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Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

What are you afraid of?

Most of us are afraid of things that very rarely happen, according to a recent poll of nearly 1,500 North Carolina residents by Elon University.

Well, except for being shot in a public place. That USED to be pretty rare, but a majority — 51 percent — perceives that it’s at least somewhat of a possibility now, and more than a third, 37 percent, feel they are very much at risk.

The poll asked people how safe they personally feel about 37 hypothetical risks. “Shootings in public” topped the list of what people felt least safe about. Only 7 percent said they felt very safe.

But close behind that was terrorism, with 33 percent feeling very unsafe and only 7 feeling very safe.

What’s most odd about that is that there is very little difference how people in our state’s big cities feel about the risk of terrorism and how those in sparsely populated counties feel. In fact, more rural residents — 34 percent — than urban residents — 30 percent — feel very unsafe, even though there has never been a terror attack in a rural part of the United States for the very obvious reason that in order to inspire terror, there have to be a lot of people hurt and a lot of TV cameras nearby to broadcast the news. It would take over an hour for some TV crews to get to Pineola in Avery County from Charlotte.

Things make a little more sense if you combine the “very unsafe” and “somewhat unsafe” answers.

Then the thing that the most people feel at least somewhat unsafe about is walking along roads that don’t have sidewalks, 66 percent. Only 5 percent feel very safe about it.

People are very slightly more afraid of snakes (a total of 56 percent feel either very or somewhat unsafe) and ticks (57 percent) than tornadoes (51 percent).

The same amount of people, 16 percent, feel equally unsafe about dogs and deer, but more (31 percent) feel very safe about deer (only 27 percent feel very safe about dogs).

And again, urban and rural residents feel exactly the same level of risk about deer — 4 percent very unsafe in both, even though there are a lot more deer in Kings Creek than Raleigh.

People are least afraid of trains: Only 4 percent feel very unsafe about trains, and just 8 percent feel even somewhat unsafe.

On the other hand, people feel pretty darned safe about driving — only 5 percent very unsafe and 20 percent somewhat unsafe — even though there are literally hundreds of traffic accidents each day across the state and being a good driver has little to do with it — at least half of the drivers involved do nothing wrong. Some multi-car wrecks have only one driver at fault, and if something falls onto the road — a tree, a jumping deer, a big rock thrown by an angry teenager, a fish dropped by an eagle — then no driver is at fault.

But the poll left a lot of areas of risk uncovered.

For instance, what about your coffee shop exploding, not because of terrorism but plain old natural gas? It happened in Durham on Wednesday and killed the shop’s owner, injured nearly 20 people, destroyed one big building and damaged several others.

What about losing your job by accident? Just happened to a judge in Texas because he told someone he planned to run for higher office, and the Texas state constitution says a candidacy announcement by anyone holding a judicial office amounts to an official resignation. (Seems like a judge ought to be familiar with that, though.)

Perhaps most importantly, what about the risk of bees living inside your eyes? Just this past week a woman in Taiwan went to her doctor about pain in her eye, and the doctor found four sweat bees had somehow gotten into her eye socket, surviving there by drinking her tears. We have sweat bees in every county in North Carolina — you stand far more chance in Sawmills of encountering sweat bees than terrorists, and now they know humans are edible.

Good luck if your eyes don’t itch for the rest of the day.

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Thank your teachers

This is adapted from a column that ran in the Lenoir News-Topic.

My mother was a newspaper reporter, but she’s not the person who was the biggest catalyst in my decision to become a writer.

For a large chunk of my childhood, I intended to become an artist.

When I entered high school, art was still the only thing I had considered pursuing. My mother encouraged me and, trying to help me find a way to make a living at it, even took me to see what commercial artists do.

I drew all the time — when I wasn’t reading comic books or science fiction novels. (I was a nerd. Shocking, I know.)

During my freshman year of high school, I read a novel by a retired general speculating how World War III would start and be conducted, and I wrote a book review on it and left it with the English teacher who was the faculty adviser for the school paper.

The next time I entered her room, she made a bee line for me. I have a clear memory of her locking eyes with me and crossing straight to me, complimenting my writing and encouraging me to submit more writing for the paper. I did. I started with more book reviews, and over time mostly I wrote humor columns, but I did some feature stories, and eventually I signed up to be the school’s teen correspondent for a monthly citywide special section of high school news that the local newspaper published.

By my senior year, I was the editor of the school paper, and my focus had shifted entirely to studying journalism in college and becoming a reporter.

Believe it or not, my mother wasn’t necessarily happy with this change. She told me, “You will never have any money,” because reporters were not paid well. (Some things never change.) But I couldn’t be dissuaded.

I might have become a writer without that teacher’s encouragement, but she certainly nursed the writer that I didn’t yet know was inside of me.

That teacher’s name was Kathy Kochevar. We called her Miss K.

Writing about it now, I wish someone had prompted me at some point over the years to let her know all of this.

There are many other teachers who stand out in my memories.

There’s Mr. Curran, the geometry teacher, whose lessons were punctuated with a superhero he invented: Bisectorman, the Winged Avenger of Angles.

There’s Mrs. Burgess, who taught Spanish II and III and provided great leeway for my sense of humor in my homework. For instance, for an assignment requiring us to submit a list of sentences that demonstrated the proper conjugation of a variety of verbs, I submitted sentences saying such things as, “The river of hamburgers is yellow,” and, “Put it in my eye!” For another assignment requiring two-person teams to write an entire narrative and read it to the class, a friend and I wrote a “Dick and Jane” story in which Spot eventually went on a rampage, killed Dick and Jane, became radioactive, grew to enormous size and destroyed a city. (We got an A and were asked to recite our story for the advanced class.)

Many students feel deeply affected by particular teachers, and in my newspaper in Lenoir I asked for students, parents, graduates, volunteers or anyone else to write in about great teachers and what they have done.

I also will try to get this column to Miss (probably now Mrs.) K.

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All of us make questionable decisions.

I remember, for instance, the day in 1982 when I was driving my 1968 Mustang in Phoenix, Arizona, much faster than was prudent on a road that gradually curved to the left. It is vital to this story that you understand that the car had leather, bench-style seats, and while the car had seat belts, those seat belts were detached and sitting loose in the trunk. Therefore, by the time I completed the curve, I was steering from the passenger side of the front seat, where I had slid.

That’s just one of many poor choices I have made in my life, and one of the few I am willing to share.

Happily, though, none of my poor decisions has involved putting shoe polish on my face or attempting to blackmail the richest man in the world, which are two of the biggest poor decisions in the news the past week.

Perhaps I would have made at least the first of those decisions if I had hit my teens or 20s while living in Virginia, where during the 1970s and ‘80s apparently every young white man out for fun on the town donned blackface and posed in front of a camera to immortalize his stupidity.

Luckily, though, my family lived in Virginia for only a couple of years and moved to North Carolina when I was 6. I did not live in Virginia again until I was nearly 36. The only things I ever slathered on my face were red and gray paint (my high school colors), Oxy10 (acne ointment), sunscreen, and aloe vera when I forgot the sunscreen.

It also has never occurred to me to try to blackmail or extort someone with unlimited means to fight back, as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, says the owner of the National Enquirer, American Media Inc., attempted to do to him. The Enquirer threatened to publish suggestive or lewd photos it had acquired that Bezos and his mistress had exchanged.

I can only imagine the conversation behind such a decision.

Enquirer stooge: “Hey, boss, I thought of a sure-fire way to get the richest man in the world to do what we want!”

Boss: “That would be a great thing, to have control of such a man. What is your plan?”

Stooge: “A secret source of mine gave me these sexy photos from his phone that he and his girlfriend sent back and forth.”

Boss: “Oh, yes?”

Stooge: “Yes.”

Boss: “Interesting.”

Stooge: “I’ll say. So what if we tell him that unless he does what we want, we’ll publish these photos and embarrass him? He’s sure to beg us and offer to do anything just so he won’t be embarrassed. It has never failed.”

Boss: “Now, this is the same man who made his billions founding a high-tech company, right? A company that relies on top security technology.”

Stooge: “Yeah, that’s him.”

Boss: “So he knows basically all of the top computer security experts in the world on a first-name basis, right?”

Stooge: “Well, he probably does.”

Boss: “And in theory he could spend many millions of dollars, far more than we have, to find out how we acquired those photos, take us to court and ruin us, leaving us to beg for pennies in the streets …”

Stooge: “Well, I mean, if you want to be pessimistic about it, maybe …”

Boss: “Hmmm.”

Stooge: “So what do you say, boss?”

Boss: “It’s a bold move. I say do it.”

Maybe the conversation didn’t go that way. But it’s hard to think of a reason no one involved didn’t consider what might go wrong with the plan. They even got lawyers involved. Perhaps they hired really bad lawyers – another poor decision.

I don’t say that I will never make a bad decision that tops these. After all, I’m on social media. That alone raises the odds. I drink beer – higher odds yet. Like many people, I have a smartphone and have Wi-Fi at home. In some ways, you could say that I and many others of us are practically begging for our darker angels to prod us into doing something impulsively stupid that will haunt us forever.

I hope by now I’m old enough to have enough healthy awareness of my own fragility to make me back away.

But I admit, anything’s possible.

I just find it hard to imagine.

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I need to get this on the record so local law enforcement officials will know what to do if something happens to me: The News-Topic’s photographer, David Prewitt, tried to murder me, and the only thing that stopped him was a hitchhiker.

I was walking down the sidewalk on Main Street in downtown Lenoir after work one day last week, and as I approached West Avenue but was still several paces north of it a blue Honda that I did not initially recognize as David’s pulled up to the intersection, facing west on West Avenue. He had a red light. I had a green light and stepped off the curb to cross.

When I was right in front of it, suddenly the Honda surged forward.

I jumped past the car.

In David’s passenger seat, the hitchhiker screamed, and David hit the brakes.

That’s when I saw it was David who almost killed me.

Later, he tried to pass it off as an accident.

“I couldn’t see you,” he said.

“That’s why you are supposed to look both ways before pulling out,” I said.

“The sun was in my eyes,” he said.

“The sun was west of you. I was north by several paces when you got to the light.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t suspect him. After all, my wife has been telling me for years that most people do not look both ways before turning right on red, they only look to the left to see if there is traffic coming.

But have you met David? Something about him seems shifty.

He also hates old-fashioned country music. I’m not fond of “new country,” much of which to my middle-aged ears sounds like pop with a Southern accent, but it’s hard to trust someone who grew up in the South but won’t give Johnny, Merle and Hank even a chance.

I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, we have to work together. And most of the time, he’s kind-hearted to a fault. He has offered a room to co-workers needing a place to stay. He always gives me his chocolate chip cookie when he buys lunch at KFC. He seems to be on friendly terms with most everyone in the county.

But that all may be an act. Maybe he acts nice because he’s trying to get everyone’s guard down so he can kill them just when they least suspect it. Who would suspect such a nice guy? It would be the perfect crime.

Maybe when I stepped into view he saw his chance to be rid of a demanding though brilliant boss and forgot he had picked up the hitchhiker until she screamed, which reminded him there would be a witness to his crime. Maybe that’s the only reason he hit the brakes.

If I turn up dead, someone show this column to Chief Brent Phelps of the Lenoir Police Department. It may help speed the investigation.

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One good thing about the period after Christmas is that you don’t have to hear “Are you ready for Christmas?” all the time.

I have always struggled not to answer that question honestly.

The honest answer would be, “No, not even close. I’d be happy to fall into a coma until after New Year’s.”

But it’s a rhetorical question to initiate small talk. You’re supposed to either enthusiastically say yes or talk about how much there is left to do.

It’s like the question “How are you?” Even if you aren’t doing well, the correct answer is “Fine,” or a variation. Years ago a police captain I knew always answered that question with “If I was doing any better I couldn’t stand myself.”

The wrong answer is anything like “I don’t know, I must have eaten something last night that disagreed with me because I can’t stop running to the bathroom, and I’m gassy too. You might want to stand back.”

In some ways the question reminds me of one my father used to ask me after milestone birthdays: “Do you feel any different?”

I never felt any different. 20 felt just like 19, 30 felt just like 29, and 40 felt just like 39. He died when I was 44, so he couldn’t ask me at 50.

My answer would have been different that time.

It is not so much that I “feel” different now, at 53. I “feel” inside the same as I did at 35. But I am keenly aware, and seemingly more so each year, of the growing gap between feeling 35 and being the age I am, which I am reminded of at every turn. A couple of days ago a woman asked me whether I am retired. I wasn’t dressed like I had money, so I can only assume I looked old enough to her to be retired.

It only added to a growing sense of mortality, enhanced by the way that time seems to move faster the older you get.

It’s like being on a treadmill that goes a little faster each year, but behind the treadmill, right behind you, is a wood chipper. If the treadmill gets too fast, it’s going to toss you backwards right in that wood chipper.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” carries with it a sense of how many years I’ve heard that question, how much more quickly I move from one Christmas to the next than I used to, and how many more years I might hear it.

They ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

But part of me hears, “Are you ready for the abyss?”

A little more than a week before Christmas someone asked me again. I hesitated, with the honest answer rolling around my head.

“I’d really like to skip Christmas,” I wanted to say. “There are so many expectations and so many obligations, and before you even know it the year will fly past and we’ll be doing it all again.”

Instead, I thought of an answer that contained the truth but was a polite and acceptable response:

“Is anyone ever really ready for Christmas?”

She laughed.

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It wasn’t until a few years ago, when an editor friend who makes an annual address to a civic group elsewhere in North Carolina asked me for predictions of news in the coming year, that I realized I am a modern Nostradamus.

Since I started contributing, I have an accuracy rate of 100 percent. Or, in case you think “accuracy” should mean “things that came true,” that may be zero percent.

But some research reveals that still leaves me in the range of Nostradamus. (Full disclosure: no actual research was done.)

Lucky you!

So, following are my predictions for 2019. Take note, and plan accordingly:

Early in the year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues the formal report of his investigation, though it leaves many unanswered questions that set the world of political talk shows ablaze. Within hours, Mueller appears at a joint press conference with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and the presidents of Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN as they enthusiastically announce a five-year renewal of the hit reality series “Dystopia,” which all present then realize they forgot to announce the launch of in 2016.

A new biopharmaceutical foods company introduces bacon infused with pleasure-giving dopamines and neurotransmitters that simultaneously trigger “fear of missing out,” anxiety, wanderlust, nostalgia, jealousy and schadenfreude. Facebook stock collapses.

Responding to a continuing escalation in tariffs on products from Asian countries, a coalition of furniture companies establishes a floating factory complex operating from international waters that has the ability to navigate to avoid major storms. Shortly after beginning operations, however, it becomes mired in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” of floating plastic debris and is unable to escape 2019’s first typhoon, which sinks the entire complex.

Triggered by the sudden explosion of the bacon market, pork belly futures skyrocket, and industrial pig farms in eastern North Carolina become the new center of the state’s economy. Twenty-story office towers appear in Smithfield and Kinston.

Facebook use falls to near zero, and the company files for bankruptcy protection. Days later, a weeping, hysterical Mark Zuckerberg is arrested after undressing inside a Publix, wrapping himself in bacon and trying to climb into shoppers’ carts.

Faced with the possibility of a clean break from the European Union without a new agreement on trade and travel, voters in Great Britain overwhelmingly approve a new referendum that literally says only, “Oh nevermind.”

Elon Musk, the eccentric CEO of car-maker Tesla, announces a new software update for something that is euphemistically called “emissions testing mode,” a built-in practical joke that can make the car emit farting noises when a turn signal is on. The car owner can choose from six different tooting sounds, including “Short Shorts Ripper,” “Ludicrous Fart” and “Neurastink.” … Oh, wait, nevermind, that actually happened in December 2018. (Seriously, it really happened. You can Google it if you don’t believe me.)

Late in the year, the company that revolutionized bacon expands into artificial intelligence with a neurotransmitter-bacon-skinned sex robot. Civilization collapses.

Bacon-loving America soon resembles a scene from “The Walking Dead” as those left alive wish they were dead and attempt to hickory-smoke members of opposing tribes.

As the Christmas season nears, the survivors of the Baconpocalypse find hope for world peace as observant Jews and observant Muslims, who don’t eat bacon, finally settle their rancor to make common cause against the only remaining world power, a multinational army of vegetarians and vegans sweeping across the continents of Europe and Asia.

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Rarely has anyone asked me a question that I felt more certain about while answering.

Several times in the first week of the month, someone asked me the same question, and each time I felt the confidence swell up like a warm balloon inside of me. How dare they even ask? The answer was so obvious that I all but openly scoffed at the questioner.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked.

Pfft.

My eyes narrowed and the corners of my mouth rose into a slight, cynical grin. My back stiffened. I felt like a sage asked to impart wisdom upon the uneducated masses. I waited a moment, letting the pause settle to the ground between us, before answering in a tone as calm and placid as the surface of a lake on a windless day.

“No,” I said. “Or we might get snow, but there is no way – absolutely no way – we are getting anything like a foot of it.”

I cited the lower end of the forecast, which at the time was around 6 inches, and said I’d be happily surprised if we got that much.

That was all the wiggle room I left myself.

I could easily remember all the times forecasters predicted the possibility of calamity – whether hurricanes, floods or blizzards – that never materialized, and times when predictions of tiny weather events fell disastrously short of what happened, as with last month’s ice storm.

More than that, I remembered all the times I hoped for big snowstorms, only to be disappointed.

Those memories fueled my sense of certainty. Those forecasters. They weren’t going to get my hopes up this time.

Early in the week, the forecast shifted from day to day, and it further fueled my certainty.

The shifting more or less stopped by Thursday, but I was not deterred.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked me on Friday.

My eyes rolled so far back in my head I could see my brain pan.

“No,” I said, trying not to sneer, “certainly not 10 to 16 inches.”

And I added that since the highs were going to be in the 40s in the days before any snow fell, the ground would be warm and it would melt pretty quickly. There was no sense wringing hands about it.

I intentionally avoided the grocery store. I would not be held hostage in long lines of hysterics loading up for Snowmageddon.

My lone concession to the forecast was to agree it would be prudent to send last Sunday’s paper to press earlier than usual Saturday evening, just in case.

I woke after midnight that night and looked outside to see a dusting of snow on the grass, and a steady amount of new snow falling. I retrieved my News-Topic from the front sidewalk, shaking the snow from it, and went back to bed.

Several hours later I woke and looked outside to see that something close to 6 inches had fallen and piled up in the trees, and it was still snowing steadily. I checked my phone’s weather app, and it said there was a 100 percent chance of snow until early afternoon.

It appeared that I might have been wrong.

As the morning went on and the snow grew deeper, I began to worry about the amount of food in the refrigerator.

Around noon, when there clearly was much more than a foot of snow on the back patio, I worried about the power going out.

When the snow finally stopped, I went outside with an 18-inch ruler and pushed it down into the snow on my car. It sank to the tip.

I was wrong. Man, oh man, was I wrong.

You may ask, did I learn a lesson about acting so haughty?

Based on experience, I can answer with nearly absolute certainty, and I will be succinct: No, I learned nothing. No way.

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