Interview in a Barber Chair

I’ve conducted interviews for stories in a lot of odd places, but never before today in a barber’s chair. The photo here was taken by William Sellari, a film-maker, as I interviewed him and his friend Stephanie at the antiques mall on U.S. 460 in Roanoke.

No real point in this, except that I thought the chair was truly cool.

And yes, I’m wearing shorts. It’s 95-freakin’ degrees. Dress codes are trashed for the day … uh, summer.

It Ain’t S’posed To Be This Way

Roanoke, Virginia, rests in a temperate, moderate mountain climate zone where the mountains keep out the heat and retain the cool. Right?


The thermometer above is in my car, recording the temperature outside. This was in the shade, shortly before noon, just after I finished an interview for a magazine story in Vinton.

I grew up in west/central South Carolina, 350 miles south of here, where wet/hot summers are the norm. But I don’t recall many days in the 1950s and 1960s when the thermometer nearly burst from its excess. Those temperatures are becoming the norm here, however. God only knows what west/central South Carolina feels like.

My grandgirl is at Camp Alta Mons, just outside Shawsville this week and she has no A/C. My guess is  she of the 2 percent body fat won’t suffer much, even with the high level of activity. But she’s 12 and I’m 70. It makes a difference.

A Different View of an Old Friend

The view from the Wiens’ deck.

My idea of summer food.

Yesterday, in pursuit of a story, I wound up on the deck of Ralph and Gia Wiens, a stone’s throw from my stomping grounds at Carvins Cove. Gia suggested I take their photo for the article on the deck and when we got there, I understood why. Above is the view.

I’ve shot Carvins Cove from far above on the Appalachian

From yesterday’s hike.

Trail many times, but I’ve never seen this view before yesterday. Imagine, if you will, sitting with friends around an open pit fire on the deck, enjoying your favorite form of sipping, watching the sun going down over the mountains in front of you.

That, boys and girls, is the very definition of the good life for me.

While we’re here, I thought I’d share a few other photos from the past couple of days, shots that look like summer to me.

My Tuesday lunch.

My friend Susan shot this remarkable photo yesterday evening on her walk along the Roanoke River.

There Is a Solution to Health Insurance

My friend Whitney Hollingsworth, who is as bright as anybody I know, is shaking her fist at the American health care system today. She’s been put in the untenable position of having to choose between paying outrageous medical bills or taking care of her family. That’s something many of us go through on a daily basis and it is simply unnecessary, a product of the capitalist system we cling to against all evidence it works.

Whitney wrote (on Facebook): “The morality guilt trip threat is if you don’t support the ACA, you’re some sort of evil bastard who wants old people and children to die in the streets of rickets and leprosy. Wrong. The facts are: you pay and pay and pay and no one benefits.

“It doesn’t go to my family, it doesn’t go to the poor; it goes into some sort of insurance cloud and the distribution is arbitrary. You’re told that you have to pay or people will die. When the truth is you pay so that [hospital systems] can create jobs that aren’t necessary to fill a building they don’t need so that they have to dabble in real estate to do renovations they don’t need to a building they don’t need to house employees they don’t need for a department they don’t need.”

Whitney is angry and frustrated. Finding the responsible party in this mess is a lot more difficult than pointing a finger or waving a hand. It is a complex, troubled and rigged system that most of us don’t understand, except to know that we get bills equal to what we owe on our homes for replacing a joint. We pay $1,500 a month for medications that have been around for years, without a good explanation why. The government financially supports big pharma research, then gives companies exclusive rights for specific drugs for years, allowing any price the company chooses.

And none of it–not one bit of it–works. We rank 37th in the world (World Health Organization, here) in quality of medical care behind such notables as Costa Rico, Chile, Morocco, Cyprus and Colombia. Our emergency response is good, but everything else lags.

The Commonwealth Fund, which ranks care in 10 rich countries, says the U.S. is dead last in quality within this group (Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland), but “Americans now spend $9,523 per person a year on medical expenses.” That’s the leader by a lot.

The solution? Here’s mine:

Medicare for All.

How would it work? Like this:

Medicare must be given the power to negotiate with big pharma, doctors and hospitals.Consumers would be allowed to find the best price for service and goods, regardless of where they are (Europe for knee surgery, Canada for drugs, for example).

Medicare for All should be controlled by a board of eight selected by the president (Trump won’t always be in office) and approved by the Senate with 60 votes. Terms would be staggered 4-6-8-10 years (rotating) for the members who would be selected 1/4 the medical community; 1/4 from industry (excluding medicine); 1/4 consumers; 1/4 miscellaneous.

Medical care costs would dramatically decrease and medical professionals would be treated fairly, though not extravagantly. A knee surgery, for example, would not cost $60,000 (it costs $13,000 in Germany, the cost of the appliance here and Germany’s economy is similar to ours).

I believe the overall economy (health care is 1/6th of it) would benefit, workers would be much more secure and satisfied, productivity would increase, the nation would be much, much healthier in every sense.


A Noisy, Fun Evening at “Overnight Sensations”

The Del Monte sisters were great fun.

The house was so full that the beginning of the beginning of the run of the six plays on tap had to be delayed. But it was a good-humored crowd, one as surprised as I that it was an SRO night. And this crowd came to have fun. Nothing would delay that.

Ginger Poole and her sweet little girl.

Nothing did.

From the moment Ginger Poole of Mill Mountain Theatre took to the stage with her little girl to introduce Hollins Theatre Department’s Todd Ristau’s signature evening of “Overnight Sensations”–the 10th one in 11 years–the roof shook. The plays, six of them, written overnight, rehearsed all day, presented beginning at 8:15 p.m., were fine works and the appreciation was expressed in peals of laughter, tears, hoots, brisk applause.

As one who was on stage briefly, I can tell you that it’s a lot better to play a full house than an empty one, but this was off the charts in its size and intensity.

Crowd awaiting the start.

I mentioned this morning to Todd (as I passed off a thumb drive with photographs taken by my friend Susan and me) that this was not your typical, subdued Mill Mountain evening and he took that as a criticism of MMT. It certainly was not. I am a huge fan of our primary professional theater, but I love seeing new, younger faces sitting in those red seats, as well, and about half the crowd was new to OS (Todd asked and the hands shot up). A lot of them will come back.

Bayla Sussman confronts Michael Mansfield.

These plays were only 10 minutes long, but the writing, directing and some of the acting were as good as anything you’ll see in this market. The crowd appreciated that.

Here is a bit of what it looked like (the play action from Susan’s seat, the rest from my perspective).

Gene Marrano and Emma Sala help Natalie Faunce. That’s TV actor Jim Beaver (“Deadwood”), in the background.

That’s me (right), Jared Morgan and brassy Anna Holland in what was actually a tear-jerker.

Meredith Levy stayed up all night to write our play, then stuck with us through rehearsal. To a degree.

Janemarie Laucella and and Claire Hilton played zoo animals.

This is the part I like (I’m on the left in wash-out light).

Maddie and Pampa Do Theatre

Maddie and Pampa in our seats.

Maddie and I met in the audience last night for “Overnight Sensations” at Mill Mountain Theatre–a production in which I was … well … “acting.” The quotation marks are well deserved, since I blew every one of my meager six lines.

Anyhow, this lovely young woman simply blew me away with her grown-up attire and dark lipstick (she’s 12 and her dad would have had a baby).

We ran into a lot of old friends, some new ones (Jennifer Grover sat behind us and chatted up Maddie), and even my favorite ex-wife, Christina. It was a simply delightful time and my good friend Susan got it all on film. Maybe not film, but certainly the modern equivalent. I was in a suit and tie because that’s what my part in our play required. I think mine was the only tie in the place.

Here’s us.

Maddie says “hello” to Christina.

Like most 12-year-olds, Maddie was born posing.

Susan loves special effects. Like this …

… and this.

Maddie with her grandma (on her mom’s side) and moi.

Overnight Sensations Tonight … And It’s FREE!

That’s me up front with my team for tonight’s Overnight Sensations at MMT.

Natalie and me in our “annual picture.”

We’re back for the 11th edition of Overnight Sensations–the performance of six 10-minute plays written and staged in 24 hours for your enjoyment. We met last night to fix our teams of writers, directors and actors and will meet again in minutes to begin rehearsals of the plays the writers came up with.

Last night, we got together to form teams, renew old acquaintances and find new friends. I was especially pleased to get to take what my pal Natalie Faunce calls “our annual picture” and to finally meet the fine actress Emma Sperka, who is spending two years at Hollins University’s Theatre Department before returning home to set the theatrical/television/movie world on fire.

This is our team, headed by writer Meredith Levy (one of my favorites) and director Wend-Marie Martin (both back right). There are five more.

Survival School: The Backpack and Overnight Hike

Maddie in her tent: a little uncertain, I’d say.

Trail talk: Here’s how you do it.

Last week, my grandgirl Madeline went on her first overnight backpack with a group of nine other girls at the GEMS camp at Mountain Shepherd Survival School in Craig County. It was Maddie’s second year at the camp and she simply loves it. It, of course, gets her far out of her comfort zone and the long (11 miles), hard hike showed her things about her 12-year-old self that pleased her, I think.

She’ll be back at my friend Dina Bennett’s camp again next year and she’s already talking about it. There are a couple more camps scheduled this year and from what I understand, there are a few spots left. If you have a pre-teen or teen-aged girl, get her registered. She will learn valuable lessons about herself.

Team picture, 2017 GEMS 2.

that’s not a hat, Maddie. It’s your dinner bowl.

Up, up, up, up …

Girls among the rocks.

Finally, a little rest.

Setting up camp for the evening.

Where does all this stuff go?

Ewwwww. I’m not eating that! It’s a WORM!

Maddie’s BFF, Abbie.

Gimmie five! We did it!

Betsy: A (Sad) Birthday Remembrance

Betsy at about 72 or so. I bought her the hat so I could shoot the picture. She loved it.

Today would have been Betsy’s 95th birthday and I don’t believe she would have enjoyed a single minute of it. But she didn’t make it this far. She died about a year ago and I believe she was grateful the end finally got here. “Getting old is not for sissies,” she often said.

She left here on uneasy terms with me. “Uneasy” is probably a smidge too soft. She was pissed off. We had been mad at each other for two or three years and you know how stubbornness manifests in those situations. It turns to regret when the rift is not repaired, and ours never was.

In fact, I wrote a loving essay about Betsy the day after she died and I got a call from her daughter a few days later telling me to take it down or she would sic her lawyer on me. Never mind that the threat was completely empty (what would be the basis of the suit?), it was made and I respected it because I suspected at the time that Betsy instructed it be done should I write anything at all.

A couple of Betsy’s relatives got in touch with me later, wanting copies of the essay and I sent them along. They said they understood what happened, but never did clarify it for me, so I was left with my educated guess.

Betsy was one of the most evolved people I ever knew in many ways. Old age made her something else that I didn’t appreciate quite so much. But I sympathize and am even beginning to empathize: my days are more difficult at 70 than they were at 40 or 50. And they’ll be worse at 80, if I get that far.

She was in physical pain for nearly 15 years, but more than that, she was lonely. She once said, “The worst pain is the lonliness. It is awful.”

Betsy was a gregarious woman, a leader of her gender’s march toward equal rights, a mother, a writer, a big band singer, a woman who knew an impressive number of people whose names would be termed “household.” She dropped those names casually in conversation, as I might talk about my pal Butch up the street. Her names were more like “Shelley” (Winters), “Frank” (Sinatra), “Ella” (Fitzgerald), “Farley” (Granger), “Phil” (Silvers), “Norman” (Mailer), “Yip” (Harburg, “Over the Rainbow”), “Johnny” (Mercer).

There were many more than that and the stories she told so well were spellbinding, especially those of the young singer trying to break into the big-time on Broadway in the early 1950s. The big band days–mostly as a teen-ager–were fascinating, as well. She even wrote what was the definitive book on twins (which she had) in the early 1960s.

Betsy was an impressive writer (married to a prolific nationally-known magazine journalist. She said that occasionally when he passed out drunk on the living room floor at deadline, she finished his stories and turned them in. I always guessed she wrote better than he).

I urged her on many occasions to write a memoir and she kept saying, “When I feel a little better,” but the best I got from her were a series of treasured essays, most of which I still have. I sent several to her beloved niece, the circus performer.

Putting those thoughts on the modern version of paper (digital impulses) is important. I would love to have stories by my mother and father, grandma and grandpa. But I don’t. So I have had to make them up over the years, guess what they were thinking and doing. That’s not the best way to preserve family history, but since I don’t have the real thing, the fictional accounts will have to do.

My kids and grandkids won’t have to do that. I wrote my memoir (Burning the Furniture) and gave them all copies. They have no excuse. I hope yours don’t. But I really wish Betsy had written hers. Especially today, I miss that memoir and I miss Betsy.

The Bikini and I Made Our Debuts Simultaneously

Micheline Bernardini and the first bikini.

Seventy-one years ago Tuesday, a young Parisian stripper named Micheline Bernardini stepped out in front of flashing cameras at the Molitor swimming pool in Paris. She was showing the world for the first time the skimpy design of Louis Reard, a  chubby, middle-aged designer: the bikini.

Seventy-one years ago three weeks from now, I screamed my way into my mother’s arms in the delivery room at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville, N.C. The bikini, I suspect, made more noise than I did.