Friday, March 29, 2013

Born of moonshine

When I think of museums--both public and private--I am reminded of countless field trips and hot weekend afternoons spent at the Smithsonian, passing dioramas of scantily clad mannequins representing early man, staring up at enormous, but lifeless, statues of dinosaurs and elephants, and gazing at plexiglass boxes with clothing, tools, shards of pottery, plaster-cast bones, and taxidermied wildlife.  As a young person it was painfully boring, and the marble floors and long walks between museums exhausted me.  As a high schooler and young adult, though, I loved the learning that could be had there.  And museums, for their part, were starting to get more interesting with the opening of the African American art museum and the Air and Space museum.

I moved away from DC fifteen years ago, and, it turns out, museums have changed a bit.  Nothing--and I mean nothing--prepared me for the experience that is the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

First of all, we had only just walked up to the box office when we were already faced with choices--did we want the individual combo ticket, with a simulator ride and lunch for only a few dollars more than the regular adult ticket?  If we'd had kids or a group, the decisions were endless--tickets, lanyards, lunches--on and on with the choices.  Much debate ensued, and we settled on a plain ticket because we knew, thanks to the great and powerful Internet, that AAA members could ride the simulator for free.

The admission "ticket" was a hard card, like a credit card.  It was, in fact, called a hard card.

We walked through the doors and were immediately greeted by a host of people there to help guide us through this experience.  A very nice lady in a motorized wheel chair called us over to the turnstile where she first swiped our cards through the magic card swipe thingy.  Then she directed us to the 
nice gentleman just passed the turnstile, who said, "You will want to go to the right, down the stairs, to our theater.  Your experience of the NASCAR Hall of Fame starts with a 12-minute video..."  And you couldn't skip the video and turn left, as the people behind us tried to do.  Oh no.  They were stopped and quickly redirected.  The nice startbygoingright guy also directed us to the Hard Card Check In kiosks, saying that we should be sure to check in after the movie.  We went before the movie, though, because wouldn't a bunch of people need to do it at once if we waited?  So we "checked in."  First you balance your hard card on a little rack specially designed for it, and then the screen starts asking you really personal questions.  Name, birthday (with year!!!), email address, number of sexual partners and promises of handing over your firstborn to the hag in the back...  So, taking a deep breath of normal-people-just-fill-this-out, I entered all the requested data along with the blood sample and voided check.  (I'm exaggerating, but seriously--they asked a LOT of questions).

Then we were hustled over to a big green screen where they took our picture.  Finally I started to freak out.  What is this for???   The picture lady was super nice--it's just for fun!

(PS--If you're in the witness protection program, DO NOT go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.)

The introductory video was actually pretty cool, and honestly, I would have watched it even if I hadn't been forced.  They talked about how stock-car racing was born in the south--the Appalachian mountains to be exact.  We have a proud tradition here of course. Of running moonshine.  Yep.  We started modifying cars so we could outrun the cops.  And apparently, back then, the fact that Officer Smith saw Jed driving, and recognized Jed's car, and knew he was running 'shine--apparently none of that mattered unless you were actually caught.  So in the 20s and 30s, folks made quite a living souping up cars and outrunning the popo.

And as so often happens, the men who were rebuilding their cars and racing through the streets of the Carolinas, started bragging.  And soon enough they had to prove their prowess, and runners started racing their cars in fields.  By the late 40s, the racing was formalized and NASCAR was born.

In the early 40s, though, my dad was known to race cars here and there.  I doubt it was anything he really stuck to, but I imagine there were a few summers in there when he wheeled around a dirt track or two.  My dad was an amazing driver--had driven all sorts of vehicles, from two wheels to many axles--and never met a car he didn't want to open up and make fly.

By the time I was old enough to understand what stock-car racing was, cars looked like the General Lee, and that is always what I pictured.  Of course, though, my dad would have been racing in something that looked more like something that should have a rumble seat.  And that was the video we watched on the enormous screen this morning, as cars crashed into one another and tore apart on those dusty fields of 1930s North Carolina.

Unfortunately for me, NASCAR is now synonymous with a culture that represents so much of what I don't like in this country.  The fascination with Jesus (seriously, I'm almost completely certain--certain--that Jesus isn't concerned with who wins the Daytona 500) and war (now, Jesus might actually have an opinion about that) are real turn-offs.  But the fast cars, the technology, the LOUD!!!!, and the home-grown history reach me at a core level.

I love to drive.  I love to drive fast.  And I love the fact that the drivers look like astronauts, with temperature-controlled g-force suits, gadgets and monitors all over their bodies, and rocket booster seats bolted in to amazing machines designed to withstand radical g-forces, 360-degree impacts, and even fires, without exploding the tanks filled with essentially rocket fuel.  Give me more of that!

So we started our tour in the main gallery, after many warnings to be sure to check in our hard cards at every opportunity, "to track our progress."  Progress?  What the hell?  But anyway, we mostly ignored all that and looked instead at the awesome cars lined up along the outer edge of the circular gallery.  The track starts with a 0-degree bank (flat), but by the end is at a crazy 33- degree bank.  There they have a section you can stand on, carefully surrounded by grabby railings because, although 33 degrees sounds easy, it's crazy steep.  One of the driver quotes is, "You're chasing the track all the way around.  And you can never catch it."

And then we were upstairs where they have interactive displays.  We were met at every turn by very assertive and helpful staff, who snatched our cards and registered us for all sorts of fun.  I got to "change" a tire by operating the lug nut thingamajiggy while Bill operated the jack and also ran behind me to fill the tank.  We did it all in 28 seconds.  Having arrived just as they opened, we were the first adults of the day, so our 28 seconds made it on the victory board.

We wanted our free simulator ride (thank you AAA!), but first we had to qualify.  Really?  Yes!  So we stood in line for the qualifiers, watching everyone before us wipe out and go spinning across the digital grass.  Again the hard card was entered and we raced on software that looks a lot like the racing game I have downloaded on this very iPad where I'm typing this blog.

Then we stopped at the place where you get to announce a race.  So while the screen displays real race footage, we were expected to act like announcers.  They offer you the same footage with real announcers as an example.  Here's what I sound like announcing a race (the simulator reminded me we want to paint a pictures with words, for those who can't see the race):  "There's a yellow car, and a white car...  Ooh!  The yellow car is going really fast!"  Bill, my fellow announcer, breaks in.  " Honey, that car is orange."  And, " Oh no!  The yellow car is about to hit--ooh!  It HIT the white car!  It really shouldn't do that..."   And then Bill, "Holy cow!  What a hit!"  And so on.  The recording played back and Bill and I dissolved into giggles, attracting the attention of the nice Canadian family passing by.

And then it was off to the simulator, with the seat rumbling and the loud loud roar of the engine in your ear, and the lady next to me who so didn't want to be there.  Her grumbling was hilarious as she swore at the gear shift and argued with the seat adjustment.  "Drivers, start your engines!!!"  VAROOOOOM!

We walked through the rest of it, touching tools and car parts, and watching footage of amazing wrecks where the drivers just got out of their cars and walked off the (crazy-steep) tracks.  As we left, we had to "check out," so again with the hard card, and now we got to see how many points we'd made and where we were in the line-up.  WHAT?  This was some sort of competition?  Aye carrumba, why would I want to compete for my Hall of Fame experience?

But regardless, it was a great time.  I got to think of my dad, I got to wield seriously heavy tools and, I got to go varoom varoom.

Sent from my iPad, which makes me feel all Star Trek-y, which makes me feel like a geek, but then I remember how cool George Takei is, and I think maybe I'm kinda cool, but then I realize I'm really not, except that I have an iPad and that MAKES me cool. Right?

Back roads

I am watching Charmed.  After all these years, it is my go-to guilty pleasure when it comes to tv. Not only am I awake at 7 to watch Aaron Spelling's homage to boobs and combat boots, but I have been up since 5.  After all, how else might I squeeze every minute out of my vacation?

Our packing had been delayed by a Tolliver nap (cats can't resist an open suitcase), but eventually we gathered all our things.  I, of course, overpacked, the back of the CRV crammed to the hilt with clothes for every occasion, shoes to match, food (don't forget the chocolate bunnies!), books, electronics.  We were expected to be gone about 48 hours.  Bill, on the other hand, packed two pairs of socks and boxers, two shirts, and trunks for the hot tub.  How reasonable of him!

Leaving also means extensive instructions for the pet sitter.  Two pages of details about the kittens and cats, their likes and preferences, how much to feed them and when.   I laughed when after many paragraphs, the dog instructions were simply, "throw some food in Eddie's bowl."  I am cat all the way.  Bill is dog.  As it should be.

We both had to work, so it was almost 4 when we headed out.  The highway route is about two and a half hours to Charlotte, our ultimate destination, but the back roads are so much more interesting, so off we went, through Chapel Hill to Old Greensboro Road, to 49, which would take us all the way to the hotel.  We were sad to be in a car, but this year's cold, wet spring meant no motorcycles yet.  We will definitely retrace this route, though, because it was some beautiful riding.

But spring it definitely is, as we passed farm fields filled with babies.  The itsy bitsy cow sticking his head out of the fence to eat the grass by the road, the hop hop hopping goats.  My favorite was the teeny tiny goat, all spindly legs and shaky knees, who climbed up on his reclining mother to a triumphant stance, king of the hill!  The mom goat just lay there, with her baby standing tall, his tiny hooves on her belly much like my cats sit on me for that early morning lovin'.

Bill is some sort of turkey whisperer and often when we are traveling, he will suddenly shout, "Did your see that???" and I never do, and he'll shake his head sadly that I missed the turkeys in the field.  One time we were on bikes, and he pulled over unexpectedly.  "Did you see that?"  I had missed it completely so we doubled back. He pointed to a long shallow field by the road.  "See?"  I saw nothing.  I stared.  I sought.  He started freaking out.  "Right there!"  Finally, my eagerness and anxiety in full swing, I saw them. Turkeys!  A bunch of them!  How DID I miss them?

For this trip, we again passed a shallow field that ran the length of a stretch of road.  Bill pointed. And there, on the edge by the trees, a turkey.  Gobble gobble!  Finally my turkey goggles are working!

We rolled through the gorgeous North Carolina scenery, still brown and desolate from our unusually wet and long winter.  A few weeping cherries brightened our path, but mostly the woods were still brown and damp.  We passed a Pentacostal church with the simple marquee, "God is awesome."  In Asheboro, we passed the classically Carolinian "Guns and Gold" store.

We passed beautiful farm houses with gorgeous outbuildings, triggering my outbuilding envy and discussions of "when we win the lottery."  In spite of all the stories to the contrary, we are sure the money won't change us.  And with our winnings, we would of course take care of our friends as well.  See?  The money won't change us.

We passed a junkyard of exclusively old cars--acres of fins, grills, enormous steel hoods, and trunks big enough to hold today's cars inside. Most of them rusting, forlorn.  Ford coups, Old Willys coups, Buicks, and the like, stretched out along the roadway, a monument to the glory days of the auto industry.  

Eventually we pulled into the Embassy Suites where we were greeted by a lovely fountain with fake ancient ruins.  The manager's reception offers a full open bar--potentially a great thing if only Bill or I drank alcohol.  The steak dinner at the hotel restaurant was exquisite and our waiter a lot of fun.  Totally worth the mortgage payment we forked over when it was all done.

Today will take us to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which promises to be yet another bastion of redneck delights. We are also hoping to find a salvage/repurposing center in case the Charlotte crowd throws away better stuff than Durham.

We love our state!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

One man's Heaven

It was a redneck heaven, plain and simple.  Which made it hell for me.

It was a gift.  For my amazing husband, who has been so very sweet since the wedding, and whose life story means he rarely got to enjoy the simple, American pleasures most of us take for granted. 

He had worked that morning, not unusual for a Saturday, but still not ideal.  We had ridden our motorcycles in the afternoon, through a nearby town, enjoying the sort-of-country-and-sort-of-suburbs of it all, the March crosswind rattling us around a little bit.  And then in the evening, we met up with friends, drove to the PNC center, where our local hockey team—the Hurricanes—has been winning games, making friends and wooing Triangle fans.  But tonight the ice was hidden—no sign of it in sight.  Instead, we were greeted by a bare dirt floor, tarps draped across the first eight rows of seating, and crushed cars arranged in a pattern in the center.  This, ladies and gentlemen, was no hockey game.  This was MONSTER JAM 2013!!!

The ultimate American experience.  I had no idea it was such an American experience, until I was there, and the Monster Jam announcer kept telling me.  It's always good to have these things clarified.

We watched as the four-wheeler teams—North Carolina vs. South Carolina—warmed up, zinging their open-bodied, four-wheeled vehicles around the track.  We listened to the emcee interviewing the "captains" of the two teams, and thought of wrestling matches, the way they have over-the-top villains and heroes.  Totally ridiculous.  But then, it happened.  The emcee's voice shifted in tone—it was time to start the event.

He had been engaging the crowd—barely a third of the arena—during warm-up, and now he came out and talked about America, about pride, and about patriotism.  He had members of the armed forces stand up, listing each branch of our military, and then veterans.  And then he called on firefighters, police officers, doctors, and EMTs.  He did not, of course, mention nurses, teachers, or social workers, but I'm sure he meant to.  But he had them all stand and the crowd applauded, and I did too, because cheesy or not, I am indeed happy to honor those who serve our communities.  And while we applauded, his speech dropped off, and the music turned up.  "Proud to be an American" came loud and strong through the arena.  (Thank the gods for good sound technology as we could actually hear and understand everything said that night.)  And as I sat at the PNC Arena, and "Proud to be an American" floated dulcetly through the air, the jumbotrons in the center of the space showed pictures of the American flag, images of patriotism, and, yep—there it is—MONSTER TRUCKS POPPING WHEELIES and jumping and smashing cars.  Monster trucks getting great air and BAM! dropping on CARS.  PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN, people, where you can SMASH cars, and pop WHEELIES, and dammit!  This is MONSTER JAAAAAAAMMMMM!!!!!!

And so went the evening, with loud pumping music, crazyloud vehicles tearing apart the space and crunching metal, and the crowd screaming loud and proud.  At one point, Matel toys arranged a major give-away event to a lucky fan.  The spotlight found a cute cute kid in the crowd, and the emcee made his way over.  He promised he would give the child as many toys in the bag as the crowd cheered for, and so then there was pressure—we had to scream or the kid wouldn't get any toys.  And so there we were, cheering for the little guy so he could get every toy in the bag!!  We cheered and screamed—and why?? Really.  We were a quarter-mile away, but still, we screamed and joined the sounds of the cheering crowd, all to make sure the little boy got his remote-controlled, car-smashing, stone-climbing bit of America.

I do have to say that I really love the monster trucks.  The sound is unbelievable, and the over-the-top craziness of it is hilarious.  The tires are enormous, and the engines whine so loud, you can feel your cochleae shattering and your cilia shriveling such that you'll never hear again. 

And then.  After intermission.  It was here.  Lowered from the ceiling.  Settled carefully on the ground.  Here it was.  I'd seen commercials for it since I was a child.  And now, in front of me, unbelievably, I would see it live and in person.

The Sphere of Fear.

The steal bubble cage, into which one can ride a motorcycle, and, if one is skilled enough and talented enough, and has balls big enough, one can ride the interior of the sphere and achieve the impossible—ride upside down. 

And the announcer made a big fuss about this Sphere of Fear, and he told us—and this part was very important—the motorcycle in the Sphere of Fear is fueled by our cheering!  We must cheer loudly to keep the motorcycle operating safely in the Sphere of Fear.  And then the very daring Mr. Flores came out to the arena, he zoomed his motorcycle into the Sphere of Fear, and then he was locked in it.  Locked in!!  This was very important to the announcer, who said it many times—Mr. Flores was locked in the Sphere of Fear.  But really, they just shut the big metal door, and now it was a true sphere (of fear!) and the daring Mr. Flores could zoom zoom zoom his motorcycle in big circles, first sideways and then—and ladies and gentlemen, this is really amazing—upside down!!  But this is not all!!  Soon there were flames shooting up from the center!  Mr. Flores was inside the Sphere of Fear, and there were flames!!!

And then the daring Mr. Flores exited the Sphere of Fear and was safely, once again, on the dirt floor of the arena.  Imagine our surprise, then, when his beautiful, 15-year-old daughter rode her motorcycle into the arena, and then…  then…  into the Sphere of Fear!!  She also got locked in, rode in swooping circles, with her one hand waving us on to cheer her, and then… and then… upside down!!! 

But wait!!  What is that little motorcycle there?  Is it?  Could it be?  Yes!  This is Mr. Flores' son!  He is only ten years old!  He is the youngest motorcycle rider to ride in the Sphere of Fear!  He is only ten!  He also got locked in to the Sphere of Fear and rode in swooping circles, first sideways, and then upside down!!!

After much hoopla and cheering – to fuel the ride – the entire family was in the Sphere of Fear, and the whole thing was on fire, and it was cool, fueled by our cheering.

But the best part was definitely the end of the evening, when the monster trucks engaged in their freestyle "competition."  There are "judges" and the competition is "scored," much like wrestling, which you can imagine, is a major eye roll for me.  However, I do have to say, it's fun to watch the trucks express personality—and they really do!—as they smash cars up.  I mean, what's not to like????

Seriously.  I loved it.  And we're so going back next year!!!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I Have Staff

I feel very Downton Abbey when I am roused at 9 a.m. on the Sunday after the time change by the people I have hired to work in the yard.

Brian is also a very good friend, and as is the custom around here, he let himself in. Eddie's barking had long-since alerted us to his presence so at least I was decently covered with jammies when the door opened.

But of course it meant I was to get dressed and join the conversation outside. It was 33 degrees, so I had to fix my hair to accommodate a hat, and then I stood, listening as the menfolk talked.

My presence was totally unnecessary. This is a job that is weeks in the works, and the specs of which have been clear for longer than that. Move the six ENORMOUS truckloads of mulch from the front of the house to the back. Spread it around.

Brian is the perfect kind of worker, and we have a great thing going here. I have a never-ending to-do list of house projects, and Brian comes whenever he is free to work on them. I don't have to be here--he brings his own tools, knows where our things are should he need them, and cleans up after himself. You would hardly know he's been here, except that the work gets done. We have an agreement on the number of hours every month, so he can count on the income, and we can count on the work. For big jobs like this one, we pay as we go.

It's a perfect arrangement.  Everyone should have a Brian.

Except when you're trying to live in denial of the time change and it's 33 degrees out.

I am reminded of the scene in Downton Abbey when the maid comes in to open the curtains, waking Lady Mary and her new husband. The maid has been up for hours at this point, having prepared the house for waking habitation. Mary and Matthew chat happily, not the least but concerned that they have been slothful.

I, on the other hand, realize that Brian and his coworker have been up long enough to waken, get dressed, (I hope) eat breakfast, and I see from thermoses set on the rocks, prepare coffee. Not to mention the 30-minute drive to get here.

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, isn't it?

And so I busy myself. I move the cut wood (cut by Brian, of course, while I was out to dinner with friends earlier this week) to the pile; I half-heartedly rake out the piles of mulch, knowing Brian will come behind me and do a better job; I consider the difficulty of winning the lottery; and could I possibly pay someone to cook for me without feeling gluttonous (deadly sin number two)?

I suppose it's a good thing I am not rich. Perhaps some of us really are born of "peasant stock" (as my father used to call it), driven to work--or at least pretend to.  And for those of you wondering, yes, I am using reverse psychology on the lottery fates and not the least bit worried that winning will "change me."

Come on, big money!!!

Monday, March 4, 2013

90 Minutes Around the Bend

It's winter time.  We're lucky here; at times throughout the winter, we are treated to beautiful days of sunshine and mild temperatures.  Although there are days at a time when it's quite cold, and we have our share of wind, rain and even sometimes snow and ice, we often find ourselves outside for many days throughout winter.  I used to garage the motorcycle at a friend's house, but I have since learned that we can ride at least once or twice every month of the year.  As much as February is my least-favorite month, it's in February when I am most grateful for my decision to move to North Carolina because truly, beautiful weather is just around the corner.

So here we are, the last weekend of the dreariest month, and we've had rain and ice for many days, leaving our yard a slog of mud and swamp.   Even the simplest tasks are crappy that way.  Taking out the compost is a slip-slide smear-fest that tears up the grass, soaks your shoes, and dampens the cuffs on your jeans.  The animals leave paw prints everywhere, and the standing water that pools in low spots is depressing and a harbinger of dead grass, mosquitoes, and the steamy summer sure to come.

You can imagine, then, the relief of the weather report calling for 65-degree sunshine.  And on a weekend, no less!!

We had had a busy Saturday—up early to take the snake to the vet, along with an emotional roller coaster that was "we might have to put the snake down right here right now" all the way to "a total clean bill of health and keep up the good work!" in the span of 30 minutes.  Then a busy afternoon of fun social obligations and then a black tie fundraiser that had us dressed up and dancing (in fancy footwear, both of us—ouch!) into the night.

So Sunday dawned sunny and bright, and we threw the covers over our heads and rolled over, the sound of thunder paws from our now-four-cat household providing a joyous soundtrack to our extended snooze.

Eventually, though, we roused, blinking in the sun, old creatures feeling every muscle and joint.  Oh, so craggy and ancient!  But we fed ourselves, caffeinated ourselves, kissed the furry ones, and headed off to the gently curving roads and lakeside views we love so much around here.

With Bill’s bike in the shop, our only option was for me to ride bitch, which gave me plenty of time to look at the houses and dream of retirement, when I plan to live in an old white, wood home with a few acres around me, cats and an herb garden.  My favorite are houses that are tall in front—plantation style, I guess they call it.  And then only one story of rambling rooms in the back.  You can imagine the builders designing a lovely two-story home, perfect for the time, and then the subsequent families adding a room at a time.  I love how those kinds of homes have rooms with several doors and you can walk several different paths through the house, passing through bedrooms and drawing rooms.  I don’t really understand the allure of a hallway, with so much wasted space. 

I have a love of outbuildings.  I’ve watched enough American Pickers to know that most of those outbuildings house rusting, worthless collections of crap the homeowner just couldn’t bear to part with, but I like to imagine the studio or old-style apothecary or just a private retreat I would have in the outbuildings of my home.  I envied sheds for a long time—a place to put your mower!  Your tools!!  A neatly organized home for paintbrushes and screwdrivers, the chain saw and your loppers.  I have a shed now, and I love to walk in it, see all my stuff—the mark of a true home-owner and kindasorta handy woman—tools. 

And of course, I love the porches.  The big 15-footers that wrap languidly around the whole house.  Or even the 8-footers that house neat row of rocking chairs to the right of the always-red front door.  Oh, the things I would do with a grand front porch.  Never mind the mosquitos or the humidity or the choking pollen.  If I had a huge porch, I would have parties of people, dressed in linen finery, sipping on mint juleps, the laughter ringing into the night…

And oh, the houses with the benches out front!!  Where I would sit in the morning, sipping my coffee, letting the sunlight bring my brain to awareness, rather than the light of Facebook on my iPhone. 

And so we passed our 90 minutes, with Bill in charge, and my mind free to wander through rural Triangle life.  We eventually pulled up to our house, which I have painted myself, and I celebrate in its simplicity.  I love its gentle, cabin-y feel, and I like its dark brown, calming, welcoming feel.  I chose to ignore the enormous piles of mulch and dead grass, and focus instead on the mint juleps I will sip on my front porch when it’s all done.