A Busy, Gratifying Birthday: Thank You All

Margie and I went paddling. (She fell in and took my little camera with her. It drowned. I replace it quickly.)

This has been a lovely birthday, full of fun stuff and friends, but let me tell you that Facebook–with those “happy birthdays” from so many people, some of whom I don’t even know–can be a challenge. That’s because I insist on responding to every one (mama said “thank you” notes are next to godliness). In this case, that’s about 300-plus “thank you”  notes.

Christine and me at dinner.

A good portion of the day was spent online in response, trying to make as many of the responses as different as possible. Sometimes just “thank you” is the best I can do, but when I know the person well, it deserves more than that.

Sometimes the FB greetings can be meaningful or touching or both. My old friend and colleague (and a guy I respect immensely as a journalist and a college professor), Bill Kovarik, wrote the following: “Happy birthday to a guy who makes insightful journalism look easy. (Which it is not).” I’ll take that to my grave.

Keeping up with the wishes–spread over a number of different posts, not just one birthday notification–has been the most difficult. I know I’ve missed a few and I feel bad about that possibility. If anybody was missed, let me know.

Anyhow, I got to take Margie kayaking (and she cooked two dinners for me; nobody’s done that since Mom when I was 15), and my dear friend Christine Ward took me to dinner tonight. Christina Koomen, my favorite ex-wife, left me some cashews on the side door basket while I was out. I love cashews. She also left me a very funny card. She does good cards.

Hearing from people dear to me was the most important of all, though. Heard from two brothers and a sister. And, of course, my best girl, Madeline was here until this morning and we got to spend important time.

Thank you all for making this a good one.


Summer Food: Start with a Garden Tomato

If you get this summer meal thing right, you have to begin with a tomato picked from your garden less than 30 minutes before being eaten. Above is an example. A BLT and cheddar, all tied with the red lovely from my garden.


A Birthday Meal from Margie (Yum!)

Margie did dinner for me tonight–my birthday is Monday–and it was simply divine. It was a chicken dish with mozzarella, grape tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and I loved it. It is called chicken calabrese.

She threw in some asparagus and squash from the garden, then topped it off with a wondrous sugar-free dessert (because I’m diabetic).

Thank you sweetie. I loved it. I do the cooking here, so I rarely get the opportunity to taste her wonderful gifts in the kitchen. Tonight was a real treat.


Roanoke Children’s Theater on Solid Ground

In the past 10 or 15 years, I have gushed on and on about how good live theater is in Roanoke with only the occasional nod to children’s theater. That nod has generally been toward Pat Wilhelms’ Roanoke Children’s Theatre with an occasional mention of the program at  Mill Mountain Theatre.

Pat was the head of children’s theater at MMT before she was forced out a few years ago and immediately founded RCT, which has been a spectacular success. Since then, the two groups have been friendly rivals (forgive and forget with new leadership at MMT) and have created a force for children, much like the adult counterpart.

Last night’s production of Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonka Jr.” at MMT is a case in point. The cast was huge (34), giving a lot of local children a chance to learn and to shine. The lead, Kyle Fauber as Willy Wonka, was superb and Mikayla Parker’s Charlie Bucket was solid. But it was in the supporting cast that the promise was great with big-voiced (sometimes overwhelming-voiced) Kennedy Wade stealing a lot of attention, and a group of others showing their training.

As I’ve said a number of times, Roanoke theater is a gift that cities our size don’t normally have in quantity and quality. The bench is deep in all disciplines and children’s theater is not only furnishing a new generation of talent, but it is engendering the art form on a continuing basis.

The audience last night was appreciative, as well and I don’t think it was just loud parents supporting their children. These people have obviously been to productions before and will return.

That is immensely healthy for the art form and it makes me happy.

The show runs through August 6 and tickets are available at or by calling 540-342-5740. Tickets are $15-$22.


Best Reporters Leave, Making Way for Cheap Rookies

Legendary book review editor Michiko “Kakutani’s exit follows in the footsteps of a series of other Times employees who have opted to take buyouts that would make room in their budget for an additional 100 reporters. The newspaper’s heavyweights such as Charles Duhigg, Ian Fisher, LaSharah Bunting, Bruce Headlam and Fernanda Santos, have already secured their voluntary buyouts.”n Yesterday, Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen joined the deserters.

This is the not-so-new dynamic at newspapers and other news organizations: fire the old, bring in the new–and the cheap. Dismiss the value of experience and institutional memory. Go cheap and take what comes with that.

We’ve seen our local daily newspaper operate under that dictate for a couple of decades now and the paper is a shadow of what it once was in every respect, including profitability. It is a case of the paper cutting off its nose to redefine its face. And it’s ugly.

I’m not sure newspapers can survive under the best of circumstances, but they are doing little to create those best circumstances. I remember well when i was a young sports writer in Asheville that the NYTimes bought the small newspaper in Hendersonville, N.C. There was eager anticipation about what that would mean until it was finally realized that it meant little in terms of news coverage. The Times loved those little–highly profitable–community newspapers, which helped pay for their news coverage at the mother ship.

Now the mother ship is keel hauling its best and bringing on a whole raft of cabin boys–to carry the metaphor too far. Coverage cannot, by the very nature of this shift, get better unless the hand of god is in there directly and I don’t see much evidence of that.

(Photo: HuffingtonPost)


Near-perfect Burger, Wholly Impractical

This, boys and girls, is my definition of a “pretty hamburger.” It is not a practical hamburger, but it’s gorgeous.

The first impracticality is the bun, which is actually a chunk of a garlic baguette (who cloves of garlic in it). Those are hard to eat in and of themselves. The burger is ground chuck, which is dry-ish, but tasty. Mayonnaise is homemade; tomatoes and sauteed peppers from the garden. Onions and mushrooms cooked with the peppers. The lettuce is crisp.

Put it all together, pick it up and watch it fall apart. Damn thing is so thick that even my big mouth won’t go around it.

But, hey, as my mama used to say, “Half the battle is in being pretty.”


Won’t Paddle the Roanoke River? Here’s Why

Want to step out into this?

I have been asked occasionally why I don’t want to kayak the Roanoke River and I generally say, “because there’s not generally enough water in it.” But there’s a reason beyond it:

The river is nasty. Nasty as Donald Trump’s mouth.

Here is a shot at what would normally be a portage point on Wiley Drive in Roanoke at the low water bridge near Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Would you want to step out in this mess and hope none of it was toxic?

I’ve kayaked Tinker Creek to the river in recent days and it appears to be dangerously dirty and passes by a sewage treatment plant, which smells like Trump.

The James, the New, a bunch of lakes and a number of creeks like Craig provide ample opportunity for boaters who don’t want to sink in this mess. I do wish it could be cleaned up, but I doubt that’s on the horizon. Especially with Trump, who hates the environment–as demonstrated by his EPA chief–in charge. (I mean, hell, this guy won’t even play golf without a cart.)


Maddie and I Visit the 1950s

Burgers with squirt bottle of catsup, vinyl-covered chairs and stools, patterned floor, pharmacy …

Madeline and I stopped in a genu-wine 1943-era soda shop in Buchanan early this afternoon to celebrate our day with burgers, fries and cokes and we got a real treat. This little restaurant–which is three years older than I–is filled with memorabilia, much of which is still functional–including the juke box that Madeline found interesting, but on which she found no music of her own.

Ransones is a fountain and grill on the right half of a pharmacy and operates much as it would have when it was originally opened. I found it pretty expensive ($17.25 for two burgers, one order of fries and one coke–I had water).

Add to that the fact that the soda fountain did not take plastic (the sign said its machine wouldn’t process, but I suspect that’s a sneaky way of simply not taking credit cards). I almost never carry cash, so it took two different trips up the street to find an ATM where I could get cash–which cost another $3. Total cost of a smallish lunch: $23 (with tip). One bank ATM gave me a confusing message, essentially saying it had the day off.

Chrome and vinyl stools.

Let me note here that we wound up at the soda fountain by default. We landed in Buchanan so I could introduce Maddie to the wonderful little bistro, Brink of the James (which has a truly forgettable name). It was closed for summer vaca. I don’t get why a restaurant beside the water would abandon clients at the height of paddling season, but that’s just me …

Even with the annoying expense of the soda fountain lunch, the trip down memory lane was fun. Maddie and I talked about the soda shop and how it fit into my daily life when I was a kid. I ate the best burgers and hot dogs (on steamed buns) ever there and when members of

Maddie couldn’t find anything interesting on the juke box.

my high school football team made a good play in practice, we were given “milk shake tickets.” They were redeemable for wonderful cherry milkshakes for a young football player who didn’t quite weigh 150 pounds and, thus, could drink them until I puked with no further damage.

I read my first dirty magazine (Playboy) in the soda shop, fell in love with a strawberry blonde clerk who didn’t know I existed, and got turned down on my first job application (I was 14 and had no idea even how to ask, except to say, “Can I have a job?” “No,” said the pharmacist). I wanted the job so I could get to know the strawberry blonde.

I didn’t share these insights with Madeline because she is 12. But I did tell her about the milkshakes.

An overview of the soda fountain with the pharmacy at the left.
The real deal, straight out of my youth.

Author Rod Belcher’s Daughter Missing

This is Kim Martin’s posting on Emily.

The young daughter of my good friend Rod Belcher, a noted science fiction author from Roanoke, is missing. Kim Martin posted the above and following on her website, which is centered on finding missing children:

“Emily Belcher, age 15, was last seen at her residence in SE Roanoke, VA at 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. She left with $650 cash, a Tardis suitcase, backpack, clothing, her phone and some personal belongings. She is without her ID and necessary daily medications. She was last seen wearing a white halter top and jeans.

“Emily is described as 5‘6”, 165 lbs., with brown shoulder-length hair and blue eyes. She has pierced ears, a septum piercing and a tattoo on her left wrist of a UFO flying over trees and the word “Believe” . She has scars on her arms and thighs.

“She may have been seen getting into a car in downtown Roanoke on the evening she disappeared and may be in the company of an adult male. She has ties to Martinsville. Emily has not taken her prescribed medications as directed and her family is very concerned for her well-being.”

If you have any information, let me know asap or contact the police–540-853-22123– in Roanoke.


Just How Crooked Is College Football? (Hint: Very)

A documentary on college sports–mostly football–made its way into my living room last night and by the time it ended, I was ready to roast the NCAA, the governing body of college sports.

The superb doc (here), which is on Netflix, is “Schooled: The Price of College Sports” and we discover at the end of about an hour and a half that the real price is that the athletes are more indentured servants than honored guests at the scholarship schools. The NCAA is a large, autocratic, rigid organization that sees money and power first, everything else somewhere down the line. It reminded me of political parties in that there is little regard for the athletes or average citizens, in the case of the GOP and Dems.

The question of this age is, “Should college athletes be paid?” and the responses are predictable. Administrations and the NCAA say, “Hell, no. They’re getting a free education.” Those on the side of the athletes remind us that the education is hardly free and that the pay (scholarship) nets the athletes less than minimum wage for extremely hard work and an ability that few human beings possess.

I’m obviously on the side of the athletes, even though a significant percentage of them–especially at the Power 5 schools–hardly belong in college. Many simply can’t read. Many are in sham classes meant to preserve their eligibility. The best of them turn pro after their sophomore or junior years.

Still, quite a few finish college, have solid careers and are good citizens. They should be protected from their colleges’ administrations and especially the evils of the NCAA.