Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Bett-ing on a Bright Future

A young Broadway star shines his humble light

By Billy [Eye] Ingram

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts” — Jaques from Shakespeare’s As You Like It

I’m having lunch at one of my fave holes-in-the-wall, Bernie’s Bar-B-Que, with former Mrs. North Carolina and one-time cheerleader/choreographer for the Carolina Panthers Dana Caulder Zimmer Bett and her son Brody. Brody is a veteran of two of the most successful Broadway touring shows in recent years and is currently performing in network television and movie productions. Brody, who already has a couple thousand Instagram followers, sang the National Anthem at Bank of America Stadium to 50,000 cheering fans in August of 2021 when the Panthers squared off against the Buffalo Bills. This might not be considered all that remarkable until you factor in that Brody Bett turns 13 years old this month.

Mentioned in previous columns, Bernie’s Bar-B-Que has the tastiest Lexington style barbecue and the most sumptuously sweet hushpuppies in town. Also on the menu is one of Dana’s guilty pleasures, Salisbury steak smothered in gravy, which she is thoroughly enjoying. While diving into our meals we talk about Brody’s astonishing journey, one that began with a startling discovery.

“We bought him a keyboard and I literally could hear him at 4 and 5 years old picking out notes on the piano,” Dana Bett tells me. “One night I heard him playing ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. I thought it was an accident, that he just happened to hit those notes by chance. And I said, ‘Can you do that again?’ And he did it again. He had just heard the song one time.”

When Brody turned 6 years old, he began performing in Community Theatre of Greensboro productions, developing his musical “vocal-abulary” portraying, among other characters, the Grand Duke in Cinderella Kids. One of the theater mothers told Dana that Brody might be a perfect candidate for a New York casting call being held for an upcoming Broadway touring company of Finding Neverland.

Based on the Academy Award winning motion picture, Finding Neverland explores the relationship between playwright J.M. Barrie and the family that inspired his creation, Peter Pan. “My mom had literally no idea [how casting works],” Brody tells me. “She just said, ‘OK, I’m gonna send a song to the guy.’”

Until the last decade or so, if you wanted to be in the business of show, you needed to reside in New York for theater or Los Angeles for television and movies. Thanks to readily available video technology, auditions today are recorded at home by the performer, then uploaded to a server.

Dana submitted her son’s demo, which impressed the casting agent. He responded with one of the tunes and some sides (scenes) from the Broadway musical for Brody to record and submit. After a few days, they were told the youngster had made it to the finals. “The other boys at the finals had to travel to New York two and three times to get that far,” Dana says, still amazed. “And I thought, this was just meant to be.”

Two weeks after flying to New York for an in-person audition, at the ripe old age of 9 years old in 2018, Brody Bett landed the juvenile lead, Jack/Michael, in Finding Neverland’s multimillion dollar Broadway touring company. He smiles broadly recalling, “My mom literally burst into tears.”

Following a few weeks of rehearsal in the Big Apple, mother and son were crossing the country with Brody singing, dancing and being hoisted into the air on wires in front of audiences numbering into the thousands each night.

Any time a performer is under a certain age, the role is doubled up, meaning two actors are cast in the same part. “Sometimes I was on standby and the other guy would be performing because they have to watch our hours.” Dana, who was home-schooling Brody, was careful to comply with the child-labor laws of each state they were in. In New York and California, for instance, her home-schooling was supervised by tutors that were traveling with the troupe.

“We had only one ‘layoff’ in the entire tour,” Brody says, “which means we only got to go home for one week in the entire 10 months.” As the tour came to an end, having touched down in 102 cities, Brody scored an agent in New York. After repeated runs between Greensboro and Manhattan, Brody found himself vying for the role of Charlie Bucket in another Broadway touring production, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There were 500 potential Charlies at that first audition. “We were like, whoa!” Dana says. “But he’s so easygoing. He’s not competitive. He’ll do an audition and never ask again. It doesn’t matter how big the job is.”

After barreling through three rounds of tryouts, producers narrowed the field down to five young actors. “You knew they were picking two because they always have a backup,” Brody says about being one of those five. “That’s when it got really real.”

And so it was that Dana found herself crisscrossing the nation with Brody portraying the titular character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Embarking on a six-month run in January of 2020, the tour was abruptly cut short when COVID hit and the duo returned to their home in New Irving Park. Without missing a beat, Brody’s agent began putting him up for parts in animated TV shows as well as other voice-over projects, a notoriously difficult field to break into.

Because of the need for confidentiality in the entertainment industry, more often than not, Dana and Brody generally have no idea when and where one of his creations might be utilized. Dana recalls how early on he was asked to record a little jingle. “And it was the weirdest song.” A year later, an unexpected residual check arrived. “We looked at it and it said: Hunters. I looked it up — that’s an Al Pacino show on Amazon Prime.”

He’s auditioned for movies in which Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Kevin James were cast. Currently he’s the singing voice of Gil on Nick Jr.’s Bubble Guppies, Ron on Nickelodeon’s Anna & Friends, and Pando on Netflix’s Spirit Rangers. “He’s Rocky on PAW Patrol,” Dana says. “Not on the show but in the Nintendo video games. We have no idea where this stuff ends up. We just happened to see a post where this little boy was talking about how awesome Rocky was on this PAW Patrol: Grand Prix game. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh Brody, that’s your voice!’”

When producers needed a vocal match for the iconic cartoon aardvark Arthur for a special project, they turned to Brody. A bit more challenging, he was asked to vocalize Kakeru on an already completed Japanese Anime series, Kotaro Lives Alone, for Netflix. “That was a dubbing job,” Brody notes, “which is totally different. I literally had to mimic the mouths because they animated the words in Japanese.”

Besides acting and singing, Brody loves making music with whatever is at hand. (He owns over 45 instruments.) Adept at almost anything he picks up, he mainly plays piano, guitar, drums and ukulele. Pipe organ is his absolute favorite.

To accommodate future gigs, Dana and her husband are constructing a fully-equipped recording studio on their property. “When Disney says, ‘OK, you’re doing voiceover work this day from 9 until 4,’ they’ve got a lot of people involved.” Dana recalls a moment of panic before one of those morning assignments: “We get up and we hear a leaf blower next door — oh my gosh what are we gonna do? We can’t just say, ‘Hey Disney, somebody’s doing yard work or whatever.’” She convinced the workers to hold off on their motorized mayhem. “Having the studio is going be helpful. That’s why we’re double walling and doing heavy insulation.”

In a diner like Bernie’s Bar-B-Que, which has existed in its present location since 1950, any hint of arrogance would be glaringly obvious. Although I anticipated some degree of pretension, I detect absolutely no conceit from Brody, just the opposite. There’s not even a hint of the arrogance one would expect from someone less centered like, for instance, myself at that age. My ego would have dwarfed the sun!

It’s tempting to imagine Dana being a Mama Rose type. Instead, she treads that finely undefined line between protective mama bear and proud parent. “He can do whatever he wants,” she says of Brody’s future. “Actually, he said a couple of years ago that he might like to be a dentist. I was like, ‘That’d be a great career to have. That’s fine with me. Find something that makes you happy.’”

For the time being, “I’d like to keep doing what I’m doing right now,” Brody tells me. “Just keep spreading joy, making music and bringing smiles to people’s faces.” As for returning to the road, he auditioned for a show just the other day but, “I mean, I liked doing it at first, but then again I just love being home.”  OH

Brody Bett can be found online at: youtube.com/channel/UCUD8r2MdPWlq7exRsHH25yg and on Instagram: @brodybett

Billy Ingram is a former Hollywood movie poster artist and the author of six books, including his latest, EYE on GSO, a collection of stories (mostly about Greensboro) available where books are sold or burnt.

Poem January 2023

Poem January 2023

New Year, New You

It’s a new year and the 

world keeps screaming 

that I need 

a new me. 

I respond with 

a quiet, calm: 

“I like the old me. 

I think I’ll keep her.”

— Erienne Jones

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Finding Dylan

A riddle wrapped in a rhyme

By Stephen E. Smith

At 3 o’clock on an August afternoon in 1965, I climbed into a VW bug with two high school buds and blasted up the 200-plus miles of interstate to New York’s Greenwich Village. We‘d been listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” that summer, and we were determined to find Bob Dylan. We were confident he’d be hanging out in the Village, and as we milled about on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, I asked a bohemian passerby where Dylan was performing. He laughed in my face. “Good luck finding that guy,” he said.

Like most of my generation, I’ve been half-heartedly looking for Dylan ever since.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Who is Bob Dylan, and why have we been talking about him for the last six decades? I’ve listened to most of his recordings, watched Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home multiple times and read books by and about Dylan. I’ve even seen him in concert. Now there’s a new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, supposedly penned by the man himself, and the search continues.

Since Dylan is credited as the author, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an instant bestseller and there are reviews galore in magazines, newspapers, and online that will tell you exactly what you want to hear about the enigmatic songwriter’s literary efforts. But before committing myself to read all 350 pages, I had to be convinced that it was written by Dylan. After all, the guy has been known to mess with us. There were accusations that he borrowed lines in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from Melville and a brouhaha about autopen-signed copies of the new book. So I plowed through the first five chapters, reread parts of Dylan’s Chronicles and watched the Scorsese film, paying attention to Dylan’s language patterns. And, yeah, what’s written in the book sounds like Dylan. His name is on the dust jacket. I trust Simon & Schuster. Dylan wrote the book.

Here’s what you need to know. First, there’s not an iota of philosophy in The Philosophy of Modern Song. If you’re looking for philosophical thought, pick up a copy of The Essential Kierkegaard. Dylan is all about pop music, and in this latest offering, he’s simply chosen songs about which he’s passionate and written semi-expository/semi-poetic essays (I use the terms “essay” and “poetic” loosely) to accompany the songs. He’s no great shakes as a prose stylist, but he makes up for his lack of finesse with unbridled enthusiasm. He’s fervent about the songs he likes (or loves) and he tells the reader why in a torrent of bewildering but compelling prose. 

Dylan has chosen more than 60 popular songs, and in chapters ranging in length from a few hundred to 3,000 words, he lauds the composers, singers and musicians who created the recordings. It’s impossible to identify a dominant musical style in Dylan’s selection — pop, rock, country, R&B, folk, jazz, soul, rockabilly, gospel, etc. — all are represented. And there’s a mishmash of performers — Bing Crosby, The Fugs, Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Webb Pierce, Tommy Edwards, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, Little Walter, Ernie K-Doe, Charlie Poole, Ricky Nelson. He is, as pop-culture aficionados are wont to say, all over the musical map.

Dylan’s essays follow no discernable pattern. He’s occasionally analytical but more often gushes torrents of expressionistic prose that imperturbable readers are left to interpret. Uncle Dave Mason’s enchanting “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” originally released as a single almost a century ago, is typical of Dylan’s approach to explicating a song.

“In this song your self-identities are interlocked, every one of you is a dead ringer for the other. You’re the Dalai Lama, the Black Monk and the Thief of Baghdad all rolled into one, and the whole world is your city. You’re prowling and shoplifting, going down the East End, back where you came from, to the wilderness and brush — back to Chinatown and Little Italy — saddlebags full of barley and cornbread, rosemary and ivy, and sides of bacon in your pocket. You’re unmuzzled and unleashed, nightwalkin’ up the crooked way, the Royal Road, stealing turkey legs and anything sweet and spicy, roaming through the tobacco fields like Robin Hood, broiling and braising everything in sight.”

Occasionally, Dylan steps from behind his curtain of words and lapses into playfully preposterous insights. He claims Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso” is a song about genocide; he attacks the divorce business; and lauds Nudie Suits and the supernatural powers of blue suede shoes.

When explicating Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” he dredges up a piece of history as a metaphor: “. . . and the individual peculiarities of the human condition are sliced as thin as a serving of potato during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Which some people will, no doubt, also view as politically incorrect caricature even though the potato was a cheap staple of the Irish population and was decimated by a fungus that destroyed half the crop in 1845.”

This didactic passage isn’t necessary — anyone who reads Dylan is probably familiar with the Irish Potato Famine — but Dylan can’t abandon his clever illustration and goes on to mix the metaphor with drugs, rabbit meat and buckshot: “People try different ways to insulate themselves as their nerves are rubbed raw — there are various mood-altering substances, some self-prescribed, others classified by the government and only available by prescription. None of these are precise — they are more akin to buckshot than to a sniper’s bullet.”

In the final analysis, we should simply step back and consider Dylan’s jumbled Kerouac-ish prose as one might behold Picasso’s Guernica, not so much as individual lines of text but as a holistic composition, an attempt to transfer emotion and energy without the encumbrance of form.

Even if you’re not a Bob Dylan fan — and there are a lot of you out there — you can make The Philosophy of Modern Song an entertaining and enlightening read. Here’s what you should do. Make sure your smart speaker has a subscription to a streaming music service such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, etc., then kick back in your easy chair and start reading Dylan’s chapter on Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” Call up the song on your speaker. Read along to the music. Dylan’s wry, incongruous humor will impregnate your cerebrum.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.


Almanac January 2023

January is a creation story.

It begins with the wrinkled hands of a grandmother — perhaps your own grandmother — in the darkest hour of morning.

The wise woman knows the secrets of this barren season. She’s found warmth in the bone-chilling air; comfort in the aching silence; promise in the dwindling pulse of winter. When the frozen earth has nothing left to give, she reaches for the mother dough — the breath of life — then steadies herself for the tedious ritual.

The mother dough is a myth of its own: a wild yeast kept bubbling since the dawn of time. The grandmother feeds it once more — a bit of flour, a bit of water — then walks away. 

Breadmaking is a dance of time and space.

Tonight, she’ll make the leaven. Tomorrow, the dough. The rest is as crucial as the work.

At first light, a nuthatch sings its rhythmic song. Grandmother washes her ancient hands, folds the dough four times over, then lets it sit.

Two, three, four — sit.

Two, three, four — sit.

Again. And, again. And, again.

The hours tick by. The dough rises. The grandmother hums as she dusts the work surface. 

Creation is a process. After she shapes and scores the loaves, she bakes and cools them. Neither bread nor spring can be rushed. Such is the wisdom of this bitter season. Such is the wisdom of the grandmother.


Year of the Rabbit

The Lunar New Year begins on Sunday, Jan. 22. Goodbye, tiger. Hello, rabbit.

Considered the luckiest animal in the Chinese zodiac, the rabbit is a calm and gentle creature known for its grace, compassion and ability to take swift action. Those born in rabbit years are said to embody these desirable traits. Never mind their fickle nature and escapist tendencies.

But what does the Year of the Water Rabbit have in store for the whole fluffle (yes, that means bunch) of us? 

Some say peace. Some say hope. The rabbits in the yard suggest more rabbits.


Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year, for gardening begins in January with a dream.   — Josephine Nuese


The Blank Canvas

January is for dreaming. Every gardener knows that. Fetch the sketch pad. Reflect on last year’s highs and lows. Ask what your garden is missing.

This frosty month of seed catalogs and new beginnings, allow yourself to think outside the planter box. Or inside, if that’s your preference.

Is yours a kitchen garden? Butterfly garden? Purely ornamental?

Suppose you added more fragrance. Snowdrops in the springtime. Aromatic herbs in summer. Chrysanthemums in autumn. Honeysuckle and jasmine woven in between.

Color outside the lines. After all, nature does it all the time.   PS

Relax, It’s All in the Stars

Relax, It’s All in the Stars

Our dueling psychics forecast the year ahead

Concerned how 2023 will unfold? No worries, star children. We’ve got the psychic skinny on the year ahead from two of our favorite soothsayers. That’s the good news. The bad news? They can’t seem to agree — on anything.

Five years ago, if you’d told me that I’d be staring into dirty teacups for a living, I’d have asked to have a bite of your brownie. Yet, here I am. Getting intimate with a wet clump of tea leaves shaped for all the world like a great, prehistoric chicken. But more on the bird and its prophecies later.

A brief backstory for you first.

I started divining with tea leaves quite by accident. It was an ordinary Sunday in 2019. I was cradling a warm cup of tea — a loose-leaf pu-erh from my favorite aunt — and Lyla was curled up beside me for Game of Thrones. (Much too grisly for my taste, but Lyla lived for that show. You should have seen how she’d twitch and chatter at the screen, whiskers bristling. Scratched the high heavens out of my couch, too. But I digress.)

There I was, sipping the last of my brew when I happened to look down. Staring up at me from the bottom of the cup was a face not unlike that of the Virgin Mother, though undoubtedly more seductive. As I gazed back, trying to place those immaculate features, I noticed the two fish-like tails encircling her like an ouroboros. That’s when it clicked. My tea leaves were shaped exactly like the Starbucks siren. You know the one. Crown, flowing locks and the like. 

Well, this is when I started feeling dizzy. Not two minutes later, during a celebratory scene at Winterfell, I saw it: the iconic white cup famously left on set. The siren was calling to me. I took it as a sign from the cosmos.

The Game of Thrones howler marked the first of many oracular visions I would receive while drinking tea. Although I knew nothing of tasseomancy (divining with tea leaves), a sixth sense was awakening within me. I began studying every tea-ringed guidebook I could get my hands on. Eventually, I even sought out a mentor — a third-generation “tea-seer” whose childhood tea parties, as you might imagine, were not about the crustless finger sandwiches. Here’s the part that still makes the hairs on my arms rise: She’d been waiting for me. Had seen my name emerge from a puddle of red rooibos.

“Tea-seeing is your destiny,” she told me, sending an affirmative shiver down my spine.

I could feel it in my gut. A deep knowing. Couldn’t fight it if I tried.

Like all forms of divination, the clarity of a tea reading hinges upon the purity of the seer’s intention. In other words, it must never be used for selfish gain.

The ritual itself is quite simple:

First, select your teacup. Bone china is nice, but a simple cup is often best. Just be sure it has a handle. And a saucer. Minor details, really.

Next, add a pinch of loose tea leaves. Some seers swear by oolong, but I’m a sucker for the herbal blends. (I try not to swear.)

Pour your hot water — careful not to scald the leaves — then give it a minute or three.

Now, contemplate your question as you sip the tea, slowly and thoughtfully, straining the bits with your teeth. Once you’re staring into a pool of tea sludge — “The Mystery Mire,” as I like to call it — there’s a bit of swirling involved, an inversion, then more swirling.

Finally, you must let the tea speak.

Which brings me back to the chicken in my cup . . . well, almost.

Considering how the last couple of years played out, you can imagine my hesitation to pry too far into the future. But as my mentor likes to say, “It ain’t all about you, Sweetheart.” She’s right, of course. It ain’t about me. Which is why I asked for a glimpse into 2023. Perhaps this reading is for you?

In any case, I opted for a soothing blend of tulsi, kava and rose hips to steady my nerves. As I swirled round the mire, I whispered a simple prayer: Que sera, sera.

Whatever will be, will be.

For better or worse, here’s what the tea says:

Near the rim of the cup, which indicates the present, is what looks like a bird’s nest cradling a single egg — a very good omen. Could it represent a new relationship? A new vision? A financial boon? Give thanks. You know what this is about.

Not far from the rim — the near future — I’m seeing what’s either a cattail or a rattlesnake. (I know, I know. The range of interpretations can be all over the map. You get used to it.) If it is, in fact, the reed-like plant, suffice it to say that someone’s looking out for you. An ally. Alternatively, the rattlesnake asks that you listen to what your fears are trying to tell you. Perhaps you’ll be surprised to discover what’s behind — and just beyond — them.

A bit further down the cup — late March? — I’m seeing a heart. Love is surely on the horizon. But more importantly, love is already within you. Now is a fertile time to focus inward. Cultivate what brings you joy. This is your path to lasting happiness.

There are several animals in this reading: A bat with a damaged wing (check the attic); a cockroach (check the basement); a fox (keep an eye on the aforementioned egg).

As for the big-ass bird? I can hardly believe its auspicious position! The bottom of the cup? Highly favorable. But what, exactly, is it trying to say about the year ahead?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the bird is ancient-looking. A prehistoric “wonderchicken.” Chickens are believed to represent good fortune. That this particular fowl resembles a beast that might have pecked and scratched upon the Earth millions of years ago gives it an unusual twist. I’m getting the sense that this year will evoke some kind of primal awakening within each of us. Something that our ancestors knew in their bones. Something we buried long ago. A nugget of intrinsic value.

More will be revealed as the year unfurls. That said, when this “remembering” occurs — and I’m not sure what stirs it — we’ll have a choice: Use it or lose it. Which, dear reader, will it be? 

— Zora Stellanova

Update, Star Children:

I moved to the Happy Hills trailer park two years ago. Can you hear my snort? Happy Hills, my happy ass! Long story short, my beau and I lost our lease. And that’s when our problems began.

My ex, Daniel P. Justice*, caught me in a weak moment with my roots showing. Vulnerable. I caught sight of myself in a mirror, grays popping, one of my knee-highs with the elastic shot, sagging down like a worn-out grandma. Ironic. I was once considered very good looking. 

But I couldn’t find my usual hair dye during COVID! Or knee-highs!

Dan suggested we just try dropping out. He was convinced we were being bombarded with microwaves when he started losing his naturally curly hair. Then, the Cubans shot microwaves at somebodies somewhere. Ironic, I said to Dan, halfway agreeing with him.

So, we had a yard sale — outside, socially distant, all that — and I let go of all my Hummels and Beanie Babies. A low point, having spent my inheritance on fine collectibles. 

A legacy, right down the drain! Don’t get me started. But back to that RV thing. What started out as a big-time adventure wasn’t. For example, during lockdown, people started hoarding toilet paper, alcohol and peroxide, not to mention canned goods. Well, in an RV, there’s nowhere to hoard. Or hide.

We began living a one-toilet-paper-sheet-at-a-time reality.

If you have IBS like moi, or just a gassiness problem, too durned bad. RV life is the death of mystery and romance, I am here to tell you.

Wherever you go, there you are, just worse looking.

Lockdown was Y2K squared. On replay.

Lady Destiny can and will track you down and kill you with experience.

But back to life advice: If you go off the grid, don’t do it during a plague. Sketchy internet and TV. One little can of Planters, GI problemos and one tee-nine-sy toilet between the two of you. And a boyfriend — whose hair is falling out — constantly griping about privacy. Seriously? We ain’t got none when I can lean over and touch the other side of the RV with my nose. And who in bloody HE double L is surveilling us? It wasn’t like we were Kardashians or something. 

So ironic it makes my stomach cramp up just writing about it.

It didn’t take long for us to blow all my fine collectibles money on essentials.

There was no possibility of giving in-person readings, given what Dan calls The COVID. Like he insists on calling Walmart The Walmart. And with the general public in the USA getting angrier and stranger.

Understandably, I was leery of meeting strangers in the Happy Hills camp site woods for picnic table readings.

Most especially when good fortune was in as short supply as toilet paper. 

Then my chakras got all blocked up and nothing whatsoever flowed out of me but blankness. I sat still, waiting, looked into the crystal ball.

And so on and so forth.

Looking into my crystal ball was like awaiting the results of an at-home COVID test.

Nothing. No little pink line. It was a total whiteout. Spirit could not get through to me. So, I spent a whole lot of COVID like that, eyeballs drying up from staring. 

To my mind, the universe was deliberately on lockdown.

Forecast for 2021: crystal ball cloudy with a 100 percent chance of ongoing storms.

Forecast for 2022: If you can believe it, 2022 looks worse than 2021.  Strap yourself in.

So, I just stopped altogether, and tried my hand at writing a memoir: Fortunes and Misfortunes.    

Then, early one morning, I swear, when the sun was just peeking over the tippy tops of the trees came something — a message. Crystal clear. An epiphany!   


Just that. It was like “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane

First communication from the astral plane in months, and it was the name of a shoe that resembles a potato. 

I didn’t know what to do with that, so I shook it off. But after some Nescafé transformed me into a human, I decided just one more time to attempt a reading. And spidery letters appeared in the ball, clear as Dan’s shiftless ways: B, I, R, K . . .

Yeah. Birkenstocks!

What could that portend?

Well, I had been wearing my Birks during the COVID, living in this stupid little cramped RV. Wearing sweats, day in and day out.

Was Spirit telling me to get more comfortable? Was it saying the opposite, time to stop being so comfortable

Or, was Spirit saying, you are too damned poor to afford genuine Birks? Buy The Walmart knock-offs.

(Or, was Spirit saying potato shoes and RV life are as good as it’s ever going to get for you, Astrid Stellanova?)

I can’t tell you, because I don’t even know myself.

Meanwhile, a blind psychic in India has been laying down a whole lot of hard-to-swallow stuff. And none of it was rosy.

If you’re reading this, you are a fellow survivor of 2022, and a few things have, at long last, come through. Call this my free reading for all of you outside the Happy Hills Park.

Star Children, this much finally has come clear to me. It don’t matter if death is imminent, or you’ve got a hot date. Either way, Honey, you’re getting laid.

Speaking of which: Death row meals aren’t something only inmates should think about. What do you love and need? And if you have the power to make it happen, Sugar, time’s ticking like that gator that swallowed Hook’s clock in Peter Pan.

And while you’re at it, think about humility, you attention hogs out there. So full of yourselves! Time after time, we take credit for too much. We stand on the shoulders of everyone in our ancestral line, those who have delivered us to this point in time. 

Turns out somebody else loosened the pickle jar lid a lifetime ago; you just opened it.

And if anybody out there can help this sister out, let me know what the H-E—double L you think Birkenstock means.  OH

Still Living the Mystery,

— Astrid Stellanova


*A deliberate irony. Name of my ex changed because of a court order. The ex has moved back in with his Grandma, and I remain temporarily domiciled at Happy Hills for the immediate future.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Buddy System

Old friends lend a Haand

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash


If my best friends from high school and I were able to live our youthful artistic dreams we’d still be playing in a garage band called The Subterraneans. Luckily, ceramicists Mark Warren and Chris Pence, who met in high school in the late 90s in northern Florida, had a business plan. In 2012 they founded a ceramics and glassware company called Haand, which is named after the archaic Norwegian word for “hand,” and where everything is made by, you guessed it, hand. Since founding their company, Mark and Chris have partnered with restaurants around the world, including Beard Award winners and local culinary royalty like Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard, with whom they’ve launched a special collection.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you show me your friends I can show you your future.” If only we all had friends like Mark and Chris during high school. The best businesses, like the best friendships, grow organically from shared interest and vision, and while Mark’s and Chris’ professional paths briefly diverged after college — Mark pursued the arts while Chris worked as an accountant — they came back together over a decade later in rural North Carolina as roommates and business partners in a crumbling old mansion. (How crumbling? Let’s just say that the same bucket that caught water from the kitchen drain was used to flush the toilet.) In this auspicious setting, Haand was born.

On a warm fall morning in late November, I parked in the grassy lot outside the Haand showroom and production studio in Burlington. The 13,000-square-foot brick building was once a hosiery mill, and it still retains its industrial feel, despite the gorgeous colors and earthy appearance of the countless handmade ceramic pieces that greet you as soon as you step inside.


I found Mark, Haand’s creative director and co-founder, as he passed through the showroom on his way out the door. He stopped and greeted me warmly with a broad smile that was nearly hidden by a thick beard. Mark very much looks the part of a potter, and he very much looks the part of someone who might enjoy living in a house where a single bucket serves as both a kitchen and a bathroom appliance. I hadn’t let anyone at Haand know I was coming, and I felt bad about dropping in during the middle of the day, but Mark didn’t seem to mind. He casually showed me around the production studio where a couple of dozen people were at work at various stations, each one marking an integral step in the process of achieving the distinct look and feel that Haand is known for.

As we walk through the space, Mark explains the process, beginning after he completes each design, whether it be for a vase, a coffee cup or a serving dish. A mold is built from each design, and into the mold is poured liquid porcelain slip. Once the piece dries inside the mold, it is removed, cleaned, smoothed with a sponge, and hand-inspected before being stamped with Haand’s logo and the phrase “Made in NC, USA.” The piece is then bisque fired and heated to 1,800 degrees, and this is where each piece gets interesting and distinct.

“Our clay body itself is what’s called vitreous,” Mark says, “so it melts at a really high temperature, and then it will become kind of liquid during a period of the firing. The clay kind of remembers things that have happened to it. So if you bump it with your thumb or kind of move it, it might look strange going in, and then it comes out and it has melted and softened and completely shifted its form. You can’t really fight that unless you’re doing what they do in industrial kilns, which is not what we do here. There’s a deeper truthfulness that can come out of not trying to fight the process and just letting it be what it is. It’s a beautiful thing.”

There is no doubt that each piece made by the folks at Haand is beautiful not only in its design, but also in its color. After the pieces are fired they are glazed with a liquid coating of minerals that bonds to the clay, and brings a glassy and distinct color finish and texture to each piece, whether it be fern green or matte grey or one of the stunning Cloudware finishes that looks just like its namesake.

After the glazing, each piece goes into the gas kiln, where it’s fired at 2,300 degrees so that the clay and the glaze thoroughly bond. Afterward, each piece is polished and inspected before either being shipped out or stocked in the showroom.

All told, countless hands touch the pieces during the process, and every step reflects the hand of the maker who’s worked on it, which ensures that each piece, even if it’s part of a set, bears its own distinctions. Roughly 90 percent of Haand’s employees were novices before walking in the door, but each of them receives extensive training in the production process in order to maintain Mark’s vision for every individual piece.

“It’s exciting,” Mark says, still seeming struck by the beauty of the process of designing, forming and firing even after all these years. “It’s right on the edge of chaos.”

But to the layperson’s eye, nothing about the scene at the production studio seems chaotic. People of all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds work quietly, whether they’re sponging or firing, many of them with earbuds popped in so they can listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts. Their work is accompanied by glances, smiles, nods of the head. The whole scene feels peaceful, thoughtful and grounded.

But it didn’t always feel that way to Chris, company president and co-founder, who I found after he stepped out of the office and gave me a tour around the showroom, where I immediately picked out two 10-ounce tapered mugs to take home. Chris had worked with clay since high school before forging a career as a corporate tax accountant in Jacksonville, Florida, where he often worked 80-hour weeks. It was on a trip to visit Mark in the dilapidated farmhouse that Chris truly considered reconnecting with his early passion for pottery. Mark pitched the idea of the two of them starting a business together; it ended up being an easy decision for Chris.


But those early days, rooming at the farmhouse with Mark while working in an outdoor studio took their toll on Chris, who quickly realized the differences between plowing through a 16-hour day behind a desk and the physicality of clearing brush to create more outdoor space, moving boxes of finished pieces, making phone calls and filling purchase orders.

“Moving into that house in the woods was a totally transformative experience for me,” Chris says. “I imagine that people were having thoughts like, ‘Has Chris lost it a little bit? Is he going a little crazy? He left a job he worked so hard for.’ I really looked up to Mark and relied on him to kind of show me what this new life was like.

“But I definitely remember being in the studio by myself one day and the lights were off, and it was dark. I had a real big moment of existential dread, and I thought, have I made a terrible mistake?”

For Chris, after both the success of the company and his continued friendship with Mark, those moments of uncertainty are fewer and farther between. “I’m so passionate about what we’re making,” he says.

While Mark and Chris’ primitive way of living has changed since their days on the farm, the way they make their pottery has not.

“We haven’t changed the production method at all,” Chris says. “We’ve certainly refined it and gotten better at doing things, but if you were to have been there with us at the farmhouse and walked through how we made a pot, and then you were to walk through the way we do it now, you would see there are no fundamental changes. We can make things more efficiently, but it’s still a handmade mold, we pour the clay in, we pour the clay out, we finish it, we fire it, we glaze it, fire it again, and it’s done. The process is the same.”

Their friendship is the same too.

“Mark has just always been an incredibly fun person to be friends with,” Chris says. “I think it’s a blessing for both of us to have been such good friends before the business because having a business is hard, and it can really, really be difficult on every level, whether it’s financially, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Mark has always had my back, always been there for me, and always supported me.”

It’s clear that Mark has felt the same about Chris for years. “When you meet someone like Chris, you just kind of know them in totality. Chris is one of those people that if you know him it would be inconceivable not to want to be friends with him afterward.”

“And Mark was hilarious in high school,” Chris says, laughing. “I remember him showing up to a prom party at my house. He was a sophomore, so he wasn’t even invited to the prom.”

“Please tell me he showed up in a tuxedo,” I said.

“I think it was one of those T-shirts that has a tuxedo printed on it,” Chris says.

“It was,” Mark adds, the sudden recollection causing them both to break into laughter. “And I brought a beer bong that I’d bought on a German Club trip to Daytona Beach. It had never been used before, and I was like, ‘Let’s see how this works.’”

“That’ll be the next thing that Haand manufactures,” I say. “Ceramic beer bongs.”

“There’s a lot of demand for that,” Chris adds, and we all laugh again.

When you visit Haand or order any of their pieces online to be delivered to you, you will immediately recognize the care and attention that Mark and Chris have put into their craft. And when you spend any amount of time around Haand’s co-founders, you will say the same for their friendship.

Come for the kiln-fired pottery. Stay for the warmth.  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.



A Winter Wonder

Evening grosbeaks visit the Sandhills

By Susan Campbell

Evening grosbeaks are a most unexpected surprise in North Carolina during the winter months. Last month I made a similar claim about purple finches, explaining that food shortages further north would bring these raspberry-colored songbirds our way in numbers over the coming months. In fact, much to my delight, that has already happened at our feeders in Apex. But evening grosbeaks, which could be found reliably here in our state every few years, are nowhere as numerous as they were just a couple of decades ago. Therefore, they are far less likely to appear even when seed resources plummet across southern Canada and the northern United States.

Evening grosbeaks are robin-sized birds with a distinctive heavy white bill and varying amounts of yellow feathering, depending on the bird’s age and sex. All individuals have white and black wings as well as a gray crown and nape. Adult males with their yellow eyebrows and bellies are hard to miss. Immatures as well as adult females are more muted, having limited yellow feathering above with gray underparts.

Being larger, grosbeaks’ songs and calls can carry a good distance. Furthermore, they are almost always found in flocks during the colder months. So they are likely to vocalize a good bit throughout the day. You may be startled by the cacophony of warbling songs or hear their buzzy chips as they keep track of one another.

These big birds have a broad diet. As with most songbirds, evening grosbeaks feed heavily on insects and insect larvae during the spring and summer. But beginning in early fall they seek out berries, not as much for the fruit but for the seeds contained within. With their large bill and strong tongue, they can easily manipulate these sizable morsels to get at the protein in the middle. During the colder weather they can be found foraging on seeds from maple, ash, tulip poplar and pine. It is likely that a combination of a better-than-average breeding season with a poor mast crop is causing their winter range expansion. Individuals and small groups have already been spotted in our state — all the way to the coast. I was startled to hear one calling a couple weeks ago from high in the forest along the creek at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines. And I expect it is not the only encounter I will have this season.

Laying out the welcome mat for these handsome birds is not complicated. Of course, your odds of attracting evening grosbeaks are better if you have the native vegetation they favor. Commonly cultivated apples, cherries and Russian olives will also get their attention. Feeding stations with sunflower seeds will be a draw, of course — especially if the seeds are hulled. Additionally, they will consume peanuts and other larger nuts like pecans and even walnut pieces.

Given the size of a grosbeak, you can imagine that the amount of seed they consume on a winter’s day is not insignificant. But folks lucky enough to host them are usually willing to provide as much seed as the birds will eat. Paying the price for such special guests is worth the investment, especially if you are a Southern birdwatcher who likely will only have such an incredible opportunity once in a lifetime.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.