Thursday, February 24, 2011

Remember the Hoodarf

To be truthful, I'm not entirely unhappy about the fact that our current living situation has kept us kind of out of touch, though there have been times when I feel a little sheepish about all the things I don't know about.
We don't have a TV here on the beach, nor do we receive a regular daily newspaper. We listen to a lot of radio, especially the in-depth reporting on National Public Radio, but not, perhaps, very intently, since I'm often too distracted by the wild, wonderful things going on outside my window to listen as closely as I might otherwise. There's not much breaking news in the Island histories I've been reading, nor in the stacks of other novels and biographies I've been trying to plow through. I use the internet to peruse every day, but my main interest is in the "back home" news and sports it provides, rather than world and national reports. And when we do pick up one of the weekly newspapers published in the nearby beach towns, the stories tend to revolve around locally interesting stuff like the fact that the mullets (the fish, not the haircut) are running, tide tables, good deals at the ice cream place, and whether the weather will turn warm enough to attract a few new tourist dollars soon.
I guess our rather benign approach to what's going on in the rest of the world has been a little embarrassing to me because I am supposed to be a journalist of sorts. We were at least a couple of days late learning about the wide-spread unrest in the Middle East, and the demonstrations over the unconscionable decisions made by the governor of Wisconsin were well underway before I was clued up to what was happening.
But it gets even worse, because, heck, I almost missed the hoodarf.
For those of you who are uniformed (many of you, I'd wager) or uninterested (most of you, I bet), the hoodarf is a combination hood and scarf, and one of the hottest new accessories featured at New York Fashion Week several days ago. According to the reports I read, three different top designers sent male models down the runway sporting hoodarfs, which, to my untrained eye, look like some kind of long furry creature bent on strangling and/or sucking the brains out of the rugged, moody, yet unbelievably handsome guys who wore them.
Now. anyone who has seen me dress has probably already figured out that I'm not particuarly influenced by the ideas and creations of the New York fashion community. I've been rotating through an identical-looking series of comfortable khaki pants for as long as I can remember, replacing them with an equally similar set of shorts once the weather warms up a little. My cool weather socks-and-sandals combination alternately amuses and dismays the more fashion-consious members of my tribe, with a disreputable collection of sneakers my year-round alternative when snow flies or rain falls. My shirts, t-shirts and sweaters reach retirement age only when my wife spirits them out of my closet and quietly bags them up for a trip to Goodwill, while even my wildly patterned reading glasses, which some might consider an attempt at a fashion statement, are actually dollar store refuges that I choose because they're easier to find when I set them down.
But this hoodarf thing has got me thinking. Thinking that, once again, I missed the boat and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be rich and famous.
You see, ingenious, combination-style, cold-weather wear is nothing new for us Sloans.
When son Colin was a young lad, nothing we could do would convince him to remember and wear a pair of gloves, except for extreme activities like hockey and snowball-making. Instead, he would simply pull the sleeves of his baggy, oversized sweatshirts over his hands, giving birth to what we called--and still call-- "sloves."
That's right, sloves, a combination of sleeves and gloves, that were warm, versatile and never left behind in the school lost-and-found box. Had we found the resources and determination to fully develop and market this handy (pun intended) garment, we might now own North Topsail Beach, instead of being precarious renters in our semi-shabby beach digs. Instead, we were, as our family saying goes, "too cheap to be rich," a malady that has never seemed to befall the likes of Thomas Edison, Ron Popeil or any of those New York fashion mavens.
Now, another big-time opportunity has appeared on our horizon.
It happened one coolish morning, when one of us was wearing a new pair of those flannel pajama pants that look so warm and inviting, especially when encountered on a rack marked "clearance." Apparently, I wasn't wearing a pair of wildly patterned reading glasses when I chose them, and so, ended up with a size and length more appropriate for an NBA power forward than for my own shrimpy stature.
"Hey, nice slocks," she said, noting that the overlong pantlegs were neatly covering my bare feet.
Yes, slocks, a combination of slacks and socks, are the new thing for fashionistas on New River Inlet Road.
I haven't got around to wearing them in public, though I did let a pair of baggy sweatpants kind of sag around my blue-tinted feet after a chilly wading session on the beach the other day.
And now that I've let the cat out the bag, chances are, some better-financed uptown designer will probably beat me to the punch come next Fashion Week.
But remember, you heard it here first.
Back to the news.
No big shock that things have gotten kind of dicey in places like Egypt and Libya. In fact, the only real surprise to me is that it took so long.
But the whole Wisconsin thing is a different situation altogether.
It doesn't matter, in my opinion, how you feel about today's unions. It doesn't even matter if you think it's right or wrong for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to cut retirement and healthcare for workers like teachers and nurses, and strip away nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.
But when he announced that he had alerted the National Guard to be ready for state workers to strike or protest, things got downright scary.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, the right to refuse, the right to bargain and the right to be heard are the very things that set us apart from some of those other bastions of personal freedom.
Like Lybia.
I honestly don't know what Governor Walker is thinking. But I do know it's been chilly in Wisconsin.
Perhaps his brain is cold.
Maybe he needs a hoodarf.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Some February Days

I've always liked Groundhog Day. Why I would be attracted to a holiday hosted by a sleepy, overfed rodent is a mystery, even to me. After all, there are no great Groundhog gifts, no funny Groundhog cards and no traditional groundhog feasts. It's hard to find a good Groundhog party nowadays, and my favorite bakery doesn't even offer groundhog cookies, groundhog cakes or groundhog pie
Oh my.
Some might even say that Groundhog day is a day based on false hope.
After all, who really believes that the first days of February could also mark the first moments of spring? Even coastal North Carolina, where we currently spend our time, still suffers from its cold season on February second, while the folks back home in Illinois got hit by winter in the biggest possible way on and about that particular day.
But still, there's something about this time of year that begins to give us a faint inkling of the good, glorious things that might come next.
In the Catholic Church, February second marks Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Ritual Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, along with the real end of the Christmas season, which would, I think, naturally turn our thoughts to the yearly blessings of springtime and Easter.
The days are getting longer, too, with the sun occasionally warming enough to produce a hint of what's to come. And slowly, subtly. but surely, the wind has begun to shift, inch by inch, from a northborn blast to an insistent, southern swirl that promises new life, renewed hope and the balmy miracle of spring.
Come soon.
Early February saw a wintery blast here in Carolina, too. Or at least that's what the forecasters had in mind when they predicted a possible three to four inches of snow inland, with a chance for an inch here on the shore. The next morning offered a cold, steady rain, but nothing more. But, as is sometimes the case everywhere, some schools and businesses reacted to the forecast before waiting for the reality, with a few cancelations and several late starts among the area school districts.
But the most notable case of jumping the gun occurred at Camp Lejeune, home of over 40,000 U.S. Marines and their families. Now, I have a tremendous respect for those Marines and their supreme ruggedness and bravery in the face of great danger and the most unfriendly conditions. So I was a little startled when the USMC canceled classes at all their on-base schools, and virtually shut down shop at the base except for the most vital of operations and services.
It was enough to make me fire off a new version of their recruiting slogan that might go something like this:
Marines. The Few. The Proud. The Overly Cautious.
Where's Max?
A friend asked that question the other day via email, wondering why I hadn't mentioned our stripey, surly semi-pet in my tales of our southward stay. We--and he, I guess--decided that he'd skip the long, wintry drive south and stay home in Illinois for this first foray, at least, safe in the care of his devoted cat-whisperer Shannon, who has trudged back and forth between her home and ours to provide him with food, company and a way in and out of the house, depending on the weather and his clearly stated moods and preferences. Even though she has assured me of his continuing good health and spirits, it took a cell phone photo from son Colin to truly reassure me. Colin came down from Fargo with his family last weekend for a visit to his wife's clan in Galesburg. They stayed in our Galva house and he sent a cell-shot captioned "proof of life," showing Max in all his irascible wintertime-plump glory, chowing down in the kitchen.
Thanks, Colin. Thanks, Shannon.
See you soon, Max.
Another February day of note was, of course, Valentine's Day. I've been married for nearly four decades, so I really do know what should be expected of me on February 14th. But without a television-driven barrage of messages from Hallmark, Fanny May, FTD and Teleflora to remind me of what I oughta do and why I oughta do it, I clean forgot. It wasn't until she took my arm on our morning beach walk that day and called me her valentine that I remembered, with a guilty little start that cause me to look at my feet in shame and embarrassment.
There, nestled in the sand, was a half-broken shell, wind-smoothed into just the right kind of shape.
"This is all I have for you," I said, as I handed it to her.
"That's all I want," she smiled.
There are a lot of ways to say "I love you," I guess. But for me, at that place and time, giving a heart-shaped shell as a valentine and truly getting away with it, said them all.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A few answers from the Island

1. Where are you?
2. What are you doing?
3. When are you coming back?
I've heard those questions--or something like them--just about every time I check the messages on our at-home answering machine.
The answers:
1. In North Carolina
2. Hanging out with a two-year-old.
3. How's the weather back there?
The slightly longer version is that we'll be spending part of our time down here for at least this next year, so that we can finally get a chance to be close-by grandparents to our two younger grandkids, instead of the more distant "see you at Christmas" kind we were forced to be with the older ones.
I've already written a bit about the beautiful views and the beachcombing lifestyle I've been doing my darnedest to pursue, but it wasn't until I started to read and explore that I began to realize what an interesting, diverse story Topsail Island has to tell.
It's one of the long line of barrier islands that border the North Carolina shore. We first discovered it over 30 years ago when we drove along this section of coastline late one night and looked for a hotel to stay in after three weeks of beach camping, sandy sandwiches and cold-water showers. We didn't have much luck that night, because the Island has never had much in the way of hotels and resorts, partly because it's too narrow to really develop and partly because it's a little off the beaten track.
As it turns out, that's the good news.
While we were disappointed in our long-ago search for clean sheets and hot water, we're now enjoying the fact that the narrow configuration of this 26-mile spit of sand has caused it to remain comparatively underdeveloped, especially as far as giant high-rise hotels, resorts and restaurants go. The island is just wide enough to accommodate one "main" two-lane road for much of its length and only offers a couple of bridges on and off. There are three towns on the island. Smack dab in the middle is Surf City, a retro-hip 50s and 60s-looking beach town that sends Beach Boys tunes swirling through my head every time I drive through it. On the south end is Topsail Beach, an older vacation community that manages to squeeze more beach bungalows throughout a winding series of path-like streets than you'd think possilbe. The area where we live--North Topsail Beach--is a little newer and more sparsely populated; not because it's more exclusive, but because a pair of 1996 hurricanes pretty much wiped the place clean. There's one grocery store on the island, a teeny-tiny IGA that features a good selection and surprisingly reasonable prices, even on busy summer weekends; a smattering of beach-style bodegas and an amazing 1000-foot fishing pier just down the way that also offers a cafe and bait shop/convenience store.
If you want more than that, you've gotta get on one of those bridges and head for the mainland.
But if you're happy with two-way water views, the narrowness of the island means our morning vista offers ocean sunrises, while evening sees the sun setting in our backyard over the intercostal waterway that separates the Island from the rest of North Carolina.
According to some historians, that channel between the mainland and the island accounts for its unusual name. Topsail (pronounced top-sul) refers to stories of marauding pirates who hid their ships in the channel behind the island and waited for slow-moving merchant ships to pass by along the coast. Eventually, the merchantmen got wise to the hiding place and kept an eye out for the top of the pirate mainsails over the high dunes of the island--the topsails.
Whether or not that tale is true or not, it is a certainty that pirates, including Stede Bonnett and the infamous Blackbeard roamed these waters, with some claiming that pirate treasure still remains buried on the island.
So I've got a mission now. Every time I walk the beach or explore the sound-side marshes and thick maritime forests, I'll keep my eyes peeled for glimpses of gold buried in the sand. It's a good switch from shell-searching, and hey, a little treasure would come in handy.
Of course, when I see the sunlit ocean, the miles of sandy beach, and, especially, the look on my wife's face every time she greets her grandsons, I realize I've already found it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Notes from a Conchologist

Life as a conchologist can be pretty darn demanding.
It doesn't take much time walking the beach to realize what a busy place the ocean is, with most of its inhabitants requiring a big-time influx of food to keep up with a hyperactive day-to-day existence. Put simply, the sea creatures and birds that live out here spend most of their time swimming and flying...and eating those who don't swim or fly quite as fast or efficiently.
In a less idyllic setting, the resulting life and death lifestyle might mean beaches littered with an unattractive left-over abundance of fish parts and other fleshy flotsam.
But nothing edible goes unnoticed very long in and around the sea, so instead, in a pretty bit of serendipity, it's seashells--the hard exterior skeletons of the soft-bodied mollusks that are near the bottom of just about everybody's food chain--that line the surface of the sand.
And that's where my newest career path comes in.
Conchology, for the benefit of both the uninitiated and the uninterested, is the study of shells, including the thousands and thousands of seashells that wash up along my path every day.
Like most of the vocations and avocations I've chosen, like music and sportswriting, shelling is something I pursue avidly without really knowing much about what I'm doing.
I like big ones. I like little ones. I like pretty ones.
The best ones seem to roll in when the wind, water and waves are at their wildest and most powerful, making it even more amazing when a delicate shape reaches shore in one piece.
The scientifically acclaimed Sloan Shell Selection System is based on a complex set of criteria: I pick up the ones I feel like picking up, according to my mood and the condition of my lower back. The rest, I leave behind to be gathered by other shell fanciers or washed back at high tide. The equipment and skills required are extensive, consisting of a plastic grocery bag and a willingness to walk slowly in a beautiful setting.
The results have been mixed and fancy, with shelves, windowsills, jars, bottles and tabletops already jammed with the pretty and interesting things we've found. While most of them aren't necessarily unique or rare, there have been a few prizes, including a couple of nicely intact spiral-shaped whelks, an absolutely perfect sand dollar and, the best find of all, a dried-out sea horse spied by my sharp-eyed beach-walking companion.
But here's the thing...
We try to walk at least a couple of miles every day along the near-empty wintertime beaches of Topsail Island.
But it's over 25 miles long.
25 miles of beaches.
25 miles of shells.
I've still got a lot to do.