Home Grown

A Diamette a Dozen

Dialect, diamond chips and decadent desserts

By Cynthia Adams

“There’s someone on the phone saying you won a free Diamette!” Don exclaimed from the kitchen. Grabbing a towel, I clambered out of the tub as he uttered:

“We just need to order a year’s worth of vitamins.”

My South African hubby pronounced this, “VIT-ah-mins.”

He appeared at the bathroom door, a new cordless Radio Shack phone in hand. “She’s on the phone now!” 

Clamping his palm over the receiver he whispered, “What’s a Diamette?”

Slick with bathwater, I visualized a pin-sized diamond chip and mouthed, “NO! Don’t do it!” Did it matter that there was no such thing as a Diamette — it was probably just a clever workaround for some trademark like Diamanté?

Deeply enamored of telephones and TVs, Don emigrated from South Africa, where required government permits for either were challenging. Channeling Elvis, he now wanted them throughout our tiny cottage — so small we could have used cans and strings.

In South Africa, local calls, too, were billed by the minute, so telemarketing was unknown territory.

There were many landmines in the Land of Free Markets. And Don was a total innocent when it came to bogus giveaways and promotions.

“In this country, everything is legal until you’re told it’s not,” he solemnly noted.

I never got the Diamette, whatever it was purported to be.

There was a lot for me to learn, too. Sometimes, our separate realities were exactly as George Bernard Shaw once said: countries divided by a common language.

One evening, we returned from work to a frigid house. The irritable oil furnace, normally belching and rumbling, had gone silent. 

Being handy, Don figured he could fix it. From beneath the house, he shouted, “Bring me a torch!”

I blanched. Wasn’t he from Johannesburg — not the wilds of Borneo?

“That may be something you use back home,” I retorted, “but I would not bring you a lighted torch even if I had one!”

He reappeared upstairs, face smudged, looking annoyed. “I cannot see without a torch!”

We stared, both incredulous.

Don pantomimed, clicking with his thumb: “A torch! A light?”   

A flashlight.

There were more such moments.  “Al-YOU-minium” is his word for foil, the stuff you wrap around baking potatoes.

Born in a land of abundant seafood, Don explained at the market that prawns are a specific crustacean.

“Shrimp differs.” 

The checkout woman bet I “married him for his accent.” I glowered at her.

Afterward, we placed our groceries in the boot (trunk). He patiently explained the bonnet (the hood) and cubbyhole (glove box) as we parsed out automobiles. 

When our furnace died that famous night, Don went in search of a jersey (sweater). My sweatshirt, it turns out, is his sweater. 

“One of those things with a logo on it! Part of a tracksuit,” he explained.  Which I knew, at least then, as a jogging suit. 

Those, I believe, have gone the way of the dodo bird.

We spent months in linguistic bafflement. Just when we were progressing, we visited South Africa for Christmas. Now the tables were turned.

The only snow Don had ever seen was in the Drakensberg Mountains during winter — our summer.  But it seemed South Africans liked nothing better than decorating windows with fake snow and cavorting snowmen as vibrant yellow acacias and tree-sized poinsettias bloomed.   

The family Christmas tree reminded me of Charlie Brown. A pitiable, sorrowful thing.

I resisted snapping a shot to show folks back home, mesmerized by a line of ducks walking a plank into the swimming pool to escape the sweltering heat, while awaiting my first South African holiday dinner. 

For dessert, the tour de force: fruitcake encased in a shell of marzipan, and a flambéed Christmas pudding. Unbeknownst to me, silver heirlooms, lucky tokens, were baked inside. 

I swallowed mine before noting others raking through each morsel.  Mortified, I concealed all evidence and prepared to walk the plank. The Diamette, like the silver token, was a lost cause, and it appeared that in the culture wars between a South African and an overly smug American, so was I.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

The Pleasures of Life

Prayers to Santa

The night was bleak, but the Big Guy delivered — sort of

By Ashley Walshe

When you’re 5 and the sole object of your desire can only come from the mythical Dude in Red, Christmas morning is a very, very big deal.

But suppose you spent the night someplace else on Christmas Eve. Could Santa still find you? And if he couldn’t? What then?

These were all very, very real questions, none of which I’d considered until Christmas Eve, 1992, when, at the last minute, I was told we’d be spending the night at my grandparents’ house — three grueling hours away.

My pint-sized stomach was in knots. I wanted to stay strong for my younger brother, I really did. But the further we drove, the bleaker things looked. My breath grew shallow. My mind raced. I could slip into a tailspin at any moment.

Perhaps you don’t understand the gravity of my situation. I’d been waiting an entire year for Santa to bring me a Puppy Surprise. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five whole days. Have you any idea what kind of veritable agony that is for a such a small and anxious human? Each time I saw the commercial — “Surprise, surprise! Puppy Surprise! How many puppies are there inside?” — the pang of desire intensified. I ached to hold that plush toy dog and the — which would it be? — three, four or five puppies packed inside its Velcro tummy. Frankly, my life was incomplete without it.

And yet, as Christmas drew near, I began to see the light. I’d held up my end of the bargain, after all. I’d been good. Very good. I was certain that Santa would reward me. That is, until my parents threw a wrench in our Christmas.

My grandparents’ house was located nearly 200 miles away from our two-bedroom apartment. Small potatoes for a flying sleigh, you might say. But this type of detour could really screw up Santa’s route, especially so last-minute. If only I had time to send him a map.

“Can you call Santa to let him know where to find us?” I asked my mom. “Pleeeease?”

I knew she had his number. In fact, she’d once used it to rat me out for squabbling with my brother. It was a close call, but the Big Guy kept me on the Nice List when, sobbing, I repented. I dropped to my knees, vowing to forsake my naughty ways forevermore.

“He knows where to find us,” Mom replied.

“But how?” I asked. And how could she be so sure? It was Christmas Eve, after all. Had she considered that Santa was a bit preoccupied with the list-checking and whatnot? A change of address seemed like something that could easily slip through the cracks.

I felt helpless, lost and scared. And so, I did what any young Catholic child might do. I closed my eyes and prayed to Saint Nicholas.

When we pulled up to my grandparents’ house, Papaw greeted us outside with Charo, the cream-colored teacup chihuahua whose apple-shaped dome was slowly breaching my grandpa’s breast pocket.

“Merry Christmas, grandbabies,” said Papaw, eyes twinkling.

As I wrapped my little arms around his great, round belly, Charo suddenly emerged from his pocket, growling and gurgling like a tiny, adorable demon.

I loved all dogs, but that 4-pound terror was the very worst kind of puppy surprise.

She bared her teeth at me. I cried. Christmas Eve couldn’t have gotten any worse. 

I must have stayed up half the night fretting. Puppy Surprise was all I’d ever wanted, and quite possibly all I’d ever need. If Santa couldn’t find us here, what would I do? Would I have to wait another full year for my fur baby and her darling litter of three, four or five? I wasn’t sure my tiny heart could take it.

Fortunately, I worried myself into a deep and peaceful slumber. In the morning, I discovered the miracle of all Christmas miracles: Santa had come!

I woke up my brother, and the two of us sat in the dark, tails wagging. We knew better than to wake the adults before 6 a.m.

Well, perhaps you know how this story ends. I tore open my Puppy Surprise and pulled out one, two, three little bean bag pups from the mama dog’s underside. It was thrilling, but surely there were more. I dug my small hand deep into that Velcro pocket, but — surprise! — it was empty.

Rats. I’d asked Santa to stuff five puppies in there. I don’t know why he didn’t. It was really all I ever wanted.  OH

Ashley Walshe is a longtime contributor and former editor of O.Henry.

O.Henry Ending

Dreaming of a White Dog Christmas

Learning a lesson in holiday expectations

By Cassie Bustamante

I’ve heard it said that the key to happiness is to lower your expectations. No one knows that better than a parent who has carefully plotted a Big Christmas Surprise.

Christmas morning of 1988, dressed in my ruffled flannel nightgown, I bounded down the stairs, making a sharp left turn into the living room, where our tree glistened with presents underneath. And there, like a beacon of light, I spied the gift I’d wanted with my whole 10-year-old heart.

My mother stood behind me, her permed curls askew from sleep and her excitement about the brand new 10-speed Santa had delivered written on her face. I ran towards the bike and quickly snatched Fievel, the squishy, behatted, floppy-eared mouse from An American Tail, off the seat and swung him in my arms with a squeal. I hadn’t even noticed the bike.

Now, as a mother of three, I fully understand the disappointment my parents must have felt, anxiously awaiting my thrill over the “big gift” they’d saved up to purchase, only to have it trumped by a seemingly silly object. Because it’s happened to me.

As all life-changing events in our household, it began with a conversation with my husband, Chris.

“This might be the last Christmas Emmy believes!” I insisted. “Just picture how magical it will be when she comes down the stairs to see a puppy of her own under the tree.”

“But we already have two dogs,” he reminded me.

“Well, what’s one more?”

It’s rare that Chris tells me no, especially when it comes to his only daughter.

A couple of months later, I crawled out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas morning to sneak away to a friend’s house a half hour away, where, as a favor to me, she was fostering the rescue I’d chosen for Emmy. The puppy was mostly white, a calico miniature schnoodle — a “designer” cross between a miniature schnauzer and a miniature poodle, a really prized breed. However, because this fancy little mutt was born deaf, the breeder had rejected her.

As I raced home to beat the kiddos’ inevitably early wakeup, the curly-eared pup snuggled in my lap, blissfully unaware of the stress — and utter excitement — I was feeling.

With about 10 minutes to spare, I made it. We set the puppy’s small carrier in the living room next to our tree and put her inside while we anxiously awaited the pitter-patter of footsteps from above. Meanwhile, the puppy had found her voice, sounding the rise-and-shine alarm throughout the house.

Soon enough, Emmy’s face appeared in the doorway as I beamed, hands clasped at my heart. It was finally here: the moment I’d been picturing for months!

“A sled!” She shrieked, dashing to the tree where the cheapest orange plastic saucer Walmart sold sat. “Santa got me the sled I wanted!!!”

Despite the high-pitched yelps and commotion, she hadn’t noticed the puppy. 

The moment wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. While I was initially disappointed, perhaps in the end we got something better. Just like my own parents, we now have a story we retell — and laugh about — each Christmas as a reminder that the kids will be happy, no matter how big or small the gifts. And we, as parents, will, in fact, discover that holiday magic if we just let go of our expectations.

As for Snowball, the fluffy white pup, she just turned 7, and our family’s love for her has long outlasted that traffic-cone orange sled. And while she can’t hear it, the bell still rings for the rest of us, as it does for all who truly believe in Christmas magic.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is managing editor of O.Henry magazine.



We were birds then

at thirteen, a chime

of wrens chirping,

carbonated goddesses

blowing bubbles,

spilling secrets,

dancing the latest dances,

we did each others’ hair,

practiced kissing,

gossiped (a girl’s

first step toward insight),

we shook the magic eight ball,

could not imagine

a path toward our future —


we only knew we didn’t want

our mothers’ lives,

taking dictation,

cleaning up messes,

hiding tins of money,


we were angels falling,

wingless, trusting

the wind to lift

our bodies of light

far above the silver

water tower,

to let us down kindly

somewhere, anywhere

wild and broad and new.

— Debra Kaufman

Debra Kaufman’s latest collection of poetry is God Shattered.

A Cressman Christmas Carol

A historic Irving Park house glitters with Christmas present and the stories of those past

By Cynthia Adams

Photographs by Amy Freeman


The house spoke to me,” the expression goes. If it speaks, what does it say? Does it whisper of families past, who have infused the very walls with memory and meaning?

Lisa Cressman, who is passionate about the story of her family’s home, knows as well as anyone that houses have a dynamic all their own. Case in point: Add a rich backstory to a beautiful house, surround it with neighborly people and you’ve got a powerful elixir. Next, add a dash of serendipity. For good measure, add a dusting of Christmas sparkle — courtesy of Lisa’s favorite time of the year. All combined, you’ve got true magic within — and without — those walls.

But for years, Lisa didn’t know the Colonial Revival house she adored was truly meant for her all along. As soon as it became hers, a cast of characters worthy of Dickens’ Christmas Carol walked straight out of its past.

Lisa’s story begins in the stifling heat of July 2019 — with Christmas six months away. Her heart suddenly raced with the realization that this particular house was meant for her family. It was a wedding cake of a house: perfectly, pleasingly symmetrical, filled with character, and beautifully maintained.

The Cressman family moved to the Triad 21 years ago, relocating from Canada. Nathan, president of Magnussen Home Furnishings, worked in the company’s Greensboro offices. The family business was established by Lisa’s grandfather, Ingwer Magnussen, a carpenter who immigrated to Canada from Germany in the late 1920s. Lisa had long admired a particular Irving Park charmer when cutting through the neighborhood. She considered it “the most beautiful house in Greensboro.”


But the Cressmans, including Lisa and husband Nathan, plus college-aged children, Ty, 22, and Georgia, 21, were already settled, having just “built and moved into our ‘forever home,’” she says. 

The Cressmans’ Summerfield house was set on five acres, with high ceilings built to accommodate their son’s height — 6-foot-7. And, yes, he plays basketball — for Auburn, which his younger sister also attends.

But everything changed one summer’s day.

“Nate was looking on Zillow,” Lisa recalls, on a Saturday in late June, “when he noticed a nice house for sale in Irving Park.” Lisa stepped over to the computer to look at the listing, feigning interest. “I had no desire to move,” she admits. And then she changed her mind.

“I said, ‘Oh, that’s, like, my favorite house in Greensboro!’” Even so, she didn’t want to move, but was curious. “I acted like I was interested,” she confesses, wondering if the interior equaled its exterior. Realtor Marti Tyler scheduled a showing of the recently vacated house. Lisa and Nate arrived for the appointment with their daughter, Georgia. “But I stepped into that house and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this house!’ You could feel the soul,” says Lisa, describing her surprising, visceral reaction.

Lisa whispered to her daughter, “I could live here.” Georgia replied, “I could, too.” She describes the moment in the way one describes a great love match: with a shock of realization and recognition.   

An excited Nathan asked Lisa, “Are you for real?” Lisa was already aware he was ready to leave the country and move into town. When she nodded yes, Nathan wasted no time.

“OK,” he replied. “Let’s put in an offer.”

Turned out the Cressmans’ Summerfield home wasn’t forever after all. But this was! And what a contrast between the two houses. The historic Mebane house, listed on the National Register, was over a century old. According to Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, it was among the earliest constructed in Irving Park, quite possibly the second built.


“I can say with confidence that the Robert Jesse Mebane House was built 1912–1913 and designed by A. Raymond Ellis,” says Briggs. (The first, at 301 Wentworth Street, is profiled in “Southern Revival,” in the October 2016 O. Henry. See ohenrymag.com/southern-revival/.)

The stars had aligned — something that was to happen again once the Cressmans entered the house’s magnetic force field. Lisa sensed that the seller’s Realtor, Marti Tyler, loved the integrity of the house and was pleased to learn the couple wasn’t interested in a teardown. The three-story house had already been expanded by prior owners, was recently updated and was spacious by any standard

Lisa recalls assuring Tyler that she didn’t want to tear the house apart. “We wanted to preserve the house. I’ve always loved that Gilded Age, turn-of-the-century era,” she stresses.

By August 19, a home she had admired but never guessed she would possess became her own. And that “forever home”? It was on the market.

Not all the Cressmans were thrilled. Although “Nate and Georgia were with me on the decision,” Lisa says, “Ty was so annoyed that we moved. He wasn’t very happy when he came to visit. He did hit his head in several places . . . The house wasn’t built for people so tall.”  He quickly adjusted.

Lisa discovered a neighbor, Chip Hagan, grew up in the house and now lived only blocks away. The Hagan family had lived in the Mebane house for the longest tenure in its provenance. In the 1960s, the Hagans had acquired the house from Robert Edward Holt’s widow, Frances Garner Holt, after his death.


As neighborhood block parties became a way to connect with others during the pandemic, the Hagans and Cressmans soon met and became friends.

Then Lisa met Frances Taylor during Christmas holidays in 2021. Taylor’s mother, Martha (Marty) Holt Ruffin, had grown up in the Mebane house. Ruffin’s mother was Frances Garner Holt, the same widow who sold the house to the Hagans. That connection led to a chain of discoveries, including a trove of vintage photos of the Holts at home over years.

“Through the preserving of the house, we got reconnected with the house,” marvels Lisa.  “There are stories, histories — connection with the people who lived here. That has been the joy of living here, honestly!”

Slowly, the Cressmans unearthed more about the home’s unusual beauty and condition. It had always been lovingly maintained, as photos and history revealed. With the trusted assistance of Canadian transplant and longtime friend, Magnussen designer Sil (Silvana) Lewis, the historic Mebane house received the Cressmans’ personal imprint.

“It’s a house loved by generations of people,” says Lewis, who is also involved with decorating the home for the holidays.

The Cressmans moved in during September three years ago. Before long, Lewis was planning the first Christmas decorations in the family’s new house.

By Christmastime each year since, the house is completely decked out in strands of twinkling lights. Windows and entryways are wreathed in greenery.

The exterior trees, shrubs, windows and doors are infused with more glimmering lights, and bedecked with ribbon and holiday sparkle. And it is magical to behold.

The setting itself was planned to best effect — over a century ago. And the park-like neighborhood, populated with elegant homes set on generous lots, was designed for a pleasing impact.

Irving Park was intended as the “urban ideal,” set a mere mile from city limits, soon after the development of nearby Fisher Park. According to Briggs, it was created in 1911 by the Irving Park Company. Alexander W. McAlister, Alfred M. Scales and R. G. Vaughn were central to the neighborhood’s planning.


At that time, Briggs writes, the once rural development was created as a “planned, heavily restricted and landscaped community that set a standard for suburban development in Greensboro for the next century and establishing it as Greensboro’s most exclusive neighborhood.”

And executives responded to the luxury of spacious lots and homes. The original owner of the Cressmans’ home, Robert “Jesse” Mebane, was a busy executive who juggled multiple roles.

“At the time of construction, Mebane was assistant manager, Southern Life and Trust Company, though later acquired new titles and interests [developer of Durham’s Hope Valley and owner of Mebane Motor Company.] “In the 1920 Census he lists himself in the automotive industry as a distributor, and he lived next door to Aubrey Brooks . . . which was true,” says Briggs. “Around 1924 he sold the company to his brother-in-law, Rossell. The company was renamed Mebane, Rossell, Cress, Inc.” The house remained Mebane’s for 10 years, before buying another and moving just around the corner. 

Yet the Mebane Colonial Revival was graced with a balanced design and pleasing symmetry. A steep, slate-covered gambrel roof, front and rear shed dormers, tapered brick chimneys, and a central, classical entrance porch combined for charming effect. The west side featured a sun porch and symmetrical boxwoods lined the front walk.

A century later, the home is in fine fettle, thanks to the ministrations of the families who once lived there.

The Cressman family would come to know some personally. Three years later, Lisa smiles thinking of eureka moments. But first — back to August 19, 2019, when the Cressmans’ offer was accepted and the home became theirs.

The house had six baths and five bedrooms, unusual for the period. The third floor was once servant quarters, according to Marty Ruffin, who moved there in 1947 as an 8-year-old with her brother, Ed, and her parents.

“Then the Hagans bought it,” confirms Marty. “My father had died, and so my mother built on Lafayette.” Thereafter, she says it became best known in the present era as the “Hagan house.” After Lisa met Martys daughter, she urged Frances to bring her mother for a holiday visit. The house, which featured countless confection-colored tabletop trees and too-many-to-count full-sized trees, twinkled like a star ready for its close up.

Lisa welcomed Marty and Frances for tea last December, igniting an immediate friendship. Marty, now 83, was overwhelmed with nostalgia. She had not returned to her childhood home since her marriage in the early 1960s. “I never had gone back,” says Marty.

“It was such a delight to go — sixty years later,” she muses. “I cannot even believe it!”

Marty laughs, “And, I did not realize my room was so small!” As they explored the house together, Lisa plied Marty with questions, curious about the diminutive closet doors and other idiosyncrasies. Like all old house lovers, she mentioned often visualizing the house and those who had lived there in years past. Marty brought photos to share with Lisa, and they happily pored over them, spread across the kitchen counter.

In an extraordinary way, both women expressed love for the house. And it was especially beautiful when all dolled up in holiday finery. “We believe Christmas is much more than Christmas lights,” says Lisa, who chose to be a Christmas bride in 1996, when she married Nathan. Of course, she had long known Nathan, as their parents were best friends.

“My mom so loved decorating for Christmas, so I inherited it from her,” she says. “It’s a time to bring the people you love together. I love Christmas for that reason . . . I think that is when we do make a house a home!”

She was only 19 when she married Nathan during Christmas 26 years ago. She wore a fur-lined cape that kept her warm in the midst of Canadian cold. Of course, she would marry at Christmas, she smiles. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”

As has long been the case, the spirit of Christmas manifests early in the Cressman household. Lisa decorates before Thanksgiving. (Canadian Thanksgiving falls earlier.) “The lights on the tree at night — I decorate early so I can enjoy it! I have people over for tea, and we’ve had neighborhood parties. And connect again, with neighbors who share stories about the house . . .”

The holidays are the starting point of so many things the owners hold dear: family, tradition, even their wedding anniversary.

“A home is who lives there, and the memories that are created,” says Lisa. “I am so happy. That was the draw; I don’t know why, but she (the house) felt like a grand old lady to me!”

Over three years, the serendipitous has become the norm for the Cressmans as people continue to enrich the story of their home.

“Even people who would walk in to do the renovation, would say, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember when my dad did the floors 50 years ago,’ or, ‘My parents used to come here when they were teenagers.’ There is a thread through the neighborhood about this house,” says Lisa, “and fond memories. And you’re a part of the story. Preserving the history.”  OH

Socially Skilled

Profile of an up-and-coming Greensboro influencer

By Maria Johnson

Photographs by John Gessner

As they prep for a podcast called “The Chewing Grounds,” host Luan K. Do (just call him Loon) and his guest, Griffen Glover, are hanging out in the show’s green room, which is actually the living room of Loon’s brand new, three-bedroom, two-bath, still-smells-like-paint home in southwest Greensboro.

The guys are pumped, literally, having just returned from an upper-body workout at the gym where Griffen, Loon’s friend since first grade, used to work as a trainer. The chat turns to social media and how many followers Loon has across all platforms.

Instagram? Probably 21,000 or 22,000 people, Loon estimates.

His YouTube channel? Maybe 5,000 subscribers.

“Does Facebook count?” Loon muses. “I really don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn any more.”

“Do you have TikTok?” Griffen quizzes.

“I have the app, but I don’t really focus on it,” says Loon. “I need to, but I want to pay someone to do it . . . Dude, it’s the future. It sucks, but it’s the future.”

Loon consults the invisible calculator in his head. Yeah, he confirms, he definitely has fewer than 40,000 followers/friends/contacts, which lands him squarely in the territory of “micro-influencer,” meaning he makes money — an average of $200 a month — by posting social-media content that attracts viewers and thus advertisers, but not as much money as a “macro-influencer,” or someone with an audience of 100,000 or more, a status that Loon, at the ripe old age of 25, hopes to reach.

“Maybe in a couple of years,” he says. “If I could do that, it would be amazing.”

But first things first. It’s time to record the podcast. The guys walk a few steps into the studio, aka Loon’s kitchen. They perch on low-backed stools, facing each other across a breakfast bar and pull on headphones. Two cameras — iPhones mounted on tripods — are trained on them. Later, Loon will edit the video into a split-screen view for YouTube. The audio will be uploaded onto multiple podcast platforms.

To start recording, Loon hits a button on the digital mixing board in front of him, pops an energy drink next to a microphone — fizzzzzz — pours the contents into a couple of ice-filled glasses, hands one to Griffen, offers cheers, and slides into the unscripted frolic that begins with recollections of an elementary school field trip, sidesteps into a promo for their “strawbango” flavored drink  — “This would go good with alcohol,” Loon offers — and pivots into a long gym-bro discussion of fitness.

“How much you weigh right now?” Loon asks.

“One seventy-three.”

“What’s the biggest you ever got?”

“One seventy-five.”

Loon exhales with admiration. “Do you ever get, like, sweats?”


“That’s immaculate,” Loon says. “The highest I’ve ever, ever pushed myself was 165, and I felt like dog shit. I was sweating, and the sweat smelled bad, like pizza grease.”



Online life comes naturally to Loon, who spells his name like the bird because it’s the correct pronunciation of his given name, Luan, which most Americans butcher along with his last name, Do, pronounced “dough.”

Born in 1997, at the dawn of Gen Z, Loon remembers seeing his family’s first computer in the early 2000s. He was 5 or 6 years old. The machine was an outdated desktop, probably bought at a discount, with a monitor that reminded Loon of a humungous human head.

“The keyboard was dinky-dinky,” he says. “We’ll go to a museum where they’ll talk about technology, and I’ll be like, ‘That was in my house.’”

He played video games such as “Galaga” and watched turn-of-the-century movies, including Shrek and Rush Hour, on pirated CD-ROM disks provided by a family friend.

When he was about 10, he got his first cell phone, a hand-me-down Nokia that looked like a small calculator. It had a screen, buttons and offered one game, Tetris, in black-and-white.

He also created an account on Myspace, an early social-networking site.

“It was a dumpster fire of the randomest things ever,” he laughs, adding, “You could make your background really cool.”

At age 12, he owned an Xbox video gaming console and started a YouTube channel to post tutorials on how to build teams with bargain-basement players in the FIFA video soccer games. He drew a lot of negative feedback.

“They could tell I was a kid, and that I had no actual knowledge of soccer,” he says. “And I couldn’t pronounce anyone’s name.”

With his father working as a licensed plumber and his mother working in a factory that made car parts, Loon says he and older sister Thao were spoiled — with an asterisk.

They got as many material things as their parents could afford on a limited budget.

They also got spanked and grounded if they brought home disappointing grades.

“Asian-spoiled is not like American-spoiled,” Loon says. “I got to struggle, but I didn’t get to struggle like my parents.”

Loon’s father, Quang, was one of nearly a million “boat people,” refugees who fled war-ravaged Vietnam after America ended its presence in 1975.

He spent seven years in a Malaysian refugee camp known as “Hell Isle” before the camp started repatriating refugees. Quang went back to Vietnam, where he met Loon’s mother, Suong Tran. They started a family and finally got a chance to immigrate to the U.S. in 1998, after a Lutheran church in High Point agreed to sponsor them. Loon was 13 months old.

The family lived in a string of apartments before buying a small home off of Merritt Drive in Greensboro. Loon made it through Western Guilford High School with minimal corporal punishment at home — thanks to a combination of charm and cheating in class, he says. He took a student loan to attend UNC Wilmington, where he majored in business and pledged a fraternity.

“I was trying really to be an American white kid,” he says. “I found myself later.”

After selling insurance for a summer.

After becoming a personal trainer.

After figuring out that he wanted to work for himself.

“I don’t like working for someone who’s working for someone who’s working for someone,” he says. “Everyone is only looking out for themselves. They’re like, ‘Oh, you need to do better so I can look good.’”

His role model for self-employment, he says, is his sister, Thao, who’s 10 years older and whom he describes as “a superstar,” “a beast,” and “a juggernaut.” A graduate of UNCG, she owns two nail salons, a waxing studio and a beauty school. She hired her little brother to help manage the businesses about the time he rediscovered the magic of YouTube — as both a consumer and producer.

“I learned everything I know from YouTube,” he says flatly. “I don’t read.”

In 2016, he started posting fitness video blogs, or vlogs. Some focused on body-building. Some focused on healthy food. The nutrition pieces got more clicks.

Viewers also gobbled up the restaurant scenes he shared from a Los Angeles trip.

“I actually got, like, 7,000 views, which is high for my channel. I usually get, like, 2,000 or 3,000,” he says.

Loon saw a market for city-based food vlogs. Ahead of a trip to Atlanta, he arranged for restaurants to give him free meals in exchange for exposure.

In Cary, a pizzeria gave him food and $50 to boot.

In Raleigh, he did a four-part feature and asked each place for food and $100.

“I did 16 restaurants in Raleigh, and I made, like, $1,400,” he says.


As his YouTube subscriber base grew, YouTube started placing targeted ads in his vlogs and paying him based on the number of views.

He expanded his audience, calling ahead to establishments in Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and New York. He did the same when traveling abroad.

In vlogs full of jump cuts, spastic camera work, overlaid music and occasional segues nicked from the Sponge Bob cartoon — “twen-ty minutes lay-tah . . .” — viewers watched him eat, drink and be merry in England, France, Italy and Greece.

His focus wasn’t entirely commercial, though.

Some vlogs amounted to home movies.

“Carolina Beach Travel Blog 2021” captures a family trip to celebrate his niece’s sixth birthday.

“Guess What I Got!” focuses on opening Christmas presents and making cookies at his sister’s house a few months later.

Those are the vlogs he shows his parents, whose grasp of English is limited.

“I want to make my family proud,” he says.

His parents were happy, he says, when he showed them an Instagram video he produced for Crest toothpaste and Reach toothbrushes. The mini-commercial shows Loon forgetting his dental kit on a trip, then jumping for joy when the self-propelled toothbrush and toothpaste — they’re being pulled by a barely visible thread — catch up to him.

He made more than $1,000 for the spot.

“They paid you that much — for that?” his mother said in Vietnamese when he showed her.

His father smirked his approval, Loon says.

They also beamed when they saw him earlier this year on I Can See Your Voice, the Fox network’s TV game show hosted by Korean-American comedian Ken Jeong, who spent some of his formative years in Greensboro.

Loon is pretty sure his Instagram numbers — along with his age, gender and race — caught the eye of the show’s casting agent. The Greensboro connection probably didn’t hurt. Loon lasted for one episode and brought home $15,000, which he promptly applied to his home’s mortgage.

The outstanding balance is not as much as you might guess. Loon’s down payment was more than a third of the home’s cost because he cashed out part of his investment in the electric car company Tesla. Loon learned about the company and its founder Elon Musk — whom Loon jokingly calls “Daddy Elon” — by watching YouTube videos.

Still a shareholder, Loon says he has doubled his Tesla money since 2019. He also holds blue-chip stocks like Apple and Microsoft.

“I’m not book smart,” Loon says. “But I’m really street smart.”

To share the secrets of his financial success, he launched a YouTube channel devoted to personal money management in 2020. Shedding his earrings and covering his tattoos with a white shirt, suit and tie, he told the story of how he paid off the loan for his slightly-used car in three years.

“I’m a very frugal person, very minimalist,” he explained, exhorting viewers to follow his example. “Do anything you possibly can to lower your expenses. Don’t worry about the now. Worry about the later.”

The financial channel never caught on, but Loon is still devoted to building his coffers.

He plans to buy another house, move into it and rent the one he occupies now. He wants to repeat the process until he owns several homes and lives off the rental income.

At that point, his payments from social media will be gravy. A bigger payoff will be a heightened profile — he’s easily the most visible Asian person on social media in this area — and more connections to other influencers, brands and communities.

“I see it as a means to everything,” he says. “It satisfies my need for attention, but it also gives me so many fun adventure opportunities.”

He’s cutting back on food and travel vlogs to focus on other projects. One is stand-up comedy.

“I have material. It’s just a matter of time,” he says. “I’m also getting a license to tattoo. These are all side quests.”

He plans to continue the podcast, which sports a mouth-and-tongue logo strikingly similar to The Rolling Stones trademarked “hot lips” emblem.

Loon says he had no idea about the resemblance until his then-6-year-old niece Lana was shopping and saw a phone case bearing the rock band’s logo.

“Oh, my God,” she told her mother. “Uncle Loon is famous.”

With more than 70 podcast episodes completed — most running at least one hour — Loon dips into a reservoir of people he knows well, those he barely knows and those he wants to know. Conversations range from raunchy to wonky, from sketchy to touching.

Previous guests include former Greensboro mayoral candidate Justin Outling; Asian country singer Travis Yee of Las Vegas; and Loon’s best friend and roommate, Zoran Kulic, whom he has interviewed at least three times.

“He’s the perfect person when I can’t find another guest,” Loon says.

Then there’s Griffen, his friend from first grade, who is featured in episode No. 62.

The topics swing wildly, touching briefly on what Loon describes as Griffen’s “really good morals.” Loon wonders aloud how Griffen was affected by his dad’s death at an early age.

“I just know, him looking down on me, he’d want me to continue going,” Griffen says.

“Dude, that’s immaculate,” says Loon, speaking so quickly it’s almost indecipherable.

Then they’re off to trendier pastures.

One week later, the show appears under the provocative title, “Guns, Cults and How to Lose Weight Easily.”  OH

Christmas from the Garden

Deck the halls with boughs from your own yard

Story by Ross Howell Jr.

As a boy, I enjoyed bringing the outside inside for the holidays.

On our mountain farm, I’d cut a white pine tree, gather running cedar, snip hemlock and rhododendron boughs, and harvest black pinecones and spicewood.

Nowadays, these native wild plants aren’t readily available to most of us. But we can cultivate our gardens and yards for holiday decorations.

My go-to person on this subject is Shirley Broome of Farmland Flowers in McLeansville. Shirley started selling plant sundries at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market as a little girl alongside her mother, Margaret Rumley, fondly remembered to this day by marketgoers and vendors as “Mom.”

Shirley mulls my question about growing plants for Christmas.

“Well, back in the day I worked a lot with holly and pyracantha,” she says.

“But those stickers and thorns,” Shirley adds. “They just got to be too much for my fingers.”

These days a favorite of Shirley’s is black cryptomeria, a compact evergreen tree. New foliage emerges in bright green shades and gradually darkens until it’s nearly black. The dark needles and layered branches provide attractive landscape contrast, and cuttings are great for your holiday table or mantel.

There are the old standbys, of course — boxwood, red cedar and juniper. These plants are available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes to fit the design of your garden. And regular winter pruning for a wreath or an arrangement can help them stay healthy and happy.

And I love using magnolia branches and leaves for decoration. Their litter can be too much for some gardeners, but, for me, their beauty and wildlife value are well worth the work.

Magnolia grandiflora is a big tree that needs lots of room, but the little gem varietal is a compact tree that can even be planted as a border.

Both provide heavenly white blossoms in spring, glistening, dark foliage year-round, and, if you beat the squirrels and birds to their fruit, velvety, brown,
cucumber-shaped pods sparkling with red berries.

And who hasn’t marveled at the spectacular scarlet berries of nandina shrubs?

“My favorite is the dwarf nandina,” says Shirley. “It keeps its foliage year-round and changes color with the seasons.”

She cautions that while dwarf nandina is pretty in the garden, it doesn’t grow as symmetrically as its larger relative.

“Sometimes it will sort of clump here and there,” she adds.

I mention aucuba, since my wife, Mary Leigh, has fond memories of her mother arranging its shiny and speckled foliage to decorate the fireplace mantel for Christmas.

“It wants to spread,” Shirley answers. “I just didn’t seem to have the space for it in my garden.”

Shirley likes working with American beautyberry, a fully deciduous shrub that sheds bright yellow fall-like foliage completely in winter. But its gorgeous purple berry clusters remain well into the colder winter days. There’s also a white variety that produces pearl-like berries.

A floral favorite of Shirley’s is the single or signet marigold, Tagetes tenuifolia.

“I really like its pungent fragrance,” she says. These small, delicate flowers can also be eaten, so you can use them to garnish a holiday plate.

Sedum, along with Christmas or Lenten roses, are other late plants Shirley likes for the holidays. In addition to their blossoms, the stiff foliage of the roses provides excellent foundation in arrangements.

“For support and contrast,” Shirley continues, “I like adding bare branches from dogwood or river birch.”

Another tree Shirley uses in her arrangements is eucalyptus. If you plant it in your landscape, put it in a sunny spot, and select a cold-hardy variety.

But the most overlooked Christmas plant?

“I’d say moss,” Shirley answers. If you have a shady, moist spot in your landscape, try propagating it. “Moss is wonderful for covering your potted Christmas bulbs, like amaryllis and narcissus,” she adds.

Year-round for Christmas, think outside inside, gardeners!  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer. Contact him at ross.howell1@gmail.com.


December is a frosted window, a singing kettle, the busying of hands.

Beyond the glass, the breath of winter settles upon the still earth like a blanket of glittering lace. The garden withers. The air grows bitter. The cold sucks the life from the glistening landscape.

Yet, for a few precious hours, the wild ones stir.

As the sun thaws the silvery earth, critters emerge from their hideaways.

Birds flit from feeder to swinging feeder.

Deer feast on turkey tail mushrooms; paw for acorns; chomp on chicory and sunchoke roots.

Mice sniff out seeds. Rabbits munch on winter buds. Hawks watch from the naked trees above.

Inside, time is measured by cups of tea — earthy, dark and sweet. The fire crackles. The kettle sings. Quiet hands ache to make things:

Sourdough loaves studded with walnuts and dried figs.

Gingersnap cookies thick with blackstrap molasses.

Stovetop potpourri swirling with pine, orange and warming spices.

Winter wreaths woven with wild grape and honeysuckle vines.

Beyond the window, night comes early. The air grows frosty. Critters disappear with the dwindling light.

You stoke the fire, tend the kettle, nurture an ancient knowing growing wilder in your winter bones.


Long Nights Moon

The Cold Moon rises on Thursday, Dec. 8. Also called the Long Nights Moon and the Moon Before Yule, this month’s full and luminous wonder will share the limelight with a bright and strikingly visible Mars. With the Red Planet at opposition (meaning the Earth is positioned between it and the sun), Mars will appear brighter than all the stars.

Speaking of lustrous marvels, the Geminids meteor shower will peak on Dec. 13 and 14, illuminating the night sky with up to 120 meteors per hour. As its name suggests, this celestial pageant will emanate from the constellation Gemini, but here’s a hint: Just look up.

The final meteor shower of 2022 happens in tandem with the winter solstice on Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year. Although it’s hardly as eventful as the aforementioned Geminids, a dark sky makes conditions favorable for the Ursids, a minor shower that peaks with up to 10 meteors per hour.

May your nights be merry and bright. And your New Year, full of light.


Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.      — Mary Oliver


Where the Sunchokes Shine

’Tis the season for Jerusalem artichokes, which are not, in fact, from The Holy City. Nor are they artichokes. These tasty tubers, also known as sunroots, sunchokes, wild sunflowers and earth apples, were first cultivated by indigenous peoples. When Italian settlers discovered this yellow-flowering plant, they dubbed it girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. The blossoms do look a bit like sunflowers, but they are actually more like daisies. Anyway, “girasole” became “Jerusalem” over time. You know how it goes.

Assuming the ground isn’t frozen, the tubers can be harvested all winter. Then what?

Scrub them, slice them and toss them with oil and spices.

Roast them until tender. Sauté them with garlic. Pan-fry them with butter and sage. You’ll figure it out.

A root by any other name would taste as savory and sweet.   OH