Speak…Easy

By John Winn

No, this isn’t about Prohibition, alcohol, or Ken Burns documentaries.

This upcoming Saturday, Sept. 29th, Hennens Observer and the High Point Public Library in High Point, North Carolina will have the honor of hosting author and public speaking coach Carol Roan for an hours-long interactive talk and Q and A addressing the pratfalls–and possibilities–of public speaking. Roan is a 30 year veteran public speaking coach and motivational speaker who has worked with hundreds of clients over a long career spanning from opera divas to average Joes and Joanettes applying for job interviews. A signing of Roan’s books Speak Easy (pictured above) and Speak Up will follow. As always, refreshments will be provided.

If you are a writer or author in the final stages of polishing up your Great American Novel or just someone who wants to learn more about speaking in front of a live audience, we cannot overestimate how important this meeting will be.  So much of the marketing and promotion of novels and books these days depends on writers being able to read and promote their work in public–someones for many days and weeks at a time.  Being able to read and enounciate your work in a clear, concise–and dramatic–way is often as critical to capturing a reader’s interest as a brilliantly designed book cover.  As a coach, Roan comes highly recommended, not just from clients but also members of the Hennen’s family.  

We’ll be getting the word out through traditional media as well as Twitter in the run-up to the meeting, so if you miss this post by any chance trust me you’ll hear about it soon in you local paper (if you live in the Piedmont) or on Twitter or Facebook.  So if you’re truly invested in seeing your literary dreams thrive, please come and see us in High Point next weekend.  Not to mention, it’s totally free of charge!

Social Media Coordinator (and managing editor) John Winn is Hennen’s Twitterer in Chief.  In addition to writing for Hennen’s, His work has been featured in A Twist of Noir, Lightning Flash, Racket Magazine, and plenty of other online magazines.  He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

New Directions And Killer Clowns

Hey writers and lit geeks!

John Winn here.  I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog.  Between the various business meetings, research assignments  and Tweets I’ve sent out these last several weeks, I haven’t been able to write as much as I hoped.  Without Megan Robb’s passion and enthusiasm these past few weeks, we would be lost.  I may have to watch out or she’ll have my head if I’m not careful (Just kidding Megan–you’re awesome).  Give her a round of applause–I think she’s earned it.

Recently, Joshua and I have made a  series of strategic decisions to take the blog in a new direction.  Effective immediately, we will be focusing exclusively on comedy and humor. In contrast to the main website, The Week in Review will offer up a series of satirical essays, parodies, burlesque, wit and anything else smart alecks can think of.  As we like to call it “A slice of levity with a side of bacon”.  Our focus has changed, but our mission will remain the same–offering quality poetry and prose , and yes, humor.

The staff will largely stay the same, with me and Joshua in a sort of editor in chief role setting the tone of the blog, if you will.  Megan will continue doing her Megan thing, and we’ll continue to tweet articles as they arrive.

FYI, if you have any story ideas, please feel free to Josh or myself at  joshuahennen@hennensobserver.com. or highpointpanther@aol.com.

But you better be funny, or the clowns will eat you.

Social Media Coordinator (and managing editor) John Winn is Hennen’s Twitterer in Chief.  In addition to writing for Hennen’s, His work has been featured in A Twist of Noir, Lightning Flash, Racket Magazine, and plenty of other online magazines.  He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The Pop Star, The Friend, and Me

Every one knows where they where two years ago when the news broke that Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, died suddenly following a massive drug overdose at his home in Holmby Hills, California.  Some remember watching the drama unfold through cable and the Internet; word trickled to others through friends and friend’s friends, calling to tell them their childhood icon was gone.  By the time the world made its way around the world, over a billion people would witness his funeral live on television, making it the most publicized in history–more then JFK’s, MLK’s, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain combined. The controversy remains a point of contention for many–but the impact psychically and economically is immeasurable in ways those closest to him are struggling to quantify even today.

I’ve never met the pop star personally.  In fact, I am not much of a fan at all.  But in a strange and surrealistic way, our lives are connected by a single thread–my friend Jason Davidson.  We haven’t spoken much since we parted ways in 1998, but for the five years we knew  each other, Jackson remained the glue that kept our friendship together–through good times and bad.  Our relationship wasn’t always perfect, and both of us had our faults, but the impact of his loss still weighs on me to this day.

To understand why our relationship is so important, let’s rewind eighteen years.  It’s 1993.  Grunge is still in its ascendancy. Women (and not a few girls, I suspect) swoon to the crooning sounds of New Kids on the Block. TGIF is the most popular block on American television. School shootings are practically unheard of, and terrorism exists only as a plot point in a dozen Steven Segal movies.

For two grade school boys from Nowhere, U.S.A, it’s a good time to be alive.

It’s been two years since Jason  has befriended me. Having hit it off by chance following a particularly cruel day (for me, anyway) at Burton Grove elementary school, our love of video games, television and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is sustaining us through some of the most torturous physical and emotional abuse we will ever experience in our lives.  My torture is nowhere near coming to an end, but for the time being our mutual escapism–and hatred of the school administration–is keeping us us together.

Jason is a chipmunk of a kid, with a face that would make Alvin proud.  By that I mean, he actually looked like a chipmunk at the time.  With auburn hair and a childlike disposition, he is something of an idealist.  Jason also has cystic fibrosis, a potentially fatal disease that drowns its victims in their own fluids.  I didn’t understand that then, but then again i was a ten-year old.  A snarky, cynical ten year old at that.

But as two peas in a pod go, Jason and I couldn’t be more different. As the son of a musician who played with the Platters, Sam and Dave, and Chubby Checker, I have a much more critical ear for pop music. Jason, on the other hand, could care less.  To put it in perspective, I’m more like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, he’s more like the main character on Life with Bobby.  He reads comic books, I read Mark Twain.

And here is where The King of Pop comes in.

One Saturday, Jason and I are hanging around at his house. I’d just spent the night before at his house.  I’m tired and probably anxious to get home.  As we get our fill of cereal and God knows what, out of nowhere Michael Jackson suddenly appears on the TV, his eyes pleading as he reads a statement denying he’d ever touched the 13 year-old boy who claimed he’d been molested at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Even though I barely kept up with pop culture outside of The Real World at that point, the news of the scandal is hard to miss.  Hard Copy and Inside Edition cover it nightly.  The facts of the case are well known to anybody with a remote and cable TV.

But not Jason.

Almost immediately after the broadcast was over, Jason turns to me and says ‘You know he’s innocent.’

I barely keep myself from chuckling.

‘You really believe that?’ I retort.

A group shapshot of me, taken in happier times. I am the next to last kid on the second row--Jason Davidson is not pictured.

I knew how Jason felt about Jackson  Jason had been the one to screen Moonwalker in front of me during a previous sleepover–the very first time I’d seen Joe Pesci in a film, ever.  Regardless of my feelings of him as a person, there is no denying Jackson’s artistry, his ability to create a world that is both fantastic and believable.  It was  his calling card ever since Thriller–and though we did not know it yet, he’d have more tricks under his sleeve for many years to come.  But Jason didn’t see it through a critical lens as I did–he was a fan.

Being the smart ass that I am, I tell him about the payoffs, the accusations how Jackson slipped some money under the table to the accuser’s family to settle out of court. Even for a ten year-old without any background in the law, it reeks. But my friend would have none of it. Boil it down to another one of our differences–namely, that an adult can do something bad.

‘I refuse to believe that!’ Jason yells.

Words are said, voices are raised, and before we knew it we are not just arguing, we’re shouting.  In the heat of the moment, adrenaline coursing through our veins, we’re too focused on ourselves to think much of anything else. We want nothing less than to emasculate each other like two wrestlers in the ring, aching to tear each other apart.

Out of nowhere, I feel something strike my head violently.  I crumple over and cradle my skull, aching and bruised, wondering what could possibly do so much damage.  Tears stream from my face as I spy Jason twirling a pair of big, fat nunchaku as he towers over me. I glance at the array of throwing stars and martial arts paraphenalia in his room, suddenly remember what I got myself into.

“The fuck?!” I scream. “Why’d you do that?”

To my surprise, tears were streaming down his face too.  This’ll hurt me a lot more than it’ll hurt you, his eyes seem to say. We cry for several minutes, more upset about the way our conversation ended than the way it began.  Yet I still feel violated by the attack.  I call my mom to pick me up and leave, feeling angry and vowing not to go there again.

A week later we’re hanging out at my house, messing around as though the incident never even happened.  Over the next several years we continue to see more of each other, he taking me across the Virginia border to ride go-karts and explore the woods outside his parent’s new home, while I treat him to a day of jumping off my rickety bunk bed, mere inches from the ceiling fan (at this time, I’m harboring a dream of joining the 182nd Airborne).

But it’s not to last. Eventually we go our separate ways, he into his world of computer games and toys while I go about attending workshops, writing scripts…among other things.  Becoming a published writer is a passion I would pursue intermittently throughout the rest of my life. I moved to Macon Georgia in the summer of 1995. During the nine years I lived there I experienced crushes and heartbreak, even had a romantic fling or two with girls I’d met in class..  Not once would I speak to Jason, even over the telephone.

Summer, 1998. We reconnect on a whim at my dad’s house in Stoneville, North Carolina. Jason’s older than I remember, the baby fat around his face having melted to reveal a handsome young man with auburn brown hair and piercing blue eyes. A young woman is draped around his arm. She stands at six feet, with fiery hair and long legs that would make any teenager go wild. He tells me she’s a gymnast from Philadelphia, a casual hookup that’s suddenly gotten serious.

I should be glad for him, I really should. But I’ve just broken up with a girlfriend of my own.  Consumed with my own grief and self-pity, I rage at him. How dare he have a girlfriend when I have none! Without thinking much of the consequences, I tell him as much, using some choice words that don’t bear repeating. He blushes with embarrassment and leaves. I never see him again.

Which isn’t to say I don’t hear about him, in a manner of speaking.

A few years after we part, I receive word through a mutual acquaintance about allegations of child molestation have surfaced against his step-father. My understanding is several children have been coaxed to point the finger at him, a hard-working blue collar family man who slaves to put food on the table for his wife and kids.  The stepfather has no previous criminal record or history of sex offenses. Whether Jason was forced to testify as well I will never know, but I imagine the ordeal is rough for all concerned. The charges against his step-father are later dropped, and the family goes off the grid.

But Jason’s story never ends there. Because of his illness, time is not on his side. He could be alive and well, he could be on life support in intensive care. He could be buried on the family plot in Virginia. For all I know he could have kids of his own. A million possibilities, and the final chapter may well be unwritten.

I was a jerk for letting our relationship end the way it did.  Perhaps it was time for us to move on.  But a friendship like ours is–was–rare.  Even dynasties never last forever, but over a period of a few months years in the early 1990s,  we were more than just friends, we were brothers.  All because of the Prince of Pop.

Thank you, Gloved One. Thank you.

The Interview: Natasha Phillips

A lovelorn Natasha Phillips blows a kiss to her reptilian paramour.

Quirky with a ironic, almost nonsensical sense of humor, Natasha Phillips (@SobukiRa on Twitter) defies labels.  One minute she’s blogging about international custody disputes, satirizing pop culture with her imaginary friends InkyBuki and Cranial Gerbil the next.  But the aspiring writer is no scatter brain.  With an impressive career as a researcher for a UK advocacy firm and a barrister in her own right, Natasha can hold forth as eloquently as any peer–male or female.  Future critics, take note.

Hennen’s John Winn caught up with Ms. Phillips via email and chatted about life in Europe, the origin of InkyBuki–and her forbidden love for a certain star crossed rodent.

JB:  You hail from London.  What’s different about writing there versus the States or Continental Europe?  Is it less dreary or are people there just numb?

NP: To my mind being in different places offers opportunities to observe the human condition in its many different forms; it’s a real privilege to be able to write and reflect in different environments. Londoners are generally bloody miserable so there’s definitely plenty of scope to explore the stagnation of our species there.

I was lucky enough to visit the States growing up as I have lots of relatives there and really enjoy travelling to San Francisco when I can. I have a romantic view of it though; in reality, it’s changed a lot since I was little and like London it’s become less unpredictable.

The Continent though, despite or perhaps because of its economic troubles holds a great deal of immediate colour in relation to the human condition which is readily visible still in day to day life. There is still warmth that you can tap into in most places; a humanity that still prevails.

But perhaps it’s really a question of degree; I think if you look hard enough in London or Las Vegas, you can still see pain and pleasure in all its complexity beating beneath the surface: it just depends how deep you’re willing to go. And whether or not you can source a really big monocle.

JW:  Who is InkyBuki, and why is she so mysterious?

NP: InkyBuki is the inky version of Sobuki Ra, who is a crocodile living in a bayou (the coordinates of which are top secret) and can be found most days swimming in the Twitter and Google + streams, terrorising other social media users and hatching mischievous plans with her best friends Ludvig, the Goblin Shark and Cranial Gerbil, a gerbil. I believe she is the only crocodile to date with opposable thumbs, which goes some way to explaining why she has taken up the art of writing and why she is perhaps a little mysterious about it.

JW: What’s with the gerbil obsession?  Is there something you need to share with the rest of the class?

NB: Cranial Gerbil is no ordinary rodent. The little pink plastic ball he lives in is all that stands between him and world domination. We are star crossed lovers. It’s very sad.

JW:  You’re also an advocate of family law reform in the UK.  Do you ever get weird emails or photos of people dressed like Batman?

Frequently, but I rather like Superheroes and action figures, so I tend to invite them all to the work meetings I help organise. Sometimes, if I’m very well behaved, they share their Trebor XXX mints with me.

JW:  Final Question: Dickens or Tolstoy–who is the most depressing writer?

NP: If one is more depressing than the other, it must be only be by a whisky.

 

Photo Essay: In the Birdhouse

EDEN, N.C.–Tweet.  Tweet.

One could be forgiven for mistaking that sound for the thousands of celebrities updating their Twitter streams to dish on the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal.

Alas, the high pitched warble heard outside the backyard of one prominent Eden, North Carolina resident isn’t an audio cue on Tweet Deck or a thousand other social media sites.  Rather, it is the sound of sparrows, jaybirds, cardinals, and a dozen other avians nesting in these colorful bird condos.   Flitting in and out as they gather food to feed their hungry little ones, they are the snapshot of avian suburbia.  While it is unknown exactly how many have taken up residence in these avant-garde homes, the impact on the ambiance of the neighborhood is keenly felt.  At least three or four (human) homes on the stretch of road where this photo was taken play host to one form of birdhouse or another; several more have birdseed at the ready to feed the eccentric beasts.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the avian neighbors, the impact on the local economy is unmistakable.  A handful of bird seed and pet stores in Rockingham County, N.C generate an untold number of dollars.  The town of Eden is but the latest beneficiary of the bird watchers–at least one store is known to be thriving in the bedroom community, and many more are slated to arrive soon.

 John Winn 

Photo Essay: They’re Loving It

 EDEN, N.C.–The main drag of Fieldcrest Drive in Draper in Eden, North Carolina is the last place one would expect to find the gleaming red and yellow colors of McDonald’s.  Yet it is hard not to notice the similarity in this municipal fire hydrant, pictured in a resident’s yard.  Nestled near a thicket of hardscrabble shrubs not far from the street, it advertises it’s hidden wares to pedestrians and motorists alike.  How it managed to escape being snapped by photographers up to this point is uncertain.

For the record there are several hydrants of similar hues dotting the street–from blues and greens to plain old black and whites.  According to one anonymous local, the multicolored structures are part of an initiative by the city government.  Why the town felt the need to replace the familiar red hydrants remains a mystery, but residents appear to be indifferent in the meantime–with a median income of $27,000 and 17% of the population under the poverty line, they got enough issues to deal with.

John Winn

Chai and Conversation

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

Nestled in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Pike Street Market is the birthplace of America’s coffee revolution. One doesn’t have to travel very far to find the old farmer’s market where Starbuck’s began in the 1970s. Not far from that is Pier 70, where Seattle’s Best blossomed a decade later.

It goes without saying that the Emerald City loves it coffee.

But tea?

Yes, according to Julie Rosanoff, co-owner of the Perennial Tea Room in—where else?—Pike Street.

“We have been here for over twenty years and counting.” She said in an email interview.

Being a tea shop in the country’s coffee capital is a tall order for anyone, not least a couple of idealistic entrepreneurs with tastes for oolong and green tea. But Rosanoff and her business partner never wavered. In fact they thrived, and it’s all due to a simple business decision early on.

“We decided early on not to be a restaurant. We don’t bother with big chains, and we have no plans to expand beyond where we are. I find that there is a reaction against large coffee companies and people choose tea as an alternative.”

Rosanoff is not alone. According to a 2000 survey by Luzianne Iced Tea, Americans consumed over 7.8 billion gallons of tea in the last decade alone, 90 percent of it black—mostly bagged. Hot tea is the second most popular, usually of the green variety.

Another revolution—the health revolution—has a lot to do with the rise in popularity of green and oolong teas. Yet just as many people drink tea as a status item or to confer on themselves a degree of nonconformist cool.

A number of companies have caught on, marketing products for a wide variety of ‘with it’ consumers, ranging from the eco-conscious ‘green’ twentysomething to the hurried mom on the go. Gourmet teas are available in every restaurant and bistro from Los Angeles to Manhattan and everywhere in between, and in an ironic twist that only a tea drinker could love, Chai is one of the most popular drinks at Starbuck’s.

Despite the emerging popularity of teas both gourmet and not, the United States remains firmly in the coffee column, consuming only 0.2 kilograms of the stuff per year. Only Belgium and Italy rank lower. Even in a city as diverse as Seattle, businesses such as Perennial are still outnumbered by a legion of independent coffee houses and chains.

Yet the ranks of tea shops, rooms, and businesses are swelling. Over 1,500 tea shops have sprouted since 1993—the biggest boom since the 19th Century.

Many of them, in the South.

Ask around, and many local residents will say that the Secret Tea Room is Greensboro’s best kept secret. Located on the 400 block of State Street in the heart of downtown, the modest restaurant and catering business is a blend of Southern charm and modern efficiency.

For over a year and a half, Gayle Smith and husband Bo have been at the helm, working in the kitchen, managing the books, greeting every customer with a smile.

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in Greensboro, NC

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in downtown Greensboro, NC

“All our food is homemade daily.” Gayle said.

They don’t just serve tea. They have club and finger sandwiches, and their famous white chili has been known to attract customers from across the state—and elsewhere. Yet the star attraction remains the strong leafy brown and green brews.

“We have some 25 international teas offered in the tea room. They are imported from all over the world, with many blends, mostly loose leaf. We also serve a rich quality of chai tea, hot and cold.”

Originally built in 2004, the enterprise almost disappeared from the local landscape, until Smith purchased it following the death of its previous owner. Despite its precarious existence, the business has survived, even thrived.

Mom and pop’s such as Smith’s make up the majority of tea rooms and shops in the U.S., and it’s no secret that the life of a tea owner is not a financially stable one. Of the thousands that stay afloat each year, just as many are forced to call it quits.

The number one reason is lack of business experience.

While Smith and her husband are on firmer ground, it is little wonder most entrepreneurs shy away from the business.

But once upon a time, they didn’t.

According to Jan Whitaker, social historian and author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, throughout the late 1880s and into early 1900s, tea rooms weren’t just a fad, they were almost the norm for the middle and upper class.

“Having tea in the home was ‘coded’ as upper class.” She said.

For a young man or a young woman aspiring to climb through the ranks of the patrician class, drinking tea was one way of setting themselves apart from their perceived inferiors, no more than, say, drinking civit coffee is today.

Yet even the strongest endorsement of tea by the manner born wasn’t enough to curb American’s coffee addiction. Even during the fin de siècle era, of the two, coffee remained the dominant import by far.

Yet something funny happens on the way to tea becoming a rival to coffee. As respectable women sought in vain for a public place that would allow them to sip their coffee without having to endure the stench of cigar smoke and the typically ribald jokes that go along with men associating with each other in the public square, they begin to entertain thoughts of opening tea shops by themselves.

As a result, an array of women-owned eateries pop up which cater exclusively to other women. Just as coffee shops in the 17th century gave rise to the Enlightenment, these shops give rise to another revolution: feminism, or rather, the suffrage movement.

“They [the tea shops] were integral in the sense that they gave women new business opportunities, and more importantly, signaled women’s full entry into public spaces that had been dominated by men in the 19th Century, when there were relatively few places a ‘respectable’ woman could go for lunch.”

The tea craze peaked in the 1950s, as more and more homeowners were able to brew it without the assistance of a ‘tea lady’. But hope springs eternal, and after decades of being in the shadows, young men and women alike are flocking to tea shops. Everything from bachelorette parties to book signings are taking place being held in them, a sharp rebuke to pricey catering services.

“The younger set is growing as they adventure into the world of tea.” Smith said.

However, according to Whitaker, this is a trend with limits.

“Few people have time to kill.”  She says. “We don’t have a leisure culture. If a place really wants to serve afternoon tea, it would have to be a full scale restaurant serving dinner also, or else have a strong catering business on the side.”–John Winn