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Some people change residences frequently, not only renters but home buyers. A woman once told my mother she never lives in a house longer than three years “because then you have to clean it.”

Then there’s my wife, Jane, who hates moving. Early in our marriage she declared that the next people who moved her would be a local funeral home.

We are now in the middle of buying and selling a house for the third time in the 21 years we have been married.

When we moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 2001, the only thing about the house-hunting process that had changed since I first bought a house as a bachelor four years earlier was the advent of online listings.

When we moved to Lenoir in 2013, the one new wrinkle was the ability to digitally “sign” all the sales documents needed in Virginia while we were on a computer in Lenoir.

But now?

The process of buying and selling a house — each separately but especially both together — has been transformed into a nightmare of text messages, emails and automated phone calls, all of which seem to be added onto instead of replacing the regular calls and emails that previously went between a buyer/seller and the real estate agent.

The day our house went on the market, my phone “blew up.” I had heard other people use that phrase, but I had no firsthand experience. My phone had never done it before. But, boy howdy, now I have experience.

Each time someone wanted to schedule a showing, I received both a text and an email requesting confirmation.

If no one confirmed it quickly, I received a phone call asking about it.

Once the showing was confirmed, I received both a text and an email showing it had been confirmed.

When an agent rescheduled, the entire cycle repeated. If someone canceled, there was another round of texts and emails.

After each showing, we received texts and emails showing the “feedback” provided by the agent for the person who saw the house, which usually was an email mostly full of questions that had not been answered.

On the house-buying end, we both receive automated emails requesting various documents, and if a couple of days pass we get reminders that we have not provided particular documents.

Our agent uses a website that tracks all the tasks that must be completed by either her or us, and each time she writes in that a task has been completed we get emails telling us that she has updated the timeline. The timeline is a wonderful tool, and I applaud it, but it’s yet another series of notifications that trigger my phone to buzz or bong or hum.

All of this piles stress on top of the ordinary stresses of moving plus the added anxiety of a worldwide pandemic.

If Jane and I live to complete the move to High Point, I feel certain she will not declare this time that the next people who move her will be a funeral home.

Mine will be the body they will carry out because she will kill me if I ever want to move again.

With Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order at least somewhat eased as of Friday evening, I know what many of you in North Carolina, and those in other states similarly starting to “reopen,” are thinking: What are we supposed to do now?

The answer can be found within one of the lines of criticism directed at Cooper by his opponent in this fall’s election, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. After Cooper announced the limited loosening of restrictions on businesses, Forest issued a statement that said in part, “He does not believe that North Carolinians have enough self-control, restraint, or common sense to act responsibly in a world with COVID-19.”

No matter how you plan to vote this fall, if you want to know what you should do now with the limited freedom of movement that fits under Cooper’s Phase One guidelines, look to Forest’s statement: Show self-control, exercise restraint, display common sense, and act responsibly.

Upon reading that, those of you who interact with the general public regularly probably feel a sense of impending doom.

A different quote applies here. In the 1997 movie “Men In Black,” about the secret government agency that deals with extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, actor Will Smith’s character asks why officials don’t trust the public with the truth because “people are smart.”

Tommy Lee Jones’ character replies, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”

That may be too cynical and overly broad, but if there were not a nugget of truth to it then no one would ever be crushed under a stampede of Walmart shoppers on Black Friday, political advertising would contain no falsehoods, and scammers would have to apply for welfare.

Ever since the stay-at-home order and social-distancing guidelines first were issued, there have been complaints about some businesses and people who were not complying. And they are correct, it’s not hard to find people ignoring all social distancing guidelines.

The number of positive tests for coronavirus continues to rise in part because some people do not take the threat or precautions seriously. Even if the governor had left his orders unchanged, those people’s behavior would not be affected — just the way that anti-littering laws don’t stop some people from throwing their McDonald’s wrappers and leftover fries out the window in front of you on the highway.

The best thing you can always do is be the best kind of person you know how to be, the kind of person your parents would be proud to see on television.

That doesn’t mean you have to wear a hazmat suit to the gas station.

It means having the sense to know that just because you feel fine doesn’t mean you haven’t been infected, so if you’re going someplace where you’ll probably be pretty close to people it would be a good idea to wear a mask of some kind to help reduce the risk to other people as well as their risk to you.

It means having the sense of history to realize that the last pandemic this extensive, the Spanish flu, lasted two years, not two months, so we will have to adapt our behavior for the long term, not revert to our old habits and go “back to normal.”

There’s another quote that applies. In “The Andy Griffith Show,” Sheriff Taylor scolds someone who is not displaying common sense, “Act like you got some smart.”

Show self-control, exercise restraint, display common sense, and act responsibly.

Or you can boil that down to something even simpler and easier to remember, something that I tell myself all the time — but don’t often enough heed — especially when it comes to interactions with other people:

Don’t be stupid.

At long last, I found how to make time slow down.

But like the dog that finally caught the car it was chasing, I don’t know what to do with myself. Who needs all this slow-moving time? Take it back. You can have it.

Now I’m ready for time to speed back up again.

We all notice by our mid-30s that as we get older time accelerates. Each year goes by more quickly than the last.

By the time I turned 50, it seemed I barely was able to grow sick of mowing the lawn in the summer heat before frost hit, the leaves turned and I had to wear heavy coats again. Winters once seemed like a long, tedious parade of putting on and taking off heavy coats, but in recent years even the coldest weather has become almost tolerably brief because spring arrives so quickly. Almost. But spring departs barely after arriving, like a coworker who hates to be left out of a party but doesn’t like socializing.

Facebook serves up “memories” that feel recent but were posted a dozen years ago by a version of me that had mostly brown hair, which makes me think about how close I am to retirement age. Can the next dozen or so years really go even more quickly than the past dozen? It seems like a long way off, but back when I was 42, 54 seemed a long way off.

I thought it would go on like that endlessly, each year adding acceleration on top of the previous year’s speed like an ion engine building momentum in space until eventually I would whoosh effortlessly into the void, barely noticing as death arrives and passes quickly behind me.

But then came the coronavirus, and instead of speeding into a void it feels more like I have careened into a giant, moist sponge cake with thick, creamy icing. I’m embedded in it and can’t extract myself.

Last weekend on the radio a news reporter said it was the beginning of the third weekend since Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order took effect.

“What?!” I said. “That can’t be right.”

Two weeks? We had been cooped up mostly at home and locked out of many of our favorite businesses for a lot longer than that … hadn’t we? I checked the calendar.

Nope.

This is now the fourth weekend, not even 28 days yet.

But it feels like the fourth month.

Time has slowed to a crawl. My sense of the passage of time is now more like it was when I was 6. Inside my head, I’m whining, “But I haven’t been able to go out just to have a beer in FOREVEEEEEEERRRRRRR.”

I’ve seen memes on social media saying every day is like the movie “Groundhog Day.” We wake up and everything is the same, no matter what we do, because our options are now so limited.

I understand the frustrations of those protesting the stay-at-home restrictions.

But I also understand the limitations of the health care system to deal with a sudden influx of severely ill patients. There simply isn’t much room. Ask around. Fewer people than would fit in your living room would be a major crisis.

So when my inner 6-year-old whimpers, “How much longer is this going to taaaaaaaaaake?” my inner adult answers, “It takes how long it takes, now behave or I’ll pull this car over and GIVE you something to cry about!”

I’ll just have to take a beer out of the refrigerator, go sit in a corner upstairs, sulk and stare out the window, thinking about all the things I can’t do.

It feels like I’m grounded. We’re all grounded. It feels like it will never end.

My inner adult eyes the sulking 6-year-old in the rear view mirror.

“I know it feels like a long time,” the adult says. “I promise you we’ll go out when it’s over. Whatever you want.”

The 6-year-old rolls his eyes and half-heartedly answers, “Oh, OK.”

But to him the road ahead looks like a Kansas highway. It stretches on and on toward a distant vanishing point on the horizon.

My inner adult knows we are in a slow-motion race on that road. The prize is a healthy community, and it doesn’t go to the ones who get to the end first but to the ones who get the farthest without running anyone off the road. It’s harder than it sounds.

They say only the good die young.

I wonder, then, what sordid deeds Mr. Peanut must have committed in the nearly 104 years before his recent death.

Yes, if you haven’t seen the TV commercial, Mr. Peanut is dead.

He and two men were riding in the peanut-shaped Nutmobile – the Planters answer to Oscar Meyer’s wienermobile, I suppose – when it headed for a cliff. They jumped out just as it went over the edge, and they found themselves hanging like Wile E. Coyote from a branch over a deep canyon. As the branch began to break from their weight, Mr. Peanut let go, sacrificing himself and plunging to the canyon floor, where the wrecked Nutmobile lay.

Looking down, one of the two men said, “Maybe he’ll be all right.”

And then, just to eliminate all doubt, the Nutmobile exploded.

That commercial is a teaser for another commercial that is scheduled to run during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.

Officials at both Planters and VaynerMedia, which created the commercial, swear that the character is dead, so presumably Mr. Peanut will not emerge from the flaming wreckage as an intact but roasted peanut. The Super Bowl commercial reportedly will show his funeral.

Maybe viewers will be introduced to Mr. Peanut’s progeny at his funeral, or much of his extended family, and one or more of them will take up his mantle.

Actually that’s probably exactly what will happen. There is no chance in the world that Planters is going to just give up using such a well recognized symbol.

Perhaps VaynerMedia hopes to do with Mr. Peanut’s family something similar to what KFC has done with Colonel Sanders since that character was rebooted in 2015. Now there is not just one Colonel, not just one image based on a real, historical person, there is a different Colonel played by an entirely different actor for every product or deal KFC offers. There’s even a female Colonel (at least just the one so far), played by country singer Reba McEntire when promoting the introduction of “Smokey Mountain BBQ” chicken. (My favorite is the Extra Crispy Colonel, played by deeply tanned actor George Hamilton.) It’s endlessly adaptable.

So maybe now, instead of the one Mr. Peanut with his unchanging monocle and top hat, there will be a whole family of Peanut characters, each with his or her own appearance and personality suited to the various Planters products. And whenever Planters introduces a new one, they’ll just roll out a new member of the family.

I just hope that the depiction of the funeral includes some dark character in attendance who will tell us Mr. Peanut’s naughty secrets, maybe a “second” family from a tryst with Miss Cashew, petty thievery, major stock holdings in Nutella and JIF, or forbidden passions, such as a late-night habit of snacking on peanuts – cannibalism! What would be the worst Mr. Peanut could have done in 104 years?

Friday morning came.

I hate it when that happens.

I’m happy when the end of the work week is near, but by Friday I am tired of getting up in the dark for the fifth straight day. Sometimes my first thought when I wake is that it’s Saturday, I forgot to turn off the alarm, and I can stay in bed. Then the stark, terrible realization hits that, no, it’s really Friday, and I really need to get up.

This time, when my alarm went off I knew for certain it was Friday, and I grudgingly got up in the dark and went to the dresser to put on my exercise clothes.

My wife, still in bed, mumbled, “I’m going to sleep a little longer.”

I stared across the room at the bed for a moment.

Then I went back and climbed under the covers.

Her alarm then went off, and she turned it off and lay back down.

An hour later, I woke when she got out of bed.

I stayed put and pulled the covers up. She closed the bedroom door and went downstairs to get ready for work.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, though I tried for 20 minutes. When I finally got up, got dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen, I started looking through the News-Topic when I saw a note my wife had left next to my seat the previous night explaining what she needed to do at work on Friday.

“I can’t sleep in,” the note said. “Don’t let me sleep in.”

As the saying goes: I had one job.

I am not usually the half of our marriage who is relied upon to keep to a schedule, but it’s horrible when the times arise that I am relied upon and fail.

To be fair, she left the note after I already was asleep Thursday night. She just assumed that, as usual, I would be up first.

And it worked out. She got up early enough on her own that she was not running around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to leave the house on time.

But it could have ended badly.

What if she hadn’t awakened on her own? The only thing that woke me was her getting out of bed. If she were relying on me, we might have slept until it was light out.

She might have been late, and when she’s rushing around because she’s late she tends to forget something – maybe just her earrings (I say “just,” but she feels half-dressed without her earrings), but sometimes she forgets her phone, or the key to her office door, or even her wallet.

Because of my job, on any given day I may or may not be home first in the evening, and most Saturdays I work at least part of the day, complicating plans for going to see movies or making day trips. We’re going to have a very short Thanksgiving holiday because of an unexpected staff vacancy requiring me to be back in Lenoir, just in case.

Anyone married to a journalist comes to expect the unexpected in this way. The hours are, to some extent, reliably unpredictable.

That makes it all the worse when the one thing I do with great regularity – wake at 5 a.m. to start the coffee, read the paper and watch “SportsCenter” – does not happen the one time that she is counting on it.

“I failed you,” I told her.

She laughed and kissed me.

I dodged the bullet this time. But there will be a next time. I know there will.

A different neighborhood watch

Most days, being a good community newspaper is an exercise in neighborliness.

We like to find out about things people in the community have done, or are doing, that are interesting or to find the new businesses they have started. These are happy stories that help people feel connected to their neighbors.

When something tragic happens to someone in the community, we try when we can to bring that person’s life to light so it is not just a story of pain or statistics. These are not happy stories, but they also help people feel connected, and if they are done right they can help people mourn a loss or celebrate a legacy.

Sometimes, though, being a good community newspaper means sticking our necks out and risking what might become a costly fight over an important principle. That happened over the past two months.

The News-Topic found out in September that a civil lawsuit had been filed against the Caldwell County Board of Education and quickly settled. We wanted to tell you, the taxpayers of Caldwell County, who pay for the Caldwell County Schools, what it’s about and what the settlement was. But all sides in the lawsuit agreed to have the entire court file sealed by a judge.

Strictly speaking, this should almost never happen. State law in North Carolina presumes an overriding interest in the public knowing about the actions of their government agencies, including in court. On the topic of court settlements involving agencies and/or their employees and representatives, the law says this:

“Public records … shall include all settlement documents in any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions … in connection with or arising out of such agency’s official actions, duties or responsibilities, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility. No agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions, nor any counsel, insurance company or other representative acting on behalf of such agency, shall approve, accept or enter into any settlement of any such suit, arbitration or proceeding if the settlement provides that its terms and conditions shall be confidential, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility.”

That’s as clear as it could possibly be.

The school system is not a hospital facility, so there would not seem to be any room under the law for sealing this lawsuit or settlement.

Yet this lawsuit and settlement were sealed.

The law allows for a judge to make a determination that there is an interest for secrecy that overrides the presumption that settlements involving a government agency should be public. But we were unable to know whether that was true because the judge also sealed his order saying why the entire court file should be sealed.

That seems counterintuitive to me.

Court orders do not exist solely for other judges to read; they are there also to explain why a particular court document or file is not available to the public as the vast majority of other court documents are. Our court system belongs to the public, and the presumption under the law is that the public has a right to know what is going on in the courts and why.

All anyone could tell from what was publicly available in this particular court file was that a child was involved. That makes it more serious and more urgent for the public to know about, not less. We think the public wants to know what happened in the county’s schools, what the level of responsibility of the Caldwell County Schools was and what it cost the taxpayers to make this lawsuit go away.

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled just last year that the law allows a student’s name to be redacted from any documents made public but does not allow sealing the entire file.

And so the News-Topic went to work to get everyone to follow the law and unseal the file and settlement.

If you have ever hired a lawyer, you know that this cost us money. If you have ever run a business, you realize that this is an unexpected expense that was not in our budget.

But there is a clear public interest here, laid out plainly in the state law quoted above — and also, ironically, in the settlement. Once it was unsealed, we found a paragraph acknowledging that the settlement could not preclude the school board, “as a public agency,” from legal requirements to “disclose the substantive terms of, or produce a copy of, a public record, or to comply with Open Meeting Laws.”

The News-Topic’s efforts on this case began just before National Newspaper Week, when newspapers across the country try to remind their communities of the vital civic role played by news organizations.

There have been several national stories over the past year about that, including one on a study showing that in communities where the only newspaper closed, the cost of government increased in comparison to communities that still had a newspaper. When no one is watching, eventually people start cutting corners, and the cost to taxpayers goes up.

This court case is as good a reminder as you could have of the things newspapers do on behalf of the public. There is literally no one else in the courthouse every week looking at what is happening in both civil and criminal courts other than the clerks, lawyers and judges — all of whom have their own jobs to do and their own interests to pursue.

When someone asks why they should pay for a newspaper when there are websites that provide some of that information for free, this is yet another answer.


Business North Carolina magazine recently voted downtown Lenoir’s motto as the best in the state.

I had thought that “Together We Create” was a great motto the first time I read it, blending both the area’s focus on the arts and the city’s manufacturing legacy, so it is nice to see it win acknowledgement from the high-powered marketing and communications experts who did the judging for the magazine.

To be fair to most of the rest of the state, though, it seems that most places didn’t have a motto in the running. The magazine says “roughly 20” entries were received, and from those it selected the top five.

And it would seem that many of those that were sent in don’t exactly sing. The motto voted fifth-best was “Well-centered.” I can imagine the session that came up with that:

Group leader: “What does our town have to brag about?”

Member one: “Well, we’re kind of smack in the middle of everything.”

Member two: “The schools are OK. Well, my nephew isn’t, but I think that’s on him.”

Member three: “The meth use seems to be dropping.”

Leader: “Let’s go with the first.”

Maybe most of the towns around the state don’t have a motto. That could be on purpose. Adopting a motto can be a perilous thing. The chances are very good that the motto will come in for ridicule.

I remember nearly 20 years ago when I was living in Winston-Salem and that city adopted the motto “O! Winston-Salem: Now that’s living.” The city spent $65,000 for that, according to an article in the Winston-Salem Journal, but few people liked it, and it mostly faded away.

It didn’t help that around that time a doctor in the city made national news for a medical treatment he developed for women that turned out also to have a genital-stimulating side effect.

Most elected officials don’t want to spend taxpayer money to come up with a motto that everyone may hate anyway.

So in the spirit of the “infinite monkey theorem” – which says that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare – here are some free suggestions for county and municipal officials around the state to consider.

“You could do worse.”

“Our town appears on all quality maps.”

“What you see is what you get.”

“You may not like us now, but wait until you get 20 miles down the road.”

“If that’s your attitude then just keep driving.”

“Misery loves company.”

“At least as honest as the median town.”

“Most likely above average.”

“Better than you’ll remember.”

“Better than good enough.”

“When it’s time to settle, we’re the place.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee.”

“When your dreams fade, we’ll still be here.”

“Keeping up appearances.”

“Closer to paradise than you deserve.”

“Few regret staying.”

I’ll keep working on the list. They may be terrible, but at least no taxpayer money was spent to produce them.