Road Trip VIII, Days 28-31, Durham, N.C.: The Five Things I Miss About My Hometown

Spending a full week in Durham and Chapel Hill has me reflecting on the answer I give to folks who ask me what I miss, since leaving the South 27 years ago. It’s a short but sweet list.

1. My family. Officially, all that’s left here are my amazing parents—Mom shown here with a salad containing the last of the Traveling Avocados that ripened as we crossed the country.

Mama knows what’s good for you

Unofficially, our “family” now includes friends the Mate and I have known in some cases longer than we’ve known each other. But that’s another category. I do know, as a 56 year-old, how incredibly lucky I am to still have both healthy parents living in the same house where they raised me.

Mom in her truck, pulling her horse trailer

My dad’s collection of shoes reveals his active life better than anything.

2. Friends—both tribal and non-tribal. I’ll explain that in #5.

Respect the oak.

3. Oak trees. I’m not talking those scruffy things they have out West. With a few exceptions—talking to you, Laytonville, CA—those oaks are piddly, short things with prickly leaves. But the white oaks of the east? They have GRANDEUR. And their dead leave smell like life.

The next generation of red oak—so vibrant

4. North Carolina-style pulled pork BBQ and Mama Dip’s fried chicken. With fried okra, and hush puppies, and greens. Sweet tea optional.

I’ve blogged enough about soul food—I’ll just leave it at this.

5. Tarheel basketball. With the Tribe—a.k.a. a bunch of over-educated lefty lawyers, professors and administrators, and retired ditto—who gather once a year to eat #4, above, and scream at 20 year-old guys tossing around an orange ball. I didn’t want to violate my friends’ privacy by posting their picture, so here’s a shot of a Chapel Hill fire truck—just to give you some idea of the grip Tarheelism has on this town.

Even the paramedics bleed Carolina blue

Last year our team won the National Championship, but they did so in April, when we were already back home in the northwest…where nobody cares, except to inquire, “What IS a Tarheel, anyway?” So, yeah—I miss that.

Go Heels!

If you are someone who no longer lives in your hometown, what are your five things? Take your time and think about it.

The Final Four and the Sickness That “Heels”: Carolina Fever

Here’s why I know I’m not a COMPLETELY un-redeemable Carolina men’s basketball fan:

  1. I have a sense of humor about how much it means to me (sort of)
  2. I refuse to defend Tarheel Coach Roy Williams from charges that he knew about the fake classes his players were given credit for “attending” these past few years. He probably did, or if he didn’t, he should have.

But here’s why I know I’m pretty far gone: this year, right now, I DON’T CARE. The Heels are in the Final Four for the first time in seven years. Back in 2009, they won it all, under the leadership one of my all-time favorite players, Tyler Hansbrough, who stayed all four years to get the job done. This year, that favorite player is Marcus Paige, another senior (and Academic All-American). The Heels are one game from the finals, two from the championship. And I don’t just want that championship for me, I want it for Marcus.

This guy.

This guy.

But I want it even more for someone else. A whole family, actually. Last month, back in my home state of North Carolina to watch the ACC tournament with our Tarheel Tribe, The Mate and I learned some terrible news. The day before the tournament began, the 48 year-old son of some of our Tribe members was diagnosed with leukemia. His parents and his brother were in shock. And they all spent the next three days in someone’s living room cheering for the Tarheels.

The Tribe (partial), doing what we do.

The Tribe (partial), doing what we do.

Wait, you say–what? What is wrong with these people? Their son is going through chemo in the hospital and they’re watching basketball? Where’s their sense of perspective?

My answer: these folks were doing exactly what they needed to be doing. They were seeking solace with their Tribe. And of course their son–who’s SUCH a fanatic he doesn’t even join the annual group because he gets too nervous–was watching all the games at the same time, from his hospital bed. It was a beautiful kind of group witness…crazy, yes, but loving.

Son Two joined the Tarheel Tribe at an arly age.

Son Two joined the Tarheel Tribe at an arly age.

Didn’t hurt that the Heels won the tournament.

And now? Our friend’s son is almost done with his first round of chemo. Being the fan that he is, he’s already joking that he’s going to have to go back into the hospital NEXT year in order for the Heels to win again.

And that tells me something. College sports may be corrupt in all sorts of ways…but it’s also pure in one special way. It brings the Tribe together. And maybe, just maybe, the Heels, through their athletic efforts, will have the power to heal.

Go Tarheels.

Road a Trip V, Days 15-17, Durham, NC: Dook-Carolina: The Joy of Irrational Hatred

“To Hate Like a This Is To Be Happy Forever.” That’s the title of Will Blythe’s book on Duke-Carolina basketball, and it’s been on my mind. (The modest subtitle: “A Throughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-Carolina Basketball Rivalry.”)





I am a native North Carolinian and a walking Duke-Carolina mashup. A professor’s daughter, I was practically raised on the Duke campus. In high school I spent as much time taking Duke classes, training with the Duke track team, and dating Dukies as I did being a high schooler (Hey, those track guys were cute!). Then, in college, I underwent a Michael Jordan 1982-NCAA Championship conversion to Tarheelism thanks to my then-boyfriend-now-Mate, and Duke became Dook. For six years we enjoyed season tickets in Chapel Hill. Despite moving to the west coast in 1990, we continued to watch and listen to every Tarheel game, wearing our Tarheel gear. And, since 2011, I’ve driven across the country with The Mate every spring to watch ACC tournament games (and eat BBQ) with our Tarheel Tribe.

My parents remain Dookies. It goes without saying we don’t watch games together; we don’t even talk basketball. But our Tarheel Tribe? We call Duke’s Coach K “that weasel.” Although I am an otherwise nice person (or so I’ve heard), I relate completely to Mr. Blythe’s book–something my friends who know me only through music or Quaker Meeting probably find bemusing.



This past weekend, The Mate and I had the opportunity to relive our past and attend the Carolina-Duke game. Last game of the regular season. Senior Night. First time (for me & The Mate) back in the Dean Dome in 25 years. And it all came back: the ridiculousness, the over-the-top display of sports commercialization, the wriggling cheerleaders, the immature fans…and the pure, raw, irrational passion of team sport.

No matter what else it is, college basketball is religion. And Carolina-Duke is Mecca. 


Sports pundits nationwide call it the greatest rivalry in sports. Hyperbole? I don’t think so. But who cares? 

I screamed myself hoarse, convinced that the ball depended on my noise to guide it into the basket. When Carolina lost, succumbing to a–let’s face facts–superior squad of players, I blamed myself as much as the Heels. Just a few more decibels…!


I don’t hate Duke. Duke practically raised me; it paid (through my dad) for most of my college tuition; it launched me as a competitive athlete. But Dook? Dookies? May they burn in Blue Hell with the Weasel!

Except for my parents, of course. And a handful of old friends; they know who they are. And they understand…to hate like this is to be happy forever. If only all hatred were so benign!

Butter my Busted Brackets for Breakfast—They’re Toast: Watching the NCAAs and Fearing For My Soul

This year billionaire Warren Buffet famously offered a billion-dollar purse to any individual picking a perfect set of wins in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It’s no news by now that Mr. BigBucks learned he wouldn’t have to pay out…after the first full day of games, back two weeks ago. That’s how unpredictable this stuff is. But my own picks were so bad, I think I actually OWE Warren that billion.

Wonder if he’ll take a check.

It’s not that I didn’t see upsets coming, ok? I DID. I just chose the WRONG ONES. Case in point: Twelfth seeds are always matched up against Fives in the first round. I picked NC State, a 12, to beat St. Louis, a 5, based on my SUPERIOR KNOWLEDGE as a NC native who had just watched State beat the juggernaut of Syracuse in the ACC tourney.

In the first two days, three of the four 12-seeds beat the 5s. Guess which one DIDN’T?

Still pretty grumpy about that.

It went on from there. Every upset I called didn’t happen; every dominant team I “bet” on found a way to lose. I’m pretty sure they did it on purpose.

But I should back up here, pleading hyperbole (a common ailment among writers in general and bloggers in particular). First of all, not ALL my teams lost. Second of all, I didn’t bet.

See, when my own team goes out–as Carolina did in the second round, in a game too well-played for us to feel too sad about–and my brackets no longer hold any joyous anticipation for me, that’s when the wet blanket good angel of conscience joins the party.

What are you doing? These are kids playing with a ball! And they’re supposed to be students, not over-hyped vessels of steroids and future marketing! Or, worse, gateways to gambling addiction!

(Courtesy Chad Cooper, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy Chad Cooper, Flikr Creative Commons)

Last week’s editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (I’m not a Christian Scientist, but their magazine ROCKS) discussed exactly that: the rise in gambling among people who would never otherwise place a bet, caused by the huge mainstreaming of March Madness. So much for my giddiness over the Final Four. Luckily I had none left anyway.

Of course, the only reason I’m having these spasms of conscience now is because my own Madness has turned to Sadness.If my team were still in the Dance, don’t even think of lecturing me! Or at least wait till mid-April. Yes, I’m a total hypocrite–but at least I’m an honest one.

I am comforting myself with some gems from the past couple of weeks. I couldn’t find YouTubes for any of them, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to imagine…

North Carolina’s Xylina McDaniels making a shot from a sitting position beneath the basket after getting knocked off her feet

Louisville’s senior star Shoni Schimmel beating her male counterpart in the three-point shooting contest (part of the “hoop”la leading up to both the men’s and women’s Final Four)

And my favorite, which wasn’t even a sports moment: this ad. It’s from some network provider, I think–and I guess it must have failed in its purpose ’cause I can’t remember the name. But it features a couple of nerdy-looking guys installing some connections in the ceiling of a nondescript office.

(Non-classically-beautiful but adorably clean-cut) Woman, startled by nerdy technician in ceiling: Oh! What are you doing?

(Potentially-handsome-despite-large-glasses-and-lack-of-social-confidence) Man, hanging down from ceiling: **explains his job** then…

Man (in shy monotone): Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?

Woman (blushing delightedly, looking down): …A little…

Man (yanked back up into ceiling by annoyed co-worker): Sorry!

But we all know they meet for sodas later, right?

OK, this has NOTHING to do with basketball, or gambling, or the sad state of my conscience. But it does have to do with March Madness. Because among all the gazillions of ads, both TV and radio, that I have muted over the past month, this is the only one where I turn UP the volume. Hey, I’m not contributing to American commercialism–I’m enjoying a love story! My conscience feels better already.

Got a March Madness story? Best game, best moment, best ad? General rage or simply bafflement? Let us hear.


How ‘Bout Them Heels? Oh, How Can I Possibly Explain?

 Road Trip IV, Days 32-34: Chapel Hill, NC

Let the ceremony games begin. The object of our pilgrimage trip. The ACC Tournament, ok?

For those of you not from North Carolina and/or not tainted familiar with the mores of college sports, a quick primer. Teams are organized into leagues, or conferences. Throughout the regular season, each college plays games against other member of its conference. For the University of North Carolina (aka The Tarheels, or Heels–please don’t ask me to explain that), that means Dook Duke, NC State, Virginia, and eleven others. At the end of the regular season, these 15 teams play each other in a loser-out tournament which begins on Wednesday and culminates in the championship on Sunday.

Other conferences around the country–the PAC 12, the Big 10– are doing the same thing, of course. On Sunday, the winners of all these tournaments are selected, along with the best teams around the country that did not win their tournaments, and put into the 68 brackets that you have probably heard about, the famous Big Dance of March Madness, the NCAA Tournament.

Got that? Good. It has almost nothing to do with what I’m writing about today. I am writing about religion.

That’s the only way I can explain what happens here in Chapel Hill at our friends Rich and Becky’s house, from Wednesday to Sunday. It starts small, maybe five or six of us watching the games no one really cares about. But by Friday, when Carolina plays, the living room will scarcely hold us. And all these highly educated people–law professors, a former college president, a dean, a member of Obama’s HHS staff, a state legislator–will be screaming at refs, raising our arms during free throws, and doing push-ups during time-outs when the game gets close.

(That last innovation was started by The Mate. He swears it works. All I know is, it’s a great tension reliever.)

One year one of the group, who was representing a guy on Death Row, actually stepped into the next room to negotiate a pardon with NC’s governor while the rest of the gang kept cheering. Then he re-joined the faithful. No one thought this was weird.


There is no explaining faith. There is no explaining how all these thoughtful, rational, sensitive people can truly believe that Dook Duke’s Coach K is the Devil. (I mean the real Satan, not just a Blue Devil.) Or that God hates us if our free throws don’t go in. Or that a pimply-faced 19 year-old with a ball holds the keys to our present and future happiness.


I should know. I grew up here, and at school I used to scoff at my fellow students who would stay home during Tournament Friday, or use “How ’bout them Heels?” as a greeting. Then I went off to college, and came home for spring break.

It was the end of March, 1982. Carolina, under Coach Dean Smith, had made it to the Final Four in New Orleans. My then-boyfriend (now my Mate) was beside himself. (The previous month he’d sent me a Carolina Blue valentine: “I love you almost as much as the Tarheels.” So I knew what I was getting into.)

The Heels won their Saturday game. Now they were in the Finals, facing Georgetown. Michael Jordan was a freshman. The Hoyas had their own super-frosh, man-child Patrick Ewing. The battle was joined. It was epic. The game came down to the final seconds.

You know what? I can’t possibly do the story justice. Too much has been written about The Shot Michael took to put Carolina up with 12 seconds on the clock; about Freddy Brown’s fateful pass to a member of the opposite team, giving the ball back to Carolina. About James Worthy’s anticlimactic missed free throws at the very end, when Carolina’s victory was sealed, and we were all rolling around on the carpet and screaming.


It was a conversion of the deepest order. At the end of my break, I traveled back to college a confirmed, lifelong Tarheel Fan.

I’m not quite as bad as The Mate, OK? He’s traveled back from Washington State to Chapel Hill every March since 1990. When we took a sabbatical in New Zealand, he traveled back from there. He sincerely wishes bad things to happen to Coach K, or at least to his car.

Me, I just cheer.  And eat a ton of BBQ. And fried chicken. But that’s a whole other story.

Sports fans or baffled onlookers, let me hear from you. What’s your sports story? Are you the reason “fan” really means “fanatic”? Or do you think we’re all completely bonkers?