The Pleasures of Life Dept.

Drama Queens

TTNC’s directors Brenda Schleunes and Donna Bradby rule the documentary theater scene

By Maria Johnson

A prediction for April 21st: Local theater folks and their supporters will cram the third-floor cabaret of Triad Stage for an evening honoring the 35th anniversary of Greensboro-based Touring Theatre of North Carolina.

A pre-show party will warm up the crowd for the premiere of the theater’s 50th production: The Melody of All That, a tune-filled bio of American song makers George and Ira Gershwin.

Guests will sip, titter, nibble and schmooze around a silent auction. A few people will address the faithful, pointing out the former TTNC board presidents. Polite applause will ensue.

The speakers will include the theater’s founder Brenda Schleunes, a Midwestern lass of Mennonite stock who looks, nevertheless, as if she’d been plucked from the streets of New York, with her black shawls, precisely clipped white hair and a bearing etched with gravitas. At 77, she’s the Maestra. She holds the title of artistic director, meaning she shoulders a lighter load than she used to. Last year, she shed the mantle of executive director.

Donna Bradby, the company’s new executive director, will make a few remarks, too. She’ll be the lady in braids and big earrings and a colorful skirt. Homegrown and springy at 56, she is quick and boisterous and grounded by a deep understanding of her craft, much of it gleaned from years of working with Schleunes (pronounced SHLOY-nes).

When the lights flicker on and off, the patrons will funnel to their tables, and the show will go on, in a way that happens only here, because this shoestring nonprofit is very likely one-of-a-kind among theater companies in the country.

As the name suggests, TTNC takes its shows on the road, apart from short runs on the home turf in Greensboro.

But the name doesn’t convey the group’s rarity on several fronts.

To find two women at the helm of a theater company, even a small one, is worth noting.

“It’s mostly a man’s game,” says Bradby. “Theater is a business, so all the ramifications of being a female in any business plague women in the theater and entertainment world.”

Another distinction: All but one of the company’s 50 shows have been original productions, adapted to the stage by Schleunes, who mines printed material including everything but ready-made scripts — novels, short stories, poems, biographies, footnotes, documents, letters and transcripts of interviews.

“She stages things that weren’t meant to be staged,” says Bradby.

The shows use minimal props and six or fewer actors.

No one else does that. At least not at the clip of at least one new show a year. Not for 35 years. And not while handling — between feel-good pieces like the Gershwin show — heavy-duty issues of the past and present.

To wit: The Holocaust; slavery; civil rights; the decline of textile mills and its ripple effect; bullying; aging; capital punishment; gay marriage; homelessness; the emotional toll of separated military families.

Sensitive subjects?

“She’s not scared,” Bradby says of her mentor. “She ain’t nobody’s punk where theater is concerned.”

“Nobody’s punk” grew up in northernwestern Ohio, in a village named Archbold, which was memorable for its population: 1,234.

Schleunes’ mother died in childbirth, and baby Brenda Pursel spent her formative years in the lap of her Mennonite maternal great-grandmother.

“She was one of those people who looked like she was made of goose down pillows,” says Schleunes.

With loving arms around her and books propped in front of her, little Brenda came to love literature. Her favorite?

“A multi-ethnic nursery rhyme book, if you can believe it,” she says.

No one was surprised when she studied theater and English in college; or when she acted and edited literature textbooks in Chicago; or when — after moving here in 1971 when her husband Karl took a job teaching German history at UNCG — she pursued a Master’s degree in performance studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We studied literature to see how it could be staged,” she says.

Her first audiences were school children, including her daughter Anna’s classmates at J.C. Price Elementary, then a traditional magnet school.

But Schleunes didn’t want her future work to be confined to kiddies, so she gave her new venture a more elastic name: Touring Theatre Ensemble. That was 1982.

Four years later, Schleunes courted adults by adapting two Eudora Welty short stories. The show starred Bradby, whom Schleunes had recruited while Bradby was a theater student at N.C. A&T State University. By the time the curtain rose, Bradby had graduated. She was also eight months pregnant and playing a 90-year-old woman. “I said, just bend lower and keep your shawl pulled over the front,” Schleunes recalls, laughing.

Welty saw the show at Greensboro College while she was in town for another literary event. Afterward, she signed Schleunes’ copy of her collected stories. “To Brenda,” Welty wrote in a spidery hand. “With thanks for your fine performance of my story.”

Schleunes feasted on the words of other well-known authors. She adapted Alice Walker. She interpreted North Carolina writers, too, drawing early on from Marianne Gingher, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Randall Jarrell and Sandra Redding.

Later, she derived from the works of Randall Kenan, Jaki Shelton Greene, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell and Todd Johnson.

Schleunes converted all kinds of words from page to stage. A trip to Israel yielded Letters from Leokadia, based on letters from a German Catholic woman to the Jewish girl she saved during the Holocaust.

The company took the Leokadia to the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1993. The same year, Schleunes tweaked the group’s name, dropping “ensemble” and adding “North Carolina” as a regional identifier.

Then, with an eye to the road, she built her most popular show to date, Let My People Go: The Trials of Bondage in Words of Master and Slave. Her co-creator was Loren Schweninger, then a professor of history at UNCG, who harvested the show’s raw material from court documents. Schleunes strung the facts on a ribbon of music. “It was organized thematically with spirituals,” she says. The show opened in the mid-’90s and toured the country for nine years. Stops included the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Interior theater.

The production also played a slew of universities, where some audience members learned things that didn’t sit well with them, including the fact that there had been black slaveholders in early America.

Schleunes remembers an uncomfortable moment at Elizabeth City State University, a predominantly African-American campus. “Somebody said to Loren, ‘You’d better watch out because I’m Nat Turner and I’m going to get you,’” Schleunces says, repeating the reference to a slave who led a murderous rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

There was no uprising in Elizabeth City that night.

The show’s beautiful moments outnumbered the scary ones. At Somerset Place, a former plantation near the town of Plymouth, the cast walked along a row of sycamore trees by a lake and sang, “Let My People Go,” before entering the auditorium. “It was haunting,” says Bradby. “It was like the spirits were there.”

Bradby, a Greensboro native, ducked in and out of her hometown. She acted in New York, then returned to oversee the transformation of the city’s Caldcleugh Recreation Center to a multicultural arts center. Then it was off to Virginia Tech for a Master’s degree in arts administration. Then back home to teach.

All along, she stayed involved with TTNC because she believed in promoting literacy through theater. She also valued Schleunes’ devotion and directness. She tells a story of going to Schleunes’ home to polish her lines for a show. “I was sweating, I was working so hard. When I was done, I looked at Brenda, and I was like, “Did you like my work?’ She looked at me and said, “Hmmm. It was very soporific.’ I had never heard that word before in my life. I was like, ‘What does soporific mean?’ She said, ‘Sleep-inducing,’ “ says a chuckling, head-shaking Bradby.

With Brenda, there is no gray area. You leave knowing exactly what you need to do, how you need to come in the next rehearsal.”

When Schleunes decided to step down from the executive director’s job last year — “I was tired,” she admits — Bradby was the natural choice to replace her.

“It made perfect sense,” says Schleunes. “She knew the theater every bit as well as I did, and most of all, she was appreciative of our style.”

Bradby, who teaches and does arts marketing for A&T, wasn’t sure she wanted another job, so she took the company for a test drive without pay. During that time, she attended an award ceremony flush with local arts leaders; not one was a black woman.

“I said, ‘I’m gonna take the position,’ ” she says.

Bradby assumed control of booking, bill paying and fundraising. In the company’s early years, money flowed freely from state and local arts councils, historical organizations, foundations and private donors. The funding stream has narrowed in recent years. To finance new shows, which cost  $10,000 to $20,000 each to create and perform, Bradby hopes to enlist new sponsors. She also wants to boost the company’s profile in its own backyard. To raise awareness, TTNC launched a home season in Greensboro five years ago.

The Up-Stage Cabaret at Triad Stage has become the performance headquarters. This year’s season begins with The Memory of All That: A Bio Cabaret of Gershwin Songs.

Bradby also pushes the company’s bedrock, the touring performances that deliver Schleunes’s work to schools, churches, synagogues, homes, community centers and other grass-roots venues. “The bookings are up,” says Schleunes. “She’s doing a fantastic job.”

Five shows are currently for hire: The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer, the story of the hymn-singing civil rights leader from Sunflower County, Mississippi; Star-Spangled Girls: A Salute to the Women of World War II, which was commissioned by UNCG’s Jackson Library; Let Your Children Tell, which rests on the diaries of young people caught in the Holocaust; Duke Ellington Uptown, a tribute to the jazz composer; and Deployed, a readers’ theater featuring the words of veterans and their families from seven wars.

The Gershwin piece probably will join the nomadic pack.

With Schleunes calling the artistic shots, new productions are sure to include timely, if edgy, subjects. She’s doing preliminary work for a show that deals with implicit bias in law enforcement.

“There’s been an awful lot of that in the last three years . . . and it’s still happening,” Schleunes says. “In order to really look at this thing, you gotta put it up in front of people and say, ‘OK, here’s what happened.’ I’m not gonna say, “This is wrong or right,’ but, ‘Here’s what happened.’”
She says she hasn’t found the unifying principle of the show — “This is the toughest one I’ve done”— but she’s confident she will.

“After this many years, you have to have a little faith in yourself,” she says.  OH

To learn more about the Touring Theatre of North Carolina, go to at

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can ne reached at


Under Pressure

Carbonating a cocktail adds a bit of sizzle

By Tony Cross

Weíre living in an amazing time, with a plethora of questions, answers, ideas and collaborations at our fingertips. I’ve never been great at anything but, thanks to the internet, I’ve learned enough to know what I’m doing. Everything from raising the temperature on my hot water heater, to recipes — the internet, especially YouTube, has been a great friend indeed. I would, and still do, fall asleep every night to YouTube while watching tutorials, music reviews and workout tips on my iPhone. A few years ago, I came across a YouTube channel called Small Screen Network. This channel has a modest number of cocktail videos, and it introduced me to the likes of Jaime Boudreau, head barman and owner of Canon cocktail bar in Seattle.

Boudreau’s segment, “Raising the Bar”, helped me understand some bartending basics: types of ice for different cocktails, shaking, stirring, tasting each cocktail before sending it out to make sure I didn’t forget an ingredient, or mess up the balance. He also has other how-to videos that deal with smoking cocktails, barrel aging and carbonating. Carbonating a cocktail. Sounds cool, right? Well, it is. Having a delicious cocktail under carbon dioxide pressure brings hundreds of tiny bubbles cascading across your palate almost like Pop Rocks candy. Probably a poor analogy, but hopefully, the dots are starting to connect.

The morning after watching the carbonating video, I went to Amazon right away. I ordered an iSi culinary whip creamer (you can get one for about $85), and grabbed some CO2 chargers to go with it. A pack of 40 single cartridges will run you around $30 on Amazon. When they came in the mail, man, I was so excited I told everyone at work about it. I explained the process; I boasted why it could transform certain mundane drinks; I broke down how it would boost sales — like I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t. I’m confident that I annoyed everyone in a 50-foot radius. So, what was the first drink I carbonated? Distilled water. I put that baby under pressure, and marveled at how cool the aftermath was.

When I decided to mess around with cocktails, I wanted to start simple. So, a margarita it was. I added all of the ingredients into the iSi, sealed the top, and added a cartridge of CO2. I shook it up to ensure the gas was absorbed by the liquids, and then I poured it over ice. It was not good. What was wrong? I used the same recipe as always, so it took me a sec before my aha moment arrived — I forgot to compensate for the ice melting. You see, shaking and stirring a cocktail make these delicious drinks very cold, but the other, and most important, purpose ice serves is dilution. Realizing this, I remade the carbonated margarita but this time I threw in a half ounce of water with it. Just right.

If you’ve got an iSi or you’re thinking about getting one, I’ll break down how to throw a quick carbonated cocktail together. Before adding your ingredients to the whipper, make sure that the vessel is very cold; ice cold is even better. The same goes for your ingredients if you have the time. The colder your mix, the quicker and better carbonated it will be. Pour your mix into the whipper. If you’re making a drink that doesn’t already call for water (e.g., Gin Rickey), then you need to add about half an ounce of water per cocktail. Screw the top of the iSi onto its base and then add a CO2 charger. You’ll hear the gas enter the chamber, and as soon as the charger is empty, shake the whipper vigorously for seconds. Slowly pulling the handle at the top will let the excess gas out. You want to do this because there was air trapped inside the container before you sealed it. Yes, you are letting out some carbon dioxide, but that’s OK because you now want to add one more charger. When the gas fills the chamber, you’ll shake for another 10 seconds. Let your whipper sit under pressure for at least one minute. Slowly release the excess gas again by pulling the handle. Once all the gas is out, you can unscrew the top of the whipper. Pour your carbonated beverage into your glass slowly, or you’ll have a mess on your hands.

One of lesson I quickly learned when I put this into my bar program was that carbonating this way is not cost-efficient. If you haven’t already done the math, each soda charger costs around a dollar after shipping. Not only that, if you’re only making one drink at a time (you can do at least three per whipper) you’re wasting even more. Realizing this, I stopped carbonating cocktails at my bar, and pretty much only use it for carbonating my ginger beer (when the yeast didn’t do its job) and for cocktail foams. Yes, the whipper was originally intended for creams, foams and such. For these, you’ll need to order nitrogen chargers instead of CO2. I think the whipper is more suited for the home bartender. A pack of soda chargers will go a long way at your pad instead of using it at an establishment.

One of the ideas I had when conceptualizing what I wanted Reverie Cocktails, (my business,) to be was the ablility to carbonate cocktails and deliver them. So that’s what I did. A year ago, I had to relearn how to batch and carbonate drinks on a larger scale. (That’s a totally different article.) A ton of trial and error took place, followed by more error. Do you know what pouring out a messed-up 5-gallon batch of cocktails does to a man? Once I got my specs right, however, I was very pleased. You can try one of my many carbonated cocktails (Moscow Mule, seasonal Gin and TONYC, strawberry margarita).

Boy, I love strawberries.

I’ll leave you with a recipe I made when quickly carbonating at home (with my iSi) while getting ready for a wedding last summer. It contains mezcal and my TONYC syrup. Light, smoky and refreshing; this little gadget does wonders for waking up your taste buds.

Mezcal & TONYC

1 1/2 ounces Del Maguey Vida Mezcal

1/2 ounce TONYC

1/4 ounce simple syrup (2:1)

3 ounces distilled water

Carbonated Margarita

1 3/4 ounces Milagro Silver

1/2 ounce Cointreau

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup (2:1)

1/2 ounce distilled water

(To carbonate, follow directions in column.)  OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

True South

Strong Suit

Cards on the comeback trail

By Susan Kelly

Bridge is having a moment.

I know this because when I turned 50, my mother said, “If you don’t learn how to play bridge, you’re not going to have anything to do when you’re 70.” (Actually, she may have said, “You’re not going to have any friends when you’re 70,” which seems more likely.)  My mother grew up in a family so devoted to bridge that one Christmas I gave my grandfather an automatic card shuffling gadget from the Miles Kimball catalog. My grandmother taught me to “bridge” cards when shuffling, to impress all my friends at camp. In college, I watched sorority sisters play gut bridge, cross-legged on the floor between ashtrays and bottles of Tab.

Despite all this exposure to bridge, the only game I like is Scrabble — “And I’ll pay for your lessons,” my mother added.


Bridge is so hot right now that churches are offering lessons to lure —
I mean encourage — young people into the fold. Well, at least Charlotte churches are. What would Jesus do? He’d do Third in hand, high as you can. Strength before length, definitely.

Like every hobby, interest, or pursuit, any gathering of bridge players has its echelons of skills, plus PIAs and KIAs. No, not a car, but Know-It-Alls and Pains-In-the-…. Keisters. I have fiends, I mean friends, who go to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and exist on protein bars to play bridge 14 hours a day with 2,999 other duplicate devotees. Gatlinburg! That’s where you went to get married in a rush, last time I checked. Now it’s become a destination for card sharks seeking to become “life members” in an obscure organization. I’ve seen pictures taken covertly of participants at these events, and I’m here to tell you: Fanaticism is not pretty.

I prefer social bridge, which is less competitive, chattier, and includes snacks. Before bridge, I used to plan days with a two-hour free zone around going to see a movie by myself. Now, I get up a bridge game, with sesame sticks in place of my smuggled Sugar Daddy. After 5 o’clock or so, social bridge also includes alcohol, and soon after that, bridge morphs into dridge (drinking + bridge). It’s amazing how fast the importance of conventions and counting fades.

Naturally, where there’s a trend, there’s an industry not far behind. From bidding boxes — God forbid we should have to remember what we bid — to cutesy cocktail napkins, and needlepointed, monogrammed, lined-with-satin bridge table covers. I found a set of glasses decorated with spades and hearts and so forth in a vintage shop not long ago and pounced on them like Betty Draper in Mad Men, or that awful woman in The Help. This is what I’ve become.

That there is no bridge emoji is grievous unto me.

Bridge has its own lingo and etiquette, too. Point the “made” deck toward the next dealer. It’s illegal to inform someone whether they’re “on the board” or “in their hand.” It’s also illegal to “cut thin to win.”  “Wish tricks” are for amateurs. Coveting the rings and/or manicure of your partner is in poor taste.

It’s true: I made that one up.

The best reason for jumping on the bridge bandwagon is that, like crossword puzzles and replacing the metal fillings in your teeth, playing bridge supposedly staves off dementia. This theory, however, doesn’t exactly jibe with word from the retirement home that players are putting a napkin on their head to remind them of who dealt last. Still, Warren Buffett has said that, “I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had three cellmates who played bridge,” and who are you to argue with a billionaire? Your deal.  OH

In a former life, Susan Kelly published five novels, won some awards, did some teaching, and made a lot of speeches. These days, she’s freelancing and making up for all that time she spent indoors writing novels.

Scuppernong Bookshelf

April Showers

Bring a plethora of fine new reads

April brings nothing but new things, and in the spirit of new growth, we offer a smattering of new titles that will appear this month. Hundreds of books are published each month in America; we’ve narrowed it down to a manageable eleven.

April 4:

Somebody with a Little Hammer: Essays, by Mary Gaitskill. Pantheon, $25.95. Mary Gaitskill is a personal favorite. Here she writes about cultural touchstones like Talking Heads, Björk, and John Updike.

Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer, by Tom Callahan. Harper, $28. We all know someone who might pen a better Arnold Palmer book, but this one is also a major contribution to the “King’s” oeuvre.

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, by Anne Lamott. Riverhead Books, $20. Lamott brings another exquisitely sized essay to her adoring fans. One thing we know is true: We need more mercy.

No Bull: The Real Story of the Durham Bulls and the Rebirth of a Team and a City, by Ron Morris. Baseball America, $22.95. Let’s give Durham, and baseball, its April due. Has a minor league baseball team been as important to any other city?

April 11:

Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry, by Marcus Thompson. Touchstone $26. Another North Carolina legend. Has any basketball player been as important to any other college as Curry has been to Davidson?

The Delight of Being Ordinary: A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama, by Robert Merullo. Doubleday, $26.95.  A novel that makes us laugh as well as think about the demands of ordinary life, spiritual life and the identities by which we all define ourselves. The author of Breakfast with Buddha.

April 18:

This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren. Metropolitan Books, $28. The fight is already on. Scuppernong will have ten signed copies of this available on April 18.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, $25. A timely collection of speeches by David McCullough, the most honored historian in the United States — winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others — who reminds us of fundamental American principles.

A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry, by Grace Paley with an introduction by George Saunders. FSG, $27. Grace Paley is best known for her inimitable short stories, but she was also an enormously talented essayist and poet. A Grace Paley Reader collects the best of Paley’s writing, showcasing her breadth of work and her extraordinary insight and empathy.

April 25:

Two Paths: America Divided or United, by John Kasich. Thomas Dunne Books, $28.  Remember this guy? Things might have been different.

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book 3, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ben Stelfreeze. Marvel Comics, $17. Even if the People fall, can the monarchy still stand? The pieces are all in position, now it’s time for Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze to knock over the board as their revitalization
of Black Panther continues!

This month’s Scuppernong Bookshelf was written by Brian Lampkin

The Omnivorous Reader

Life on the Edge of a Small Southern Town

Crook’s Corner Bar & Café honors a terrific debut novel

By D.G. Martin

More than a thousand books connected to North Carolina are published each year. There is no way to read them all or even find and give recognition to the best and most important of them.

But we can try. One of the best things we can do is to establish awards and prizes to give shout-outs to the best books in particular areas of fiction, poetry, history, biography and so on.

One of the newest, and one of the best, of these recognition programs is the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Each year it honors the best debut novel set in the American South. The prize, inspired by the prestigious book awards long given by certain cafés in Paris, is a collaboration between Chapel Hill’s iconic restaurant Crook’s Corner Bar & Café and a sponsoring foundation.

Each year’s winner gets $5,000 from the foundation and a free glass of wine at Crook’s Corner every night for a year.

This year’s winner, Matthew Griffin, grew up in Greensboro and graduated from Wake Forest. He teaches writing, most recently at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Griffin’s novel, Hide, is the story of two older men who have lived together for many years at the edge of a small North Carolina town. Frank is a World War II veteran, tough-talking and covered with tattoos. Wendell is a taxidermist who serves the hunting community. These two hardly fit the caricature images of being gay. But they are gay, and they have paid a heavy price for it. For years there was isolation from family, and unrelenting and constant fear that, somehow, someone would blow the whistle to law enforcement about their illegal relationship and activities.

The greatest power of the novel is not, however, in any testimonial argument or inside look at the gay lifestyle. Quite the contrary, the story’s power comes from the tortured and tender way in which Wendell and Frank adapt to Frank’s rapidly deteriorating physical and mental condition.

When Frank suffers a stroke while tending the tomato plants in his beloved garden, the ambulance rushes him to the hospital, and Wendell follows. But because only family members are allowed to accompany Frank, Wendell tells the attendant that he is Frank’s brother. When he is asked to show identification, he fumbles and then tells the attendant he left his wallet at home. He is worried that if she saw his last name was different from Wendell’s, his lie about being a brother would cause more trouble.

As Frank’s condition declines, there is a growing emptiness in the lives of both men. No children or nieces and nephews or other family members show up to care for them or to claim little items that the men have treasured.

Frank’s loneliness is tempered by a little dog named Daisy that Wendell found at the pound and gave to Frank.

Frank is shattered when the dog is torn to pieces in an accident in his garden. Wendell, crushed by Frank’s loss, begins a project to use his taxidermy skills to re-create Daisy from the parts remaining from the accident.

One of the novel’s most poignant moments comes when Frank discovers the incomplete project and, though failing steadily, he falls in love again with the half-stuffed dog.

As the novel closes, this reader was moved not so much by the problems Frank and Wendell had as gay people, but the challenge of finding meaning at the end of life.

Wendell, who always fixed the meals, has trouble adjusting to cooking for just himself when the bedridden Frank eats only nutrient shakes.  He has too much time to fill and finds “the biggest danger of all is an empty space in the day. It’s easy, then, for the whole thing to break through and rush in and join the emptiness inside.”

“You just go on living,” Wendell says. “You don’t have to have a reason.”

The novel’s poignant story should not lead readers to overlook Griffin’s lovely writing. His description of a Southern funeral gathering, the process of breaking down an animal’s body and rebuilding it as a trophy, the joy and disappointments of gardening, sex, love and much more turns Frank and Wendell’s lives into poetry.

The major problem with Griffin’s first novel is that it will be difficult for him to write a better one.  OH

D.G. Martin’s UNC-TV North Carolina Bookwatch interview with Matthew Griffin will air Sunday at noon on April 30 and Thursday at 5 p.m. on May 4. Bookwatch also airs on the North Carolina channel Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Martin’s wife, Harriet Martin, serves on the board of the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation.

Life’s Funny

Cat-a-tonic State

Forget Fritz the Cat: YouTube videos are the new kitty porn

By Maria Johnson

I should start by saying that I really do like cats.

I grew up with them and was charmed by them — their cool, their quickness, their shivery leg rubs and throaty purrs, the way they lay their ears back and switch their tails when they’re about to go nuclear on little kids who have been trying to “help” them into a T-shirt made from an old tube sock with scissored-out arm holes.

Hey, it was the ’70s.

Adulthood, by contrast, has been one big slobbery Doggiezoic Period, owing first to rental restrictions and, later, to the fact that I married a man who is allergic to cats and who passed his sneezy genes to one of our sons.

It’s all good. Me-luva the hounds. But sometimes, me-missa the kitties.

Which is why I thought I’d like cat videos, but honestly my reaction has always been “meh” — or “meeee-eh,” as the case may be.

Cat videos, in case you’ve been curled up under a litter box, are clips of cats doing “funny” things. Over. And over. And over again. You can find them on YouTube and critter-centric websites like Squeebles, which boasts headlines like “This Tiny Kitten Inside an Oven Mitt Will Give You the Feels.”

Whatever that means.

If this weren’t enough, some Icelanders have launched a reality show called Keeping up With the Kattarshians, an adoption promotion featuring a live stream of kittens wearing too much eye make-up and living in a well-appointed, over-sized dollhouse.

OK, I’m lying. About the eye makeup.

I needed someone to explain this to me, so I turned to Anne Bailey, the wife of my colleague David Bailey, who has been known to scamper from the room, hissing and spitting, when Anne watches cat vids.

We met for lunch at a Thai restaurant. I almost suggested Vietnamese, but I didn’t want to seem insensitive. Anne brought her iPad as an instructional aide. David came along because . . . lunch.

In hushed tones, at a table in the back corner, Anne explained how she, a retired Latin teacher, became addicted to watching tiny kittens in oven mitts. It started innocently a year ago.

One of her daughters was like, “Here. Try this. You’ll like it.”

Anne had dabbled in cats earlier in her life, and she was able to walk away easily, so she was like, “Why not?”

She viewed her first cat video.

“The one thing I remember is cats running across a bridge someone had built in his house,” she recalled. “The cats had a little loop they could travel. They keep going and going like gerbils in a wheel.”

I think you know what happened next.

Kitties in the morning. Kitties in the evening. Kitties at suppertime.

From David’s perspective, here’s what Anne’s new hobby sounded like:

Whisper-whisper-whisper (of person shooting video). Thump-thump-thump (of cat action). BWAHAHAHA! (of Anne watching video).

Multiply by 65.

The purveyors of these videos preyed on Anne’s weakness. She’d check the weather online, and “Most Incredible Cat Videos Ever!” would pop up beside the partly cloudy icon.

She clicked on the catnip every time.

She rationalized her behavior. Maybe it was a waste of time, she told herself, but it was silly fun that she could share with her daughters, both cat fanciers. People wasted time in far more harmful ways.

How often did she watch the videos?

“Maybe three times a week,” she said over lunch.

David spewed his basil chicken.

Here’s the thing: David actually likes cats. He admires their regal bearing, their wildness, their curiosity and cleverness. Heck, even he laughs when one of his grand-cats climbs aboard his older daughter’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, turns it on, and cruises the room.

What’s demeaning, he says, is when people put cats in unnatural situations for laughs.

To that end, I asked Anne about a particular genre of cat vid: Let’s Throw the Cat in the Bathtub and Laugh Our Butts Off in an Eastern European Accent. She agreed those are cruel, but she also claims to have seen a video of a cat who loves water.

“When he’s lifted out of this beautiful porcelain bowl — I’m sure he’s a Japanese cat — he turns around and tries to get back in the water,” she says. “He’s so peaceful, like someone in a hot tub.”

David shook his head.

Anne said her favorite videos usually show cats reacting to other animals.

She powered up her iPad and played a short loop of a cat boxing with a praying mantis.

David and I stared at each other.

Then she called up a clip titled Cat/Kitten vs. Lizard, which can be broken down into these cinematic elements.

Kitten walks into living room.

Kitten sees two foot-long lizards on the floor because, you know, people keeps lizards the size of a teenager’s tennis shoes in their living room.

3) Kitten paws at one lizard, stalks it, forgets about other lizard.

4) Other lizard creeps toward kitten.

5) Kitten jumps as if it’s been plugged into a portable generator. Skids. Scrambles to its feet. Repeats electrification process.

David groaned.

“Don’t you think there’s something suspicious about the way that cat acted,” he said.

“No,” Anne said.

“I think he was on drugs,” David said.

“You’re coming off in a very bad light here,” said Anne.

To be perfectly honest, I thought the video was funny.

I mean, a little.

I went home and watched it again, just to be sure.

Then I found a variation, Cat/Kitten vs. Lizard, Star Wars Style, with laser graphics and sound effects added.



Wait. 19 Cats Who Are Totally Badass? Where’d that come from?

I guess one more video wouldn’t hurt.  OH

Do you have a bad-ass cat who chases dogs, alligators or black bears? If so, you might want to start watching that cat-adoption reality show. Then contact Maria Johnson at

Short Stories

It Ain’t Ova ’til It’s Ova

Break out your baskets, sharpen your elbows and hop to it for the Easter Egg-Stravaganza from 10 a.m. to noon at Burlington City Park (1333 Overbrook Rd., Burlington). The Easter lagomorph has done his usual hatch-it job of hiding candy- and prize-filled eggs throughout the park. Your mission, should you and your kiddies choose to accept it: Find the eggs, fill your baskets, enjoy some amusement park rides, face-painting, cookie-decorating and say “Cheese!” as you mug for the Easter photo booth. Info:

Garden Variety

Nothin’ like groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon. April 30 sees the return of Groovin’ in the Garden, courtesy of Greensboro Beautiful. From noon to 5 p.m. at Gateway Gardens (2924 East Gate City Blvd.), you can chill to the strains of live jazz on two stages, create musical instruments from recycled materials, commune with critters at a petting zoo and chow down on eats available for purchase. Or simply stroll among the green and blooming things — and be glad that spring is here. Info:

May the Fourth Notes Be With You

Will conductor Nate Beversluis trade his baton for a light saber? Find out on April 29 at 8 p.m. at Westover Church (505 Muris Chapel Rd.) as “The Symphony Strikes Back!” With a program that includes scores from sci-fi classics, Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and — cue the brass section — Star Wars, Greensboro Symphony winds up its pops series with a universal big bang. Tickets: (336) 335-5456 or

Batter Up!

Sorry, Aesop, but we applaud Grasshoppers who play in the sun! April 6 is Opening Day (and Thirsty Thursday!) for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, who’ll take on the Hickory Crawdads at 7 p.m. at the rechristened First National Bank Field (408 North Bellemeade St.). Can’t make the season opener? No worries! You’ll have plenty of opportunities to catch the Hoppers in the days following, during the week April 20–23, and of course, all summer. Keep an eye on various promotions, such as “Jim Boeheim (No) Value Night” on the 11th, which offers to any fan with a valid Syracuse, N.Y., drivers license a free ticket, $20 worth of free concessions and a meet-and-greet with retired Hall of Famer bat dog, Miss Babe Ruth. Reason enough not to, er, (Syr)recuse themselves from the Gate City. Tickets and info: (336) 268-2255 or

Any Wednesday

Forgo the woe, Wednesday’s children: Starting April 19 through December 22, the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market (501 Yanceyville St., Greensboro) is restarting its midweek hours. Every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (and Saturday, of course, from 7 a.m. to noon), you can restock your larder with turnips, lettuce, snow peas, carrots, greens, herbs, plants for setting out, farm-fresh beef, pork, lamb or chicken and eggs aplenty. Or pick up a bunch of flowers for your sweetheart or something sweet and sinful for an office meeting. Info: (336) 373-2402 or


Color your world and that of underprivileged youth on April 22 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the fifth annual fundraiser, Crayons Matter (Tyler White O’Brien Gallery, 307 State St.). The effort provides children in North Carolina, Africa, Central America and Dominican Republic with backpacks containing crayons, notebooks, colored pencils and pieces of art created by local school children. So come out and mingle and bid on crayon-inspired art at a silent auction. Info: (336) 379-1124 or

Shelf Life

In Catalonia, April 23 (St. George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday) marks the publishing industry’s homage to itself, as books and roses are exchanged as tokens of love — and a love of reading. In the Gate City, the entire month of April is an unofficial celebration of the written word, given myriad opportunities to browse and buy tomes of all genres. Through the end of May, the libraries are going full tilt with the children’s Spring Reading Fun initiative consisting of crafts, movies, nature exploration, book parties and lots of storytimes (including Thursday mornings at LeBauer Park). Central Library hosts its annual used book sale from the 6 through 8, as does the pre-eminent book extravaganza, the St. Francis Book Sale (April 27–29). Topping off the month is Independent Bookstore Day on the 29th, so patronize Scuppernong (304 South Elm St.) or Sunrise Books (7 Hillcrest Place) in High Point or whatever your favorite book nook happens to be, and see what the next chapter of your reading life holds. Info:;;;

Simple Life

My Big Spring Makeover

Confessions of a Second hand Joe

By Jim Dodson

On a fine spring afternoon, I dropped by the office on the way home from a local garden center — part of a rare day off that I was spending at work in my garden.

The stylish Miz Bobbitt, chief social arbiter and majordomo of our crack magazine staff, took one look at me and smiled, making a wry comment on my “rustic” appearance.

To briefly review: I was wearing my favorite clothes, including my oldest gardening pants and most comfortable canvas shoes, both soiled from years of loyal service in the dirt. I was also wearing my favorite flannel shirt (the tattered one with all the useful flap pockets), and my beloved — if somewhat faded and grimy — Pennsylvania Horticultural Society ball cap that once accompanied me through the wilds of South Africa with a group of crazy plants nerds in search of exotic species.

“This is how I dress when I work in the garden, my choice attire. I’m giving my garden a complete spring makeover,” I foolishly remarked.

“Well,” Bobbitt came back with perfect timing, “Maybe it’s time for you to have a big spring makeover, too!” She wrinkled her cute button nose. “And what is that smell?”

I pointed out that it was probably just the freshly composted horse manure I’d spent the morning hours working into my new perennial beds. Nothing like the smell of fresh, composted pony poop, I find, to get the blood moving and the spade digging!

Bobbitt, alas, didn’t seem overly persuaded by my argument.

“I know gardeners who at least look stylish when they work in their gardens,” she pointed out.

“My garden doesn’t care how I look,” I felt compelled to note. “Frankly, I could garden buck nekkid and my Ficus carica wouldn’t give a fig leaf.”

“Oh, please don’t,” came a second unseen female voice from deep in the office.

A third voice politely spoke up as well, also female. Also quite clever and naturally stylish. And also suggesting that the editor’s garden attire might benefit from a “nice tweak if not a complete spring makeover.”

A pattern seemed to be emerging. Was my late mom speaking to them from the grave? This was perhaps the only disadvantage of working in an office full of bright, savvy, stylish women.

“What sort of tweak?” I asked guardedly.

“Hard to know where to start,” said Bobbitt with a sigh.

“I’d start with the pants,” said coworker No. 2, shaking her head. “Those things look pretty frumpy.”

“And I think the shoes really have to go,” said my third impromptu style advisor. “They look like you found them in someone’s recycling bin.”

Actually, our man of the garden did find his favorite garden shoes in the recycling bin  — or, more accurately, saved them from his own recycling bin, where his wife placed them without prior consent. 

“For your information, these garden shoes are incredibly comfortable,” I pointed out. “Comfort is key when one is hard at work in the garden.”

“And what’s with the shirt?” posed yet another Voice of Spring Improvement. “It looks like it was made from one of my grandmother’s old flannel nighties. She died 20 years ago. That thing has more baggy pockets than an Elks Club billiards table.”

The women of our office all enjoyed a good chuckle at this witty barb. But Mr. Frumpy Pants kept his cool, more or less, by reminding his bright and stylish colleagues that some famous philosopher once remarked that pockets are a sign of a noble mind and truly civilized man — or at least a dude who can’t remember where he left his favorite Phillips-head screwdriver.

“Young men may prefer shirts with polo players stitched on them,” I spoke up on behalf of shabbily dressed male gardeners (who smell of manure) everywhere. “But people who toil in the Earth prefer shirts with roomy pockets in which to put valuable stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?” one of my makeover consultants asked warily.

“Lots of things — chewing gum, Gorilla Glue, tape measures, interesting stuff found in the dirt. ”

“I’ll bet you also enjoy doing your own laundry,” put in one of his immaculate inquisitors.

This brought another round of giddy laughs.

At this point, I picked up my wounded gardener’s pride and fled for the safety of my composted manure pile.

Truthfully, one glance in my direction (with or without a telltale whiff of horse) will tell you that I’m not much for new and stylish clothes — and I’m certainly not a good candidate for a big spring makeover.

Not to place too fine a point on the matter, but I prefer old clothes and well-worn shoes that could soon be on their way out to the rubbish bin (unless I keep an eagle eye out for my wife’s eternal and discreet efforts to update my clothing tastes without my even noticing the change). 

She would firmly deny this characterization, of course.

In fact, the love of my life artfully pretends that I’m actually a snappy dresser like my father before me.  But every time she catches me painting in my only good pair of “church khakis” or digging up a shrub in the yard before an evening out at a formal event — as I did just weeks ago, in a (somewhat old but loyal) soup and fish — the impulse to makeover her somewhat 19th-century husband is simply too strong to remain politely disguised for long. 

Dad really was a snappy dresser, subscribing to the notion that a well-dressed fellow is a man in charge of his own sweet destiny. As a very successful man of the advertising trade, he believed in the power of a well-fitted suit and highly polished shoes. “Look right and feel right, ready to conquer the day’s challenges,” he liked to say with an infectious cheerfulness. His generation wasn’t called the “Greatest Generation” for no good reason — including the way they dressed.

My older brother, Richard, clearly caught Dad’s drift. He might have been the best-dressed dude who ever attended Grimsley High School. To this day, Good Old Dicky Boy looks like “a million bucks” even in his most casual of attire. He never needs a Big Spring Makeover. His life is a perpetual spring makeover.

Not so, alas, his kid brother. 

My favorite sports coat is a classic herringbone Harris Tweed jacket I bought for three dollars at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Thrift Shop in Southern Pines seven years ago. It fits perfectly save for the genuine leather button that always falls off. I gained possession of this keepsake from some anonymous but pleasant fellow who is now only a memory to his loved ones, yet held in highest esteem — and abiding gratitude — by the man who inherited his favorite sports coat.

I have several other sports coats, mind you. Many of them have been mended over the years and reflect my own personal “style” of dressing for personal rather than cosmetic effect. Even when I play golf, which next to gardening is my idea of a true return of spring, I wear old, two-button polo shirts (white preferred) and my oldest and most comfortable khaki pants.

Still, I’m not entirely close-minded on the subject of how I look. I suppose every man can do with a spring makeover of some kind, give or take a saucy colleague.

To this end, the weekend after I caused a mild disturbance at the office owing to my rustic clothes and horsey smell, I picked up The New York Times’s popular “Men’s Fashions of The Times” just to see if anything caught my fancy — or, as it were, what I might have missed since my last spring makeover two or three decades ago.

I saw lots of underfed young men wearing suits that appeared to be three sizes too small for them. Dudes proffering moody frowns, vacant stares, saddle buckles, dog chains, violent stripes and zany plaids. Guys who looked like young girls with bad facial hair wearing jackets that look as if they’d been made from the drapes of a Mafia-owned motel. Fellas wearing formal wear with sneakers. Undershorts that cost $420. And on and on.

In a word, it was terrifying — but also kind of comforting. There was nothing for an old second-hand, tweed-loving fellow like me in the exciting world of men’s spring style for 2017. Truthfully, not one blessed thing even remotely suitable for spreading composted manure in one’s garden.

Greatly relieved and no April Fool, I went to get an old-fashioned haircut, my idea of a big spring makeover.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at