Archive for NC

Music and Time Travel – A Night With Susto

Posted in Music, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2017 by Mike

susto-with-fan_finalAs you get older, you move further and further away from your past selves. One of mine, as an example, is Wildman Mike. Though he still appears now and then, makes a headline, and disappears again like Bigfoot, Wildman Mike resides in the past and survives mostly in embarrassing photos and fuzzy group memories. Once in a while though, if you’re lucky, you get to reconnect with a past self and it’s like a reunion.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited downtown by another couple to see Susto, a band out of Charleston, SC. None of us had any idea who Susto was so I spent a good week watching YouTube videos, reading snippets, and finding out what I could about these guys prior to the show. This is what’s it’s like to discover an unknown band through social media and word of mouth – something that is new to me, a guy who entrusts our local hip radio station to keep me current. But a band doesn’t need radio. They just need a genuine presence and a unique quality that gets people talking and buying tickets.

As it turns out, susto (the word) is a Spanish term that refers to when the soul gets separated from the body, connoting something akin to a panic attack due to trauma, and is treated with the ritualistic, plant-based hallucinogen ayahuasca. Susto (the band) is a five-piece group that can rock or skirt Americana with songs that are both introspective and visceral, and their personal themes elicit personal reactions. The songs conjure the emotions every lost 20-something experienced as he wandered between reckless youth and the vague frontier of What Comes Next. Front man Justin Osborne has a southern growl and backstory that involves anthropology studies, living in Cuba, and getting ACID BOYS tattooed onto his knuckles as a means to remove the mainstream path as a viable option, forcing him to pursue music do-or-die, music as the potential Promised Land for a talented misfit with an aversion for the middle of the road.

There’s drugs, alcohol, a party on every periphery, but the festivities have a dark undercurrent and these aren’t wide-eyed wannabes writing about their first acid trip – these are the guys the next morning. Tired, reflective, the ones at a table at the Waffle House. They’ve been up all night (up for years, even) having their circuits rewired and worlds spun like a bald, dirty basketball on God’s index finger. I’m the dad at a nearby table with the wife and kids in booster seats. I can tell by their eyes where they’ve been and what they’ve seen because I’ve seen it too, maybe 25 years ago but I had the same fleeting glimpse into the other place, the place without the veils, it’s just hard to remember what was behind them all these years later.

This isn’t about a specific song or album though Susto is currently touring in support of their new CD – “& I’m Fine Today” – and the opening one-two punch of Far Out Feeling (soaring and disco-tinged) and Hard Drugs (a dreamy introspective country ride) is a thrilling combination that sets the tone. But to just know the new record is to ignore the gold stuff from their first self-titled release – Dream Girl and County Line, and all the mysterious tunes you will hear at the live show that will simultaneously pull you in and spin you around amid the other listeners undergoing a similar transformation.

These songs are transformative for everyone – they were surely transformative to write and to play, but they also do work on the listener. At least this listener – a 45 year-old existing in two chronologies at one time. Wildman Mike came to the show but behaved – he’s grown up too, maybe. We reflected on our own good times, the ones flecked with blackness, feeling and refeeling what it meant then and what it means now. The music coursed through it all, the source and destination.

In another time I would’ve been right there on the porch of the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame, their renowned Charleston gathering spot, HQ, crash pad, and hub of revelry for this new generation of Merry Pranksters. Though I’m the old dude at the party, it feels good to be here. Nostalgic but nice. I raise my High Life and tell them that the good times change shape, but they do continue.

Ultimately Susto is not the condition – it’s the treatment.

The current lineup of Susto includes Justin Osborne, Corey Campbell, Jenna Desmond, Marshall Hudson, and Dries Vandenberg. A 6-song set from Audiotree will give you a preview but go see them live – they’re playing all around the US for the next few months. Visit their website here.


After the Disney Ride

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by Mike

Returning to normal life after a week at Disney World is disorienting. The long lines are gone and the magical details that were once everywhere are nowhere to be found. My kids and I were just lying on the hammock together on a perfectly cool late afternoon and my son eased up after about 20 seconds and said, “This is boring.”

A hammock doesn’t turn in circles or flash lights and is not surrounded by animatronic forest creatures singing and jerking in place. It just sits there and sways with the breeze or moves when you want it to. It encourages relaxation and what kid wants to relax when they’ve recently been on a hardcore Disneycrack binge.


The whole Johnson crew – Day One

Disney World is fully immersive entertainment, not much different than a virtual reality headset. The sounds, sights, smells, and sensations all rocket into your nervous system simultaneously and without interruption. Not to mention the anticipation of the next sensation when your system starts to expect it and the crash when you finally make it onto a bus at the end of the day with the other shell-shocked families to ride back to your room and fall into bed.

Hauling your children down to Disney World is a blast but, do not underestimate this, it is also an exhausting trial. You will carry your daughter on your shoulders for 10 miles a day, for days in a row. You will be battered by relentless sunshine and will seek out taller visitors and try to stand in their shade for half second respites. Even if you think you are attending during the slow season, you will stand in endless lines and be herded like cattle wherever you go. If you purchase a meal plan to try and save some money and make eating more efficient, you will shovel 3000 calories into your facehole three times a day and choke down unwanted dessert so nothing is wasted. But a lot is wasted. The uneaten desserts in Disney bus-tubs could feed nations. You care on the first day; by day three you are walking away from nearly full plates because another bite would cause you to vomit and you have a Fast Pass expiring in 10 minutes and have to cross Main Street and elbow through thousands of people to get there and get in a new line.


Foster absorbs sensations

Standing in lines does give you time to stop and sweat and think. Here are some realizations I made in Disney lines:

  • Remember when you waited tables and hated when your section filled up with kids? That’s Disney World but your section is miles long.
  • The poor saps in the character costumes must ponder suicide every day – the worst must be signing those little autograph books. Hey kids, Goofy’s hardly legible make-the-dude-write-in-a-puffy-mitten autograph will mean nothing to you in a few years. You will find that forgotten autograph book in a cabinet and resent your parents for enabling such a wasted youth.
  • It’s fun to test your own hidden prejudices by scanning the people around you and trying to figure out where they are from based on their fashion choices, mannerisms, and hair styles. You’ve been stereotyping more than you think!
  • When it rains, putting on a poncho after walking around for hours starts a chemical reaction under the plastic. BO2 + contained body heat3 + subtle methane emanations after all those meals = bigtime stank when you finally take the poncho off again, kinda like uncovering spoiled food.

A successful Disney adventure requires a ton of research and planning (thanks honey!), considerable logistical preparation, and up to the minute improvisation, all of which is compounded by a hurricane churning offshore. When we were there a few weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew was our constant companion.


Magic bands and an emergency flashlight provided by housekeeping

As Matthew spun ominously closer to Florida, we got many concerned texts from family and friends encouraging us to evacuate and find refuge somewhere else.  Protecting the financial investment of a family vacation and trying to fully collect on time off from work can impact your decisions, and deferring to variables like those is questionable when your family’s safety is at stake. But we decided to bunker down in Orlando and ride it out, figuring those squat solid buildings in our resort were built for rough weather and it sure beat joining a traffic jam on I-95 to retreat to another location that was just as vulnerable as where we already were.

Disney parks closed down and officials ordered curfews for people that stayed, requesting that guests remain in their rooms until the storm passed.  To pass the time, we played an endless game of Monopoly, rationed our snacks and boxed meals, watched Matthew’s colorful radar representation twirl along the long finger of Florida, and occasionally went outside to watch the palms whip and the rain pour.  As a hugely profitable business that trades magic for money, Disney started opening back up quickly – first the food courts, then Disney Springs, then the parks. We missed a day, which we tacked back onto the end without much interruption to our original plans.  At the end of the week, as Hurricane Matthew closed in on our coastal NC community, friends and family back home helped prep our yard and house while we rode rides and took pictures with cartoon characters.


Matthew tagging along

Driving home in the wake of the hurricane, after a long exciting week of fun, provided instant perspective. Trees were down everywhere, billboards were crushed, astonishing storm damage became the norm. We used porta-johns at rest areas that had no electricity or running water. Communities all around our part of the state were being flooded – floods that ended up lasting for weeks, taking lives and homes and dreams.

Experiencing a natural disaster in parallel with a Disney vacation is like being on another ride – and the ride continues. Nearby rivers have just crested while our first credit card bills arrive. People are burying drowned loved ones while we put suitcases back into closets. We look online at photos from our Disney Memory Maker plan; a Lumberton grandmother tries to salvage a photo album that has been underwater for days. We are thankful for the magic yet appreciate the contrast between the engineered fantasy and the vulnerable reality that exists just beyond the gates. Meanwhile, we relax and rest up for next time.


Playing games and climbing walls





The Untold Story

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by Mike

Empty_bookWhen a loved one dies, you’re left with photographs and whatever recollections your mind is able to drag out to inspect. But my memory is far from a dependable archive and a 2-D image in a photo album can only do so much. It’s easy to start flipping pages or wander down mental side roads that lead you far from where you meant to be. Not a bad thing, really, any introspection is a golden nugget when most days are marked by the hollow, fleeting ding of accomplished tasks.

People with home movies are lucky. Old family videos let you hear your aunt’s voice again and be reminded of the particular way her attention could go from person to person in a room, landing on each face. Or the way your cousin walked—never in a hurry, no reason to suspect that he would die young and only live on in memories and a few precious minutes of video. These are reflections that no still image could elicit.

My grandmother died a few years ago and I’m still adjusting to her complete silence. We used to talk on the phone a lot and we visited her and my grandfather often; the entire family is lucky that we got Nanny for 86 years. Now that she’s gone, I’m stuck with my own remembrances of her long biography and saddened that she will never be able to fill in one of the many blanks in the record.

So I’ve started to record my grandfather’s voice on trips back to Hot Springs, a town that always centered around them and now centers around him, the survivor. If the first time I recorded him made him uncomfortable, it didn’t show. I took out my iPhone, readied the Voice Memos feature, pressed record, and asked him to tell me again about where he grew up. Now I will forever have that detail told through his real voice and inimitable flair. That anecdote and the time when he worked on the boats in Michigan and when he met Nanny and all of these other momentous points in his story, told casually while he cooked breakfast or thumbed through the USA Today. One day, when we return to an empty house in Hot Springs and the cemetery on the hill holds both grandparents, we may play these soundbites again and be able, almost, to share space and time with our beloved grandfather.


We drop in to see my wife’s Uncle Norman after having lunch in Sneads Ferry. While we are all together, Mema, my wife’s grandmother, thinks it would be a good time for us to go see him. Uncle Norman is Mema’s uncle, so he is up there in age, maybe 92-93 years old. He lives in a little house overlooking a finger of marsh and it is a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day.

When we enter his house, Uncle Norman is sitting on his favorite recliner, alone in his quiet and dark home, just waiting and sitting. He has diabetes and cardiac issues, with wrecked and swollen feet, numerous stents and a pacemaker—he doesn’t get around much anymore—he confesses during our visit that he basically sits there and wonders why God hasn’t brought him home yet. He’s ready to die. But as we look around and visit with him and talk about his life and look at his pictures, he starts to open up and play host. There are framed pictures around, old black and whites from his years in the service; he mentions that he was there on Normandy, storming the beach in the face of grim odds. It’s hard for me to imagine that a memory of the beach could be so sinister. Despite his poor physical condition, his mind is incredibly sharp and lucid. He sits there with these stories and no one to tell them to—like an album that never gets played or a book that never gets read. It’s a chronicle of a life that just sits and molders, and you’re not quite sure what’s there until you press play or open the cover.

As he talks about those wartime memories from over 75 years ago, I begin to think that this needs to be recorded. His small audience—including my children who are too young to appreciate it and his family who may’ve heard it before, maybe ad nauseum during every pervious drop in—isn’t worthy. He is, or was, more than the deteriorating old man before us. Surely some historian or military buff on nearby Camp Lejeune would love to hear this. Granted, the history is well documented in books and movies, but this man’s unique perspective has a shelf life and WWII veterans like him are getting rarer by the day.

I get home and reach out to a local history writer, David Allen Norris, to brainstorm and see if there is a Story Corps on a local or state level or any organization that may be collecting stories of area servicemen.  Sure enough, there is.

The State Archives of North Carolina maintains a Military Collection that gathers photographs, maps, letters, personal belongings and other artifacts from our veterans, and also manages an Oral History Program that collects their personal narratives. Military Collection Archivist Matthew Peek travels all around NC to interview veterans for the Oral History program, recording and curating them for posterity.

I speak to Matthew Peek on the phone and tell him about Uncle Norman. I get the impression that he hears it a lot, the tale of an aging veteran with stories to share. My job is to lay the groundwork—getting permission from the family, finding out the dates and details of his military service—before he drives down from Raleigh to interview Uncle Norman in his Sneads Ferry home.

Uncle Norman dies before we are able to schedule an interview.

Something in the Way We Move

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2015 by Mike

This week is the culmination of a year and half of effort to move our family a few counties away. While the entire timeline is hard work, endless prep, semesters worth of research and study, and the coordination and cooperation of dozens of individuals, things don’t really get crazy until the end. The month before you move will affect your long-term mental state. Here are some milestones and things to consider if you’re planning to move in the near future.

30 days left – Once the contract is signed, your old house and its attendant issues are someone else’s problem. But fear of bad Karma and crapping on your buyers motivate you to weed your yard by hand since the lawn service was dropped weeks earlier and the grass is being overrun by countless alien sprouts.

24 days left – You start to look at your spouse as a co-worker at a moving company. All of your time is spent planning logistics, stacking, and restacking columns of boxes. You have detailed directions on where every item in every box will go in the new home and you wonder, since every other waking moment is occupied by another task, if your wife is nesting in her sleep.moving1

20 days left – You invent creative recipes to thin food from the pantry. I suggest crock-potting all of the cans of beans you have with the freezer-burned Boca Crumbles sitting on the Antarctic top shelf of the freezer, topped with fried onion straws, and maybe a handful of petrified Bac-O’s for zest.

17 days left – You are on a constant quest for boxes, sometimes driving miles into the country working from a tip given by another gas station (“Mary’s Market may have boxes”) You score a box from Mary and it somehow seems worth the time and gas money. Though infinite in their supply, you find that boxes from the liquor store are small and you’re lucky to pack a single, newspapered shoe in one of them.

14 days left – The house that you’re moving into sits out there like a faint, not quite affordable, mirage. You pull the address up on Google maps often and study every curve in your new road and squint at the satellite images of the houses of your new neighbors to see what clues you can deduce.

12 days left – You survey what’s left to do in your house and see things in 15 minute increments of time and amount of boxes each space represents (e.g., Alice’s closet will take 45 minutes and 4 boxes to pack.) At this point you realize there’s not enough time to do it all so you start the wholesale trashing of irreplaceable family possessions.moving2

10 days left – It’s amazing how well beer helps the packing process, so amazing that your belly sloshes at all times. Three beers is the magic number, anything beyond that slows you down and makes you spend the majority of your time retrieving lost items that you set down somewhere, especially the black Sharpie and the packing tape, which should be secured to your body at all times during the two weeks leading up to the move.

8 days left – To avoid yet another logistical task or phone call to a service provider, you wonder if you can manage okay without cable, trash pick-up, or electricity at your new home.

7 days left – Weird moving logic peaks when you consider buying a fifth of gin to make martinis so you don’t have to move or pour out the half bottle of vermouth still left on the liquor shelf.

5 days left – Due to the numerous idiosyncrasies of your old home, you realize the rest of your time should be spent on drafting an Instruction Manual for the new owners. Article 4, Section 2: Handle of kitchen faucet must be returned to the 12 o’clock position to stop leak; Addendum 2b, Appendix XII: Do not stand fully upright in the attic or you will puncture your head on roofing nails driven from the other side.

2 days left – Since you’re taking your kids to the grandparents while you and the wife suffer through the last grueling days, their countdown is on a faster track that yours. Even though they’re young, you feel the need to tell them it’s their last day and to take it all in while they can. It’s your own nostalgia forcing the issue but you can’t stop yourself. Once you’ve driven them from the old house for the last time, dropped them off, and are alone in the car, you put on your shades and finally play Patty Griffin’s Useless Desires and Jackson Browne’s Looking Into You (songs you’ve been purposefully avoiding until you were ready) and let that nostalgia really stretch its legs.moving3

The End – There’s no reason to divide the last two days into separate units since they run together and are a blur of backbreaking toil, military maneuver-like logistics, and misplacing more stuff. This is the period of time when you count on family and friends to voluntarily agree to haul all of your earthly belongings from one roofed compartment to another. This is when you sweat in brand new places and reek like someone from a life raft but still find yourself in clean, sterile law offices signing documents. Your sense of place is turned upside down and memories and new worries come tumbling out. You wander through your old empty home one last time and recollections fly past like a DVD rewinding on 4x speed; meanwhile, entering your new house as homeowner brings out many large and small imperfections – like the last owner was a hardcore smoker which will require priming, painting, and recarpeting so your young daughter doesn’t get lung cancer the moment she enters her new room – but it’s just Day One of a brand new timeline. And you can hardly wait to get started.

Leland Traffic: Who Says You Can’t Park on the Highway?

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by Mike

trafficTraveling on north Brunswick County roads feels like you’re in a local adaptation of The Road Warrior – the situation is bleak and unavoidable, ugly people are out there to terrorize the innocent, and improvements exist only in a dim, unknowable future. But in this version, the high-speed chase scenes have been replaced with tense, unmoving traffic jams.

Horrendous traffic is a necessary evil out in that wasteland: So take your sorry place in line or stay where you are.

Of course, many commuters can’t just stay where we are. Our jobs are across the river, our daycares, our escapes. Inching along in backed up lanes of traffic is a part of daily life.

Since many Brunswick County communities have outgrown the existing infrastructure and there are often more cars than what the roads can handle, changes are underway to bring relief. Town hall meetings have occurred and D.O.T authorities have explained their plans in rich detail. I could not attend those meetings because I was stuck in traffic.

While the news outlets have done a good job of covering the big picture traffic situation, they don’t tell the story in real-time. There are days when we get stuck and are not sure why, or how long we’ll be sitting there, or which lane to get into, and nothing is being said on the news feeds. The day-to-day story gets neglected.

Locals have set up a Facebook page to meet the need. The page, called Leland NC Traffic Reports, provides a forum where commuters can post updates on current traffic conditions. People post continuously. You can’t help but wonder if some accidents are caused by distracted members posting comments like, “Smooth sailing through the 421 merge!” A second later, they rear-end the car in front of them and cause a bottleneck that lasts for hours.

Despite the easily distracted and the shameless bullies on the Thomas Rhodes Bridge who refuse to enter the jammed right lane until the last possible minute, most fellow commuters are civil and just want to get home safely. Since we all share the same curse, there’s a sense of fair play and teamwork. In fact, this brotherhood byproduct may be the true silver lining of our traffic nightmare. People are coming together in unexpected ways. Realtors who are having a hard time selling homes in the area need to adopt this spin: Brunswick County – Join this socially active community…get together with your neighbors twice a day.

If the thought of community morale is not enough to lift your spirits in a traffic jam, think of all the quiet time that you’re getting in your vehicle. Take it from a dad, husband, and full-time cubicle drone – private moments can be golden. I bring along podcasts and favorite CDs to turn the inevitable delays into pockets of entertainment. The key is transforming the wasteland into something bearable and waiting it out in peace.


Waiting for Snow Cream

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , on November 13, 2014 by Mike

snowcreamWinter is a season fully pregnant with potential. I’m not sure if it’s the close proximity of the holidays or being driven indoors by low temperatures, but the winter months are laced with a sense of waiting. It’s in the air. We expect something momentous to break up the monotony in a relentless volley between build-up and climax.

Like so much of our adult psychology, it can likely be traced back to our childhoods. I remember spending a lot of time as a kid staring up into the white skies of winter and waiting for snow. I can still feel big wet snow flakes on my eyelashes, two crusty nostrils, numb extremities, hot breath filtering through the threads of a woolen ski mask.

Despite the fact that I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, deep snows weren’t nearly frequent enough. We were ready to romp and sled every day, even if it meant missing so much school that we’d have to repeat 4th grade. The wait must be real torture for kids growing up on the Carolina coast. Like a broken Pez dispenser, a local kid could spend years craning his neck and looking up into the snowless expanse of the heavens.A few years ago, we got several inches of snow and I had the sweet pleasure of playing in the powder with my young son. Beyond the snowball fights and the harmless, one-second sledding runs down the drainage easement in front of our house, the highlight was eating snow cream. For those of you unfamiliar with snow cream, it is made with scoops of fresh snow, sugar, evaporated milk, vanilla extract, and food coloring. Somewhere between a poor man’s slushy and a hillbilly’s milkshake, I admit the texture is a little off. But with snow as its primary ingredient—snow you just scooped from your patio furniture and dropped into a mixing bowl—you hardly notice its curious makeup. The fact that you can make an entire batch radioactive green with only a few drops of food coloring transforms a neat recipe into a full-blown science project.

Foster was just three years old at the time and likely has no clear memory of eating the snow cream. At best he may possess grainy, mental snapshots from the vantage point of his high chair, looking down onto his tray and seeing the swirls of food coloring that ended up there, the melting rivulets of dyed snow all mixed together like the palette of a colorblind painter. Whether he remembers or not is of no consequence. Even if your kids are too young to remember the activity, by the time their memories are fully operational the hope is that the activity will be a recurring tradition. And every parent knows that having kids gives you an opportunity to relive the best parts of your own childhood.

So you stay ready—you can’t let those chances to time travel pass you by. We stay stocked for snow cream and have two cans of evaporated milk in the cupboard reserved for that sole purpose. Those two cans sit in our cupboard year after year and have probably long since spoiled. Maybe if you opened one and turned it upside down, out would plop a cylindrical blob of mold. Those cans reside beside the beans and the soups that get consumed and replaced, but the cans of evaporated milk remain untouched. Every winter.

Even if this season passes without a chance to make snow cream, those cans of milk in the cupboard will remind me to stay patient and ready. And when my son stands out in the yard and looks up into the sky waiting for something monumental to happen, he won’t seem so pitiful. The payoffs are tremendous but the lulls can be just as meaningful.