Embarrassment — a legacy?

A number of years ago, a local classic rock radio station advised, “Turn the volume up and sing along loudly. Embarrass your kids.”


It’s probably in the nature of the job for parents occasionally to do or say something that their offspring find embarrassing. Some may do so more often than others. Usually, it is unintentional. Sometimes the purpose may not be to embarrass the son or daughter, but there’s no thought given to avoiding the embarrassment. I’ve been on both sides of this, as you likely have also.
Sometimes the embarrassment is delayed.


There were two times etched in my memory in which I was laughed at — to the point of mild embarrassment — for doing something I had learned from my parents.
They fixed fried eggs sunny-side up. They cooked them in bacon grease. To get the top sufficiently done before the bottom overcooked, they used the frying pan spatula to splash the hot grease up on the egg. It was a rapid, continuing motion for a few moments.


I was using this method, as I always did, one morning at their house. A visiting member of the extended family observed and said bemusedly, “You’re going to beat that egg to death.” Now, aside from the fact that I was not touching the egg at all, I was blindsided by a critique of my following what seemed a perfectly good way to get my eggs just so.


When my father stirred sugar into his coffee or tea, he rapidly moved the spoon back and forth, making a not-unpleasant ringing sound as the spoon rhythmically hit the sides of the cup or glass. I adopted this same method, it never occurring to me to stir any other way. Until . . . .


Late in my college years, I was about to enjoy a glass of iced tea with a couple of other people. I put in some sugar and stirred as I always had. I had never noticed any reaction from anyone up to that point. This time, however, a peer smirked as he watched (and listened).


After those two incidences, I never again fried an egg or sweetened a beverage using those methods. There have been times when I’ve repeated something my parents said or did something I learned from them that caused me embarrassment, and I’d wished they’d set a different example. Yet, in these instances, I didn’t, and still don’t blame my parents, from whom I picked up the techniques, for my embarrassment in these situations. My resentment is reserved for those who chose to react as they did.

A Friday night college experience

One Friday night, early in my senior year in college, I gathered with four other English majors at a bar across the street from campus to wind down after a long week. (The University still had Saturday classes at that time, but some of us had discontinued them for ourselves.)

After a couple of beers, we were about to leave when two professors from our department made an entrance. I’m pretty sure this was not their first stop of the evening. We were in a corner both. They sat down, one on each side, trapping us in.

They proceeded to ply us with more beer while they debated fine points of English literature, which had not been a part of any of our discussion to that point. One was Irish American, complete with red hair. The other was a transplanted Englishman with a commanding presence. The intensity of the discussion grew with each pitcher. It got personal at times. “Castrated Celt!” “Nerd from Northumberland!”

When they finally left, we sat there in a state not unlike shock. One of my friends broke our silence with, “I feel drained.”

We all enjoyed our classes and were serious students. Yet we valued strategic breaks from our studies.

We stumbled out and wandered through campus in a gentle, early-autumn rain. It seemed to be the best way to recover. The rain eased our minds as it slowly penetrated our clothes. That was good enough for most of us. The two females in the group, however, took it a step further. At the construction site of the new student union, they acted on an impulse to roll in the mud.

It didn’t occur to me until decades later to write about the experience. I wonder what the Celt and the Nerd would think of this meager literary attempt. I don’t doubt they would find a way to argue about it.

What I wish I’d said — round two

In an early post on this blog, some three years ago, I mused about things I wish I’d said in various situations. You know how it is. You think of exactly the right thing to say — moments, hours or days later. Sometimes I’m just too shocked to think of a response. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing. Sometimes it’s not that I can’t think of a good reply, but the opposite: I think of too many appropriate responses to choose just one. So, I stand there running through the menu in my mind while saying nothing.

In that post, I shared a few examples. Very few. Here, in no particular order, are more. I offer them for your amusement. I’m fairly certain you can identify.

During the get-acquainted time at the beginning of a statewide committee serving a charitable organization, I said, “I live in Chapel Hill and work at the university.” The chair was a graduate of another school and lived where it is located. She cynically remarked, “THE university?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in reply, but what I meant was, “Yes, there’s only one university in Chapel Hill. If I were from Greensboro or Raleigh, I’d have specified which university. If I lived where you do and worked at your alma mater, I would’ve said, ‘the university,’ It’s like saying, ‘I work at the post office.’ “

Unfortunately, what I was able to compose at that moment was not this lucid.

(Later, a guest of our committee was a UNC medical faculty member. He introduced himself, “I live in Chapel Hill and work at the university.” The chair didn’t say anything, but I’d bet she was biting her tongue.)

__________

Some years ago, a friend and classmate was looking forward to a new grandchild. Both the friend and his son had been talented college football players, while the other grandfather played in college and the NFL. I was having lunch with the prospective granddad and dad, and we were speculating about the chances of there being a third-generation football star. Then my classmate said, “Of course, it could be a girl, and that would be fine, too.”

What I wish I’d said was, “Mia Ham’s a girl.”

__________

I was meeting with alums of a group in which I’d been active in college. We were planning a reunion. It was suggested that we have a live performer. Those who knew me in college knew I played gigs regularly, often for pay. I said, I’d be glad to play and sing gratis for a half hour or so.

As the discussion continued, someone said we should hire someone to perform because a freebie wouldn’t be that good.

What I didn’t say, but regret not doing so, was, “OK. In that case, I’ll do it for $100.”

__________

Over many years, I worked out in a gym on the UNC campus. For a couple of years, a graduate student from China had a locker next to mine. He was often there at the same time, and we talked regularly.

Shortly before Thanksgiving in one of those years, he was asking me about the holiday and its traditions. I wish I’d invited him, his wife and their child to our house to share Thanksgiving dinner.

__________

A friend was justifying sending his daughters to boarding school at an early age. “Birds push their babies out of the nest after a few weeks.”

What occurred to me, but I chose not to say, was, “And when those baby birds are a year old, they have babies of their own and after 2-3 years, they die.

__________

When I was in theological school, societal issues of the day were often discussed. Most students and faculty had progressive views, and several could be rather outspoken. This did not sit well with one of my classmates. He referred to them as “prophets,” and he didn’t mean it in a positive way.

To help decorate the student lounge, I hung a collage I had done, using newspaper photos depicting current events, affixed to a large poster advertising a campus symposium in which such events were discussed. I didn’t take sides on any issue, but rather tried to present a slice of history.

After a few days, I found that someone had glued a handwritten note onto the work, referring to our school as a “home of the prophets.” I had a pretty good idea who had done it. I removed the vandalized collage.

A few days later, I heard that classmate lamenting that there were “so many prophets on campus.” I thought of saying, “Yeah, I know what you mean. Some prophet recently destroyed one of my works of art in the student lounge.”

__________

Many more times that I could begin to count, a conversation has (usually quickly) gone in a direction that has made me want to say — though I usually don’t — “Not everything is a competition.”

__________

At one point, I devoted a lot of volunteer time to a charitable organization to which I also gave generous financial contributions. A local church had raised questions about a policy matter. I was involved in a private conversation in which one of the leaders of the organization derisively referred to that congregation as “those Southern Baptists.”

I could’ve said, and wish I had, “The Southern Baptist church in which I grew up is where I learned to be philanthropic.”

__________

I expect a person to be loyal to their alma mater, including supporting its athletic teams. But some fans are just that — fans and nothing more. They choose to root for whatever team for whatever reason.

Often, it seems the supporters who go overboard in expressing their support are not those who in fact went to said institution.

There have been times when such a person has become so obnoxious, I’ve been tempted to ask, “And what year did you graduate?”

__________

In a discussion via text or email, some cable TV show came up. One person stated that they figured they could find it “since we have 120 channels.” After a couple more comments, I mentioned that we didn’t have cable or a dish. That person’s retort? “Braggart!”

What I chose not to type was, “Let me get this straight. It’s not bragging when you say you have 120 channels, but it is bragging for me to note I have five or six?”

__________

After a church talent show, in which I’d offered a song from “back in the day” — maybe “If I Were a Carpenter” — a friend joked, “You must have been a hippie.” If I’d replied, “I’ve been called worse,” the friend would’ve appreciated it.

Another year at the same event, the printed program grouped my performance and a few others under the heading “It’s a Little Bit Country.” Before the show, I was looking at the program with a friend whose group was on right after me. He saw that and said, “Which country?”

If my thinking had coalesced in time, I would have introduced my song — George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” — from the stage by relaying my friend’s comment and saying, “In this case, the country is England.”

__________

Many years ago, at some kind of meeting, I encountered someone who was a friend of a friend. As we introduced ourselves, she said something to the effect that our mutual friend had been right about my being good looking. That’s, of course, not something I usually (or ever) hear, but if I hadn’t been so dumbfounded, I could’ve said, “I never tire of hearing that.”

__________

I think it was at the conclusion of my second year of college, the last year I returned to my hometown for the summer. That first Sunday evening, I attended the summer college-age youth group. We began by going around the circle of 8-10 people to say where we were now in school.

One of the first attended a school that had recently changed from “college” to “university.” She gave only the name, but another person quickly added “Uni-ver-si-ty!” After that, each person was sure to add an emphasized “col-lege” or “uni-ver-si-ty.”

I was last. I said simply, “I’m at Chapel Hill.”

One guy, who attended a rival school in another state, felt a need to add “college.” I think my non-verbal response, just a subtle facial expression, said all that needed to be said. (Translation, “What a pathetic comment.”) Yet I could have said, and considered doing so, “Yes, in one of the many colleges within the university.” Or maybe, “Yes, I just completed the General College and am entering the College of Arts and Sciences in the fall.”

__________

It was a mid-’60s group discussion of race relations. The leader supported integration and was accepting of interracial romantic relationships. He drew a line, however. He had read or heard about some “young people” having an interracial orgy. The way he said it betrayed a belief that somehow this was more immoral than a monochromatic orgy.

My attempted response, something about swinging the pendulum, was a swing and a miss. I couldn’t get my thinking together enough in that moment to speak directly to what I saw as a problem with his comment.

I realized a day or more later that I wish I’d said, “So if I rob a bank with a Black accomplice, is that worse than if I rob a bank with a white accomplice?”

__________

Seeing me with my then-five-year-old daughter, a colleague smiled and asked, “Who’s this?”

Too late to say it, I came up with, “A big reason I bother getting up each morning.”

__________

Many years ago, I participated in church league softball. One Sunday afternoon, I took my accustomed place at third base as warmups began. Someone I didn’t recognize was at shortstop. When the first baseman threw a ground ball over to me, I scooped it up and gently threw it back.

After a couple of these, the shortstop said I shouldn’t play as deeply since my arm (it seemed to him) was weak.

What popped into my head was, “Who died and made you the coach?” I opted only to stare back incredulously.

Another thing I thought about saying but didn’t, because I didn’t think I owed it to him, was, “These are warmup throws. Throwing as hard as you can without first warming up can cause injury. That’s the purpose of warmup throws. And I play back this far, because it’s much easier to run forward than backward.” (I considered throwing the final warmup well over the first baseman’s head.)

Looking back on the incident later, I imagined offering a short piece of fiction: “Well, I made it to Double A, playing this way.”

I think my non-verbal reply was fine, but eventually I came up with one that also would have filled the bill: “No, I’m fine, but a shortstop has to handle a lot of hot grounders and line drives and bad hops. It may be too much for you. Maybe we should switch positions.”

__________

I’ve always looked for underlying meanings in everything, especially music. A high school teacher seemed to be challenging me when she asked what was the underlying meaning of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Ode to the Little Shack Out Back,” a song about outhouses that was popular at that time.

I thought a moment and came up with something about its being a spoof on people who can’t let go of the past. That seemed to meet the challenge but didn’t feel exactly right.

Eventually, I came to wish I’d said, “It’s just for fun.”

__________

While visiting with some people in Germany, I mentioned that my wife and I often turn on the closed captions when watching a British TV show, because we can’t always understand what the characters are saying.

My hosts seemed surprised. I knew there were many different Duetsche dialects and imagined some might differ from their own as much as British English differs from mine. I couldn’t come up with a reply based on this notion. But maybe I could’ve asked how they fared listening to a German-speaking Swiss person.

__________

At a UNC football game many years ago, Fed Ex Corporation provided free t-shirts with a school-spirited message on the front and a Fed Ex logo on the back. Sometime later I was wearing mine in a context other than a game. It caught the eye of someone who admired it and asked if I’d added the Fed Ex logo. No, I said, it came that way. They paid for it.

He was a Fed Ex employee (or maybe former employee) with such good feelings about the company, the logo was what he liked best about the shirt. He was envious.

When I told someone else later about this encounter, that person pointed out I should’ve offered to give the admirer the shirt in exchange for a Carolina shirt without a commercial ad on it.

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

It wasn’t about coffee

As I noted in a previous entry, I used to post good-grammar reminders on Facebook but stopped nearly a decade ago. Since then, I’ve avoided venting openly, despite regular fingernails-on-the-chalkboard reactions to frequent assaults on our mother tongue on Facebook and elsewhere.


I have tried to demonstrate good grammar in my FB posts and comments. When I could do so without being too obvious, I’ve slipped in a response that followed a rule of grammar violated in the original post.


For example, say the post was, “Today’s sunshine made it a nice day for Zelda and I.” After several other comments, I might enter, “It gave Nancy and me a chance to do some hiking.”


Then, in May of 2018, I came up with another way to demonstrate good grammar subtly. As with the pre-2014 posts, I had no illusions of educating anyone, and my entries most certainly were not directed at any individual. It was just a way to vent. Well, maybe I also wished it might be like hiding a pill in a piece of meat before giving it to a dog.


Unlike in an incident I described in another, unrelated post, I was trying to be “sneaky.” Using colorful backgrounds Facebook offers for short posts, I created a series of memes. The first read, “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” There were a number of “likes” and an enjoyable discussion of the wonders of coffee.


But it wasn’t really about coffee. It was about “too,” “to” and “two.” “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” These are among the homonyms that can confuse some people. This phrase showed all three used correctly.


I created the memes while having my morning coffee. So the invigorating brew was a natural subject. The next two also had coffee as a theme.


The second was “It’s time for coffee to work its magic,” demonstrating a difference between “it’s” and “its.”


(In an English-class assignment during my junior year in high school, I wrote an “it’s” that should have been an “its.” My teacher, one of the best I ever had, circled the error and wrote “Ouch!” in the margin. A teachable moment. Since then, when I see the mistake, I think “Ouch!”)


A few days later, I attacked the often confusing (for some) “you’re” vs. “your” with “Early starts can be difficult, but after a little coffee, you’re on your way.” See? You’re on your way.


In the comments, I was able to add a treatment of “they’re-their-there.” I noted, “Not too difficult, though, because I’m headed to 7 a.m. Bible study. Some don’t have coffee at home before they leave. They’re content to wait to have their first cup there at the church house.” (Italics inserted here.)


And then there’s always the apostrophe. Very useful but often misused. I had already addressed the it’s-its problem. Also troubling is that many people seem to think the letter S must always be preceded by an apostrophe.


The Carolina Hurricanes once had a goalie named Peters. In a Facebook discussion, I saw a fan insert an apostrophe before the last letter of his name. His name! More recently, on a Seinfeld-themed page, someone did the same in a reference to Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer. “Richard’s” either means “belonging to Richard” or is a contraction of “Richard is” or, occasionally, “Richard has.”


One day I came up with a way to show the apostrophe’s proper use in a possessive and its proper absence from a plural: ” ‘Hey Jude’ was 1968’s top hit and one of the biggest for the 1960s.” It generated some discussion of music and memories associated with that song.


At another time — maybe a couple of times — I’ve posted, “If you visit the Bectons’ home, you may see two or three Bectons, and you might get to hear Daniel Becton’s music.”


I don’t know if the subliminal messages about grammar registered in anyone’s subconscious. I’m sure the number would be between zero and “pretty small.” Likely closer to zero. But in any case, thinking up the posts was fun and a worthwhile mental exercise for me.


Hold onto your hats. Chances are you’re going to see more of these nuggets later in the 2020s. They’re forming in my mind, and I won’t want them to stay there.

Mays stole the show at my first MLB game

I had low expectations for the first Major League Baseball game I attended. While I appreciated the sport, it couldn’t promise the action of football or basketball. Still, when the opportunity arose, I didn’t hesitate to add this experience to my list. As it turned out, that game exceeded my expectations — with room to spare.


I was college senior, on the 1969 spring tour of the University of North Carolina Men’s Glee Club, which had evolved from the traditional rah-rah college glee club to a men’s chorale. Our itinerary took us through Atlanta, where some free time was built in.


The San Francisco Giants were in town. A group of us went to the then-four-year-old baseball stadium for the game. We had good seats along the first-base line. When a foul ball disabled a seat on our row, our director joked to the singer sitting nearest, “You should’ve had that.”


Willie Mays came into the game with 299 stolen bases. No one had ever hit 300 homeruns and stolen 300 bases. Mays, of course, had more than 300 HRs by that point, He just needed one more SB to become a group of one.


The first time up, he got on base. I can’t remember now if it was via a hit or a walk. On the first pitch to the next batter, he took off. As the years have passed, the play becomes less and less close in my memory. The game paused while the PA announcer said, “With that steal, Willie Mays becomes the first player in major league history to hit 300 homeruns and steal 300 bases. [Pause] So, Willie, here’s the base.”


A grounds crewman (and they were all men in those days) came running out, pulled up second base and handed it to Mays. Someone came from the Giants’ dugout to get the prize as a new second base was installed. It was the first time — and one of the few ever — I saw a visiting player honored during an athletic contest.


That historic moment made me glad I was there, and there was even more entertainment.


The first time Felix Milan came to bat, he took a pitch to the side of his head. It was obviously an accident. I don’t remember any hint of rancor. He was OK and took his base.


Later in the game, the light-hitting Milan came to bat with the bases loaded. He put it over the fence — one of the total of 22 homers he hit in 5,791 plate appearances in the 1,480 games of his career.


One wonders: If the bean ball had followed the grand slam, might there have been some rancor?


In any case, the game kept me engaged throughout. Instead of the 1-0 or 2-1 score I had expected, Atlanta won something like 8-2.

Random rants for a Monday morning

In no particular order.

–I wonder how many people who seem to take issue with Thomas Wolfe’s book title “You Can’t Go Home Again,” have in fact read the book.

–If a person “wants to thank” someone else, why not go ahead and just do so?

–There is one noun whose plural form correctly employs apostrophe-S: Apostrophes.

–Someone addicted to alcohol is an alcoholic. I hear the terms workaholic and chocoholic a good bit, but I don’t know anyone who is addicted to workahol or chocohol. I don’t even know what those substances are.

–To me, saying “Happy Birthday” means “congrats on achieving this milestone.” The hope is that their everyday is happy, not just that one. Oh, and when the greeting is offered a day or more later, it is the wish that is belated, not the birthday.

— I wonder how often “I hate to tell you. . . ” means “I am enjoying telling you.”

— From time to time, I see in social media discussions, letters to the editor in the newspaper and elsewhere, someone state his/her (I think it’s almost always “his”) viewpoint and then conclude with “end of discussion.” Does this strike anyone else as presumptuous? Close-minded?

–There is an appropriate response to “Thank you.” That response is “You’re welcome.” When I hear “No problem,” I usually wonder why there was ever any question that might be a problem. I read an explanation in “American Scholar” a while back, in which the writer conjectured that human interaction has become so problematic that it must now be necessary to acknowledge those times a given interaction is problem free.

A search for life’s meaning

In a different context, my children are collecting my answers to various posed questions. One of the more challenging ones has been “What do you think is the meaning of life?” Here’s my attempt at an answer.

Now there’s a question that needs more than a few paragraphs. The answer — or, rather, the search for the answer — has filled countless books. I guess one might conclude that the meaning of life for a philosopher is to discover the meaning of life. No, make that “to search for the meaning of life.”

The same also could be true for theologians. Looking at it theologically, the meaning of life might be said to be trying as much as possible to emulate the Creator, in whose image we are created. “God is love” (and thus “Love is God”), we are taught. Along this line of thought, love gives life meaning — loving others, loving creation, and acting on that love. And let’s not leave out embracing the creative process itself. Being creative can also give our lives meaning.

This is consistent with the notion that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Searching online for “meaning of life” yields some philosophical links, but at least as many literal explanations: Life means not dead or inanimate. We are still breathing, and we’re not rocks. There may be some food for philosophical thought there.

Yet, we don’t have to be philosophers, theologians or scientists to find meaning in life. We can — and, I think, often do — look for meaning in small ways, seeking answers to small questions that provide some clues to what life is essentially all about.

[Really, many of my posts on this blog speak to the question, “What do you think is the meaning of life?”]

Most of us don’t think constantly about the “big picture,” but rather look for meaning on a daily basis. Something you see, hear, feel, observe, recall or maybe just sense that causes you to feel, at that moment, I’m glad to be alive.

To innovate or not to innovate

There have been times when wearing my minister hat, I’ve tried to be innovative. Sometimes that has worked better than at others. Here’s a couple of those other times.

In a sermon many years ago, I was trying to share how the spiritual dimension of art could help one be more aware of the spiritual side of existence. I read two poems that, I thought, exemplified this. They were not “religious” poems — no “God language” or anything like that. They worked because they suggested that life is more than physical, and their lyrical beauty was ethereal.

Afterward — maybe a couple of days later — one person told me she and another congregant thought I could’ve just read poetry for the whole sermon “and gotten away with it.”

Gotten away with it? Maybe, in a backhanded way, she was saying she got the point about poetry, but I wasn’t trying to “get away with” anything. I was trying to share an experience, using the poems to illustrate part of what I was trying to communicate didactically.

On another occasion, I was called on to offer the blessing before a luncheon in a non-church setting where I was working at the time. I had heard Garrison Keillor say that the purpose of a meal-time blessing is to remind us that we already are blessed. This resonated well with me. I decided to give that point a go.

When called upon, I quoted Keillor, then asked each person to think seriously about something for which they were especially thankful. After a moment of silence, I said, “Amen.”

Almost immediately, someone came up to me and with a sly grin said, “Sneaky!” Sneaky? I wasn’t interested in playing some kind of trick on people. My intention was to help them feel more blessed than they might’ve if they’d heard some potentially trite words and phrases.

Well, you try, and maybe give yourself at least a B+ for effort.

Art vs. science in the kitchen

To me, “recipe” means “suggestion.” If I run across a recipe somewhere that looks interesting, I will follow it — at least to a great extent — the first time I try it. If I decide to repeat it, I refer less and less to it each time. Soon enough, I begin making something of my own based on that original formula. At least as often, I look at recipes to get an idea of what ingredients go well together.

I think of my personal “recipes” as “the way I cook things.” That can vary a little from meal to meal. Besides those based on “suggestions” or observation, others have come about by my trying to recreate something similar to a dish I’ve had in a restaurant.

When I began cooking — and I cannot pinpoint a date — I relied on what I had observed others doing. Early on, I built meals around a pork chop or hamburger in the frying pan or chuck steak under the broiler. Primary seasonings were salt and pepper, plus Worcestershire sauce for pork chops. I generally followed the meat-vegetable-starch menu (usually potatoes for beef, rice for pork).

Later, when my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I replaced salt with a salt substitute I make from scratch — based on a “suggestion” I read in a newsletter. I found that Worcestershire sauce works on a lot more than pork chops. I learned about more and more spices and incorporated them into appropriate dishes.

Early on, I added meat loaf to my repertoire and it’s still a regular. Key ingredients are finely chopped green pepper and garlic, as well as ample tomato sauce.

Spaghetti sauce is something else I began developing a long time ago. Use ample Italian spices, preferably fresh, and cook — in an iron skillet — slowly for a couple of hours.

I’ve always really enjoyed fried chicken. As a young adult I started trying to prepare it and got pretty good at it. Later in life, to try to be a little healthier, I developed an alternative to frying. Now I brown the flour-coated pieces in the frying pan, then bake them. Over a bed of rice— even better. Best yet, add a sauce using the broth you can make by putting a little water in the frying pan, scraping and stirring.

I still, however, occasionally can’t resist the Friday fried chicken special at my local supermarket.

Over time I added roasts and whole birds, baked in the oven. You can bake other things along with them — definitely potatoes, onions and mushrooms and with pork, apples, sweet potatoes and celery. I’ve also thrown in squash, green peppers and even green beans. Baking fresh garlic cloves is always a delicious possibility.

I usually make (and enjoy) dressing with baked fowl. I don’t, however, stuff larger birds. I bake dressing inside Cornish hens, but alongside chickens and turkeys.

Since the early days, I’ve upgraded and expanded my choice of steaks. I’ve learned to make rubs from scratch by observation, including reading the ingredients on containers of prepared rubs, and relying on what I’ve learned about various spices. I concoct marinades based on what I know about which flavors go with what.

I’ve also tried my hand at fish. I often order fish in a restaurant, because it’s likely to be better than anything I can prepare. I look for what’s fresh and local. You can’t go wrong with the fish of the day at the beach. Or mountain trout in Asheville. A waiter there once told me that “trout is a battleground here.” Every restaurant tries to be the best at it.

I do a passable job on a few fish dishes. Two of mine I like best are sword fish steak (butter and rosemary are key) and a tilapia with a sauce made in the frying pan after the coated fillets are browned. I sauté onions, add lime juice and wine, then stir in butter. Yes, both of these are based on “suggestions” I saw somewhere. I also enjoy my catfish roasted with Cajun spices.

Dining in some fine restaurants helped me appreciate the value of sauces. In early years, I had used Campbell’s cream-of soups for easy sauces, but when I got more serious, I looked at basic sauce “suggestions” online and adapted. An appropriate sauce adds flavor and enjoyment to a lot of dishes and meals.

Another evolution for me has been moving from frozen to fresh vegetables. I began years ago regularly to use what’s in season at the farmers’ market. For those not in season, I grew less satisfied with frozen vegetables. Fresh produce in the grocery store is generally not as good as fresh from the farmers market, but almost always better than frozen. I’ve veered somewhat from meat-vegetable-starch but still aim for balance, as well as appeal.

So, for the how-to portion of this essay, if you have a cut or filet you want to prepare or some dish you want to try, do an on-line search. You’ll find many recipes. Choose one that looks doable for you and adapt. You can vary ingredients and amounts of ingredients to your own preferences. Or draw on ideas from two or more recipes to create your own dish. Garlic powder, oregano and minuscule doses of cumin can enhance almost anything.

While baking is a science, cooking is an art.

Several years ago, I was at fund-raising dinner for the North Carolina Symphony at A Southern Season, a wonderful gourmet store in Chapel Hill’s past. I was seated next to Michael Barefoot, who founded and at that time still owned A Southern Season. He asked me how I cook.

“I try to make dishes that taste, look and smell great and are healthy,” I said.

He replied, “You are our best kind of customer.”

Scary stories

Fairy tales never scared me. It was fantasy — entertaining stories that couldn’t happen in real life. Plus, they had happy endings. Similar were movies about “monsters” — Frankenstein’s Creature, Dracula, etc. — and invaders from other planets. They were unreal enough to be fun to watch. Some of them were not great cinema, which could make them even more fun to watch, especially with others.

When I was a young adult, watching such movies with friends, one pointed out that in pretty much all these movies, the grown-ups, including police and military, make a mess of things and the young people save the day. I realized he was right. Another reason to enjoy them.

But the more reality in a scary story, the more it scared me. Prime examples were the TV shows “The Twilight Zone” (1959-64) and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-62). In these stories, ordinary people, believable and relatable, would be drawn into extraordinary situations. I tried to watch these shows some but almost always regretted doing so. After I dropped them from my own viewing choices, I still sometimes saw them because one or more others were watching them on the TV that dominated the living area of the house.

Telling “ghost stories” was a favorite pastime when I was a kid. These could be scary if there was enough reality in them. There were some standards that got repeated, and I suspect several were widely-known, not just confined to our neighborhood. As with the TV shows mentioned above, the easier it was to identify with the protagonist, the scarier it was.

There was one, “Bloody Bones,” that got told from time to time, likely only by my sibs. The characters were the members of my family. I don’t remember all the details (I may have rarely, or never, stayed to hear the whole thing), but it involved each person, one by one, going down into our basement and hearing a spooky voice calling out, “Bloody bones!”

I assumed this one also was part of the universal catalogue. Thus, I got a great deal of satisfaction thinking our family was somewhat famous. Yet it really was scary to go down into the dark basement, and the story made it more so.

There was one exception to the general rule that monsters were not scary to me. When I was in college, a theatre group did weekly plays in Asheville one summer, and I attended regularly. One production was about Dracula. I had seen the actor who played Dracula in a variety of roles that summer and talked with him a time or two.

Yet he was so talented that he virtually became Dracula. Add to this that it was theatre in the round and I was sitting on the front row. There were times he was only three or four feet away from me — looking, talking and acting like a real, living-dead vampire. Despite telling myself over and over, “This is just so-and-so (I forget his name), portraying a fictional being,” it was difficult to sleep for a few nights.