford County, we have games every hour to keep walkers’ energy up in the wee hours, including a massive game of musical chairs all around the track.

We’ll also have a “Fight Back” ceremony, in which those in attendance are encouraged to take steps to prevent cancer.

Relay is a public event, and we want as many people as possible to show up and take part in the fun. Come hungry, and bring money.

If you can’t come, of course, you can participate by making a contribution to ACS in the name of a particular team or individual participant. Why, here’s a handy example.

If, as mentioned earlier, you’re from out of town, go here and plug in your zip code where it says “sign up for an event” to find a Relay event near you. (You’re not signing up for anything, just looking for the event in your neighborhood.)

Cancer hits all of us. Relay For Life is a way to hit back.

Have a great summer, kids!

Because Regan Aymett’s class will be on a field trip this coming Monday, this past Monday was my last “Raise Your Hand Tennessee” volunteer day of the school year. Since last fall, I’ve been spending an hour every Monday morning.

As much as I enjoyed the experience during the second half of the 2012-13 school year, I enjoyed it even more this year. This year, instead of splitting my time between two classrooms, I was with the same classroom for the full hour, and I got to spend the whole school year. The kids got to know me better and vice versa.

Usually, I would be working with a small group of kids, but these last two weeks – now that the big stressful testing is over with – I’ve gotten to speak to the whole class at once. Last week, I showed them photos from my five trips to Kenya, and that led to Ms. Aymett finding out about my Bad Self-Published Novel, and so this week I talked to the kids about the fact that I had written a book, which impressed them (all the more so since they hadn’t read the book in question).

Afterward, we posed for a photo:

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“Raise Your Hand” is a really rewarding program. You can tell them whether you want to tutor kids one-on-one, work with small groups or with large groups. They’ll work around your schedule (although a commitment of an hour a week is preferred). I looked forward to my time with the second graders every week, and I’ll miss it this summer. I will definitely participate in the program again next year.

a friendly visit

I’ve been involved in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life for several years now, and one thing I’ve meant to do – and almost done, a few times – was to visit a Relay event in another community, just to see how they do things.

I did that for the first time tonight, traveling down the road to Tullahoma, which is holding its Relay event this weekend.

The first face I saw, in the parking lot, was a familiar one: Terry Chamblee. Terry’s wife Samantha was our Bedford County organizing committee chair when I first got involved with Relay; now she’s an American Cancer Society employee with responsibility for a number of local Relay programs, Tullahoma being one of them. So Samantha was busy tonight.

A little later, one of our current Bedford County co-chairs, Sharon Wachala, showed up – I knew she was planning to attend as well. She was with her husband, and I think this was my first time to meet him.

I was surprised when I got to Tullahoma High School about 5:40 and the signs pointed, not to the football field, but to the gym. The event was actually supposed to have been held on the football field, but today’s weather (rainy this morning, then overcast and threatening for the rest of the day) apparently prompted them to move it indoors. Instead of candles, they were going to use glowsticks inside the luminaria.

The gymnasium worked out fairly well, at least during the two hours I was there, but during the opening ceremonies it was kind of cramped. There was one team in particular with a huge number of members, all of whom were present for the opening ceremonies, and all of whom, at first, congregated in front of their own campsite – making it inconvenient for anyone else to get through and see what concessions that team had to offer.

Speaking of concessions, I was tickled to see that one of the other teams was offering grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is something I’d never think of as a concession item, but once I saw it, I knew it was brilliant. They had two sandwich presses and a dual-burner hot plate. The basic ingredients are inexpensive, and in the case of the tomato soup – a canned Kroger store brand – you only had to open what you needed, and what you didn’t open would keep indefinitely for some other use. If the relay had been held outdoors, and the weather had been cool after sundown, soup and grilled cheese would have been a masterstroke – but even in warmer weather, the grilled cheese by itself would be appropriate as a light, less-filling, entrée or snack.

In general, though, I think our teams have more, and more creative, food options than Tullahoma did. Then again, we have more teams (fewer this year than last year, but still more than Tullahoma). Tullahoma’s relay had 12 participating teams (or at least there were 12 campsites). We have 15 this year.

One team did have some interesting game options, apparently rented from Christopher Equipment in Tullahoma, including a photo booth.

The praise band from Tullahoma First United Methodist’s contemporary service sang for a while, and they were great. There was also a tongue-in-cheek men-in-drag beauty contest, similar to the pageant that one of our teams does as its primary fund-raiser, prior to Relay. In this case, the pageant was a part of Relay night and each of the contestants represented a different Relay team.

I originally planned to stay for the luminaria ceremony, but after a couple of hours, I had seen all of the camp sites, and I kind of wanted to sit down. I’m guessing that if the Relay had been held out on the football field as normal, there would have been a few places for people for people who aren’t affiliated with a team to sit down and take a load off, even if that meant stretching out on the grass. Our Relay is held at Bedford County Ag Center, and there are plenty of places to sit down. Once the Relay is underway, the tent where the cancer survivors gather before the survivor lap is open for anyone to sit down in, and even functions as a sort of food court, because there are tables where you can sit down and enjoy what you’ve bought from the various team booths. If you like, you can even sit in the bleachers up the hill behind the ag center’s meeting room.

There just wasn’t any such place in the gym to sit and and relax. I walked for a while, but then I got kind of restless and decided I wanted to run an errand at Kroger and then go home.

Still, I’m very glad I went. It was fun to see how the Relay experience translates from one community to the next. I want to check out another Relay some time this summer.

Our own Relay will take place three weeks from tonight – 6 p.m. May 30 through 6 a.m. May 31. Bedford County folks, whether you’re on a team or not, I want to see you there. Come on out and enjoy the concessions, activities and entertainment.

A berry happy birthday

Well, I have the day off today for my birthday, and I stopped by to see Dad this morning. We visited for a while, then he said he had to go to Valley Home Farm in Wartrace for some strawberries. I tagged along.

When we got there, the blackboard out front said they were out of picked berries (you can also pick your own, but that hadn’t been the plan). When we went inside, though, the nice young woman at the counter said that some more berries had just come in. Dad asked for two gallons and then asked if I’d like a gallon for my birthday.

I politely declined, of course.

Like heck I did. You think I’m going to turn down a gallon of freshly-picked strawberries on my birthday?

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We asked about Nancy Edwards, and it turns out she was feeling well today. The young woman went and got her and she hugged both Dad and me.

I was out of freezer bags, so on the way home from Dad’s I stopped and got some. As soon as I got home, I started capping and halving the berries and tossing them with Fruit Fresh and a little sugar. I parceled them out into freezer bags, leaving a generous amount in the bottom of the bowl for immediate birthday consumption. They were fantastic, sweet and juicy and just perfect. And I’ve got bags of them in the freezer for future use.

A wonderful birthday treat.

recovery mode

I had a very busy Saturday, then a relatively-busy Monday, then an enormously long, busy and stressful (albeit satisfying) Tuesday. I left the paper after 10 p.m. Tuesday and then had to be back at 6 a.m. today. Fortunately, though, I was able to get away early today, and tomorrow – my birthday – I am burning off a vacation day. I have no special plans (our family celebration will be over the weekend). But it’s good to just unwind a bit.

I went for a nice brisk walk this afternoon, then crashed on the sofa.

welcome and goodbye

I stood before hundreds of people at 7 p.m. tonight and warmly welcomed them to one of my favorite events, the annual Symphony at the Celebration concert in Shelbyville, which features the Grammy Award-winning, Carnegie Hall-playing Nashville Symphony along with one of our local high school bands – this year, the band from my alma mater, Cascade High School.

I felt as if I’d bungled conductor Vinay Parameswaran’s name, although I was later told he gave me a thumbs up. I asked the crowd to stand for the presentation of colors by a Shelbyville Fire Department color guard.

I then bounded up the center aisle and out the doors of Calsonic Arena. I did not hear one note of the concert proper, not even the first note of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The concert, of course, took place on Election Night, and in the newspaper business that is – quite understandably – an all-hands-on-deck affair. I had to rush over to Bedford County Courthouse to collect election results and post them to the newspaper’s Twitter account, then back to the newsroom to write up tomorrow’s story and post a spreadsheet of the precinct results.

I knew I was where I needed to be, but it still killed me to miss the concert. I’ve been a member of the concert’s steering committee for more than 20 years, ever since the late Scott McDonald, president of what was then First American Bank, took over sponsorship of the concert from the pencil company that had founded it. Scott formed a steering committee and asked me to serve on it. I’ve officially been co-chair, along with longtime chair Dawn Holley, for the past two or three years, but I think I was sort of unofficial vice-chair for a while before that.

This concert is a big deal to me. I love it as an audience member. I love what it means for our community. I love what it means to the student musicians. Here’s how the concert works: the Nashville Symphony plays the first half of its program, then the high school band gets to play a few numbers on its own. Then, we have intermission. After intermission, the symphony plays for a while, and then the symphony and the high school band join forces for the grand finale, which always includes “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” with the high school piccolo player taking the solo.

This year’s concert seemed to be cursed, and at about 4 p.m. Dawn and I were both about ready to pack it in. Because of some financial challenges, we’re still not sure we’ll be able to have the concert next year. Normally, instead of me welcoming the crowd to the concert, someone from our primary sponsor would have done it – but we don’t have a primary sponsor at the moment.

I called Dawn after the concert was over, while I was at the newsroom working on my story. After talking to her, I think we both feel better about it tonight than we did this afternoon. We had a wonderful crowd, better than last year, and the feedback I’ve gotten has been good.

Prior to the concert, the Nashville Symphony’s “instrument petting zoo” gave kids (and some adults!) the opportunity to pick up and try real instruments under the guidance of trained volunteers. We also had a pre-concert by the Motlow Community Jazz Band, which I did get to hear, and I have to say they were pretty darn incredible – I think the best band Motlow has ever sent to this event. They killed “Peter Gunn” and “In The Mood” and a lot of other hot numbers in their 30-minute set.

I heard Cascade rehearsing this afternoon, under their regular director, David Lucich, and under Vinay Parameswaran, who of course had to prepare them for the joint Sousa performance. They sounded great – made me proud to be an alumnus. Cascade was too small to support a band back when I was in school, but they have an outstanding one now, regularly winning awards in band competitions.

It sounds like it was a great evening; I’m sorry I missed it.

those frenchies seek him everywhere

I came home for lunch just now and noticed that “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934), with Leslie Howard, was just about to come on TCM. I can’t sit here and watch it, of course, but I started the DVR right away.

A little history: Baroness Orczy’s novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” about a heroic freedom fighter masquerading as an ineffectual fop, was one of the inspirations for Johnston McCulley to create Zorro – and cartoonist Bob Kane had both the Pimpernel and Zorro in mind when he created the mysterious caped crimefighter who hides behind the public face of wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne.

And, of course, you can’t mention the Pimpernel without quoting the poem – the silly, sing-song poem spouted frequently by the Pimpernel’s swishy alter-ego Sir Percy Blakeney:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!

If you mainly know Leslie Howard as wishy-washy Ashley Wilkes from “Gone With The Wind,” you need to see him in this, where he’s equally adept as both the hero and the buffoon.

Memories of Kenya

When I got to Regan Aymett’s class at Learning Way Elementary this morning for my weekly hour of volunteer service through “Raise Your Hand Tennessee,” she and the kids were working on a little story book in which the main character decides to take a trip to Ghana.

I excitedly told Ms. Aymett that I’d been to Africa five times and was planning another trip there this September. I figured she’d just mention the fact right then, while they were working on the book, but instead she suggested I show the kids some photos, presumably next week.

So, tonight, I’ve been digging through photos of my past Kenya trips, trying to pull some that would be suitable for a relatively-secular slide show for second graders.

I have found some good photos. The story book today mentioned African women carrying things on their heads, and I have a photo from our 2005 trip in which the women of the church in Ndonyo carried our luggage up a steep hill to where our van was waiting for us:

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I will not, however, be showing the second graders this photo, from the hotel where we stayed during the 2009 trip:

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the curmudgeonly lay servant

LSMinistrieslay-servant-emblemI had a great time this weekend at the Murfreesboro District Lay Servant school at Beersheba. I took a class on leading worship and it was fantastic. I also got to see several people I knew. There was a men’s group from Blakemore UMC using Beersheba at the same time, and so I even bumped into Mountain T.O.P. founder George Bass.

So I had a great experience this weekend. But the whole thing reminded me of some of the reservations I have about some recent changes in the whole lay speaking / lay servant program. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in me venting them, since it’s sort of a water-under-the-bridge situation, but I decided I needed to get them off my chest.

First, a bit of background. “Lay speakers,” in the United Methodist parlance, have been people who are not ordained ministers but who are available to preach, lead worship, etc., for example when a pastor is sick or on vacation. Some lay speakers have even been asked to lead smaller churches for extended periods of time when a pastor was unavailable. They have to rely on an ordained minister to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like, and even to bless the communion elements.

There have traditionally been two different types of lay speakers. After taking a basic course (usually offered over the course of a weekend, or on two consecutive Saturdays), you became a “local church lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at the church where you were a member. After that, you could take an advanced course – any of several that might be offered – and become a “certified lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at any other church as needed.

You had to take an advanced course at least every three years to maintain your certified status – but it didn’t matter which one. Sometimes, I would take a new class after just a year or two, because I wanted to; other times, the three-year deadline would sneak up on me and I’d have to take a new class right away or risk losing my certification. I actually took “Go Preach!”, the most basic advanced preaching class, more than once because it was the only one that was available during a given training event, or what have you. And I gained something new from it each time I took it. I took other classes as well, including one on crafting better sermons, one on leading small group studies, and what have you.

I’ve been a certified lay speaker for a number of years now, and in fact in 2007 I was the first lay speaker ever to deliver a (brief) sermon at the Tennessee Annual Conference. In 2013, I preached about a dozen Sunday morning services – an average of once a month, although in practice a large number of them were during the summer months, due to preachers taking vacations or mission trips.

A couple of different things have taken place over the past couple of years – one denomination-wide, the other specific to our conference. The denomination-wide change was to rename the program from “Lay Speaking Ministries” to “Lay Servant Ministries.” The stated rationale was that there were a lot of different ways to serve the church, and we shouldn’t limit the program to just those who are comfortable standing behind a pulpit.

Here is where I will start to sound like a curmudgeon. The distinction of “Lay Speaking Ministries” was a perfectly legitimate, even obvious, one. Yes, there are many ways to serve a local church – and we should be encouraging every church member to serve in those ways. But I don’t understand what that had to do with lay speaking. To use an absurd analogy, that would be like saying that you shouldn’t have to use a firearm to be in the U.S. Marine Corps, because you can serve your country in other ways than just shooting at people. Yes, it makes a weird kind of sense, but it negates the whole reason you started the Marine Corps in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Conference (which, despite its name, represents primarily Middle Tennessee) has implemented a new training regimen. I believe you become a certified lay servant after you take your first advanced class, but in order to be a certified lay speaker you now have to take one course each from five different topic areas: spiritual gifts, United Methodist heritage, preaching, leading worship and evangelism.

In years past, the Murfreesboro District has held about two training events a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s no guarantee that a particular training event will have all five of the topic areas offered as options; the one I attended this weekend didn’t have all of them covered.

If I understand the rules right (and I may not), and going by the current schedule, it could take a local church lay speaker two and a half years (or more, if the schedule doesn’t work out right) to take all the classes required to become certified.  You could conceivably do it more quickly by picking up some courses in adjoining districts, such as the Columbia or the Nashville district.

I’m also completely confused about to what extent long-timers like me are “grandfathered in” under the new requirements. One person who spoke at this weekend’s training said that we long-timers needed to talk to the district lay speaking director and make special arrangements with her. But when I complained about my confusion online, the district director (whom I know personally) said I was good to go. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to make an effort going forward to pick up the other topic areas, and I’m not sure how I would count one or two of my past courses, or if they’d count at all.

I understand the value of the added material called for by the new program – and, in fact, I look forward to taking a course in the area on United Methodist heritage. (If one had been offered this weekend, I would have signed up for it.) But it seems like a dramatic change from the current system, and I’m not sure it’s been well explained. I wish there were a way some of the material could be delivered by online courses or what have you. I wonder how many local church lay speakers are going to stick with it long enough to meet the new requirements to be certified.

So, to summarize – we’ve changed the name from “Lay Speaking” to “Lay Servant” in order to encourage more people to join, but in order to be an actual lay speaker you now have to meet much more stringent requirements.

Thus ends my curmudgeonly screed.