Tuesday, October 30, 2018

New Book Inspires 'Spooky' Memories of Southern Rock Band (and Client) Atlanta Rhythm Section

Just in time for Halloween, last week I found a "Spooky" treat sans trick via my email inbox.

The P.R. team for Schiffer Publishing reached out to offer a review copy of the new book "The Atlanta Rhythm Section: The Authorized History" by Willie Moseley.

Yes, please!

I don't think the publicist knew that in 1999 ARS was one of my first clients at The Headline Group. 

Along with "Spooky" (penned by the band's longtime manager and our main contact, Buddy Buie), during that springtime project I also came to appreciate ARS' Southern rock classics including "So Into You" and "Doraville" ("a touch of country in the city") as well as "Imaginary Lover" and "Champagne Jam."

Our motto while publicizing the band's CD titled "Eufaula" -- named for the historic town near the Alabama/Georgia state line -- was "Do It Or Die." 

We nearly did just that during a severe thunderstorm with too-close-for-comfort lightning that crept up during a live and lakeside Internet event with the band.

If only the online audience had known we were chatting with them from a state park men's room while hunkered down during the cloudburst (the band's front man Ronnie Hammond was a good sport about this and many other interviews we secured). 

I found "The Authorized History" of ARS to be a quick read and it will be a fun text for longtime fans. Much of the book features the band's slow but steady rise to prominence during the early 1970s, peaking with some spectacular concerts during which the band shared top billing with Heart, Genesis, Foreigner, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Jefferson Starship.

Interesting to learn that ARS presented the first rock (or any) concert at Georgia Tech's Grant Field, a venue that most recently hosted The Rolling Stones in 2015. 

Pouring over Moseley's writing, I knew there'd be a five-ringed payoff, and sure enough there is, on page 204.

"Another memorable concert -- for the entire band -- happened [when] the Olympic Flag Jam, a grandiose event, was held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on September 17, 1992, to boost the upcoming 1996 Centennial Olympic Games that were scheduled for Atlanta.

The Olympic flag was officially transferred from Barcelona, Spain, the site of the previous Olympiad. Overseen by Dick Clark and Whitney Houston, the event was attended by President George H.W. Bush and his wife."

The text goes on to describe the celebratory event as including Houston, Santana, Travis Tritt, Tricia Yearwood, Alabama, Garth Brooks, TLC and James Brown, and sports personalities including Richard Petty and Atlanta-based Olympian Edwin Moses, who autographed a set of bass strings belonging to an ARS member. 

"My most vivid memory of playing at 'flag jam' was looking in the audience and seeing Coretta Scott King dancing along to us playing 'Champagne Jam,'" said Steve Stone, ARS bass and backing vocalist, according to the Moseley text. 

The event marked ARS' second live performance for a sitting president, a follow up to their September 25, 1978, gig at The White House hosted by fellow a fellow Georgia native, President Jimmy Carter. Interesting to read about "the first rock band to play on the south lawn" at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and how the after party unfolded without much interference by Secret Service personnel.

It was gratifying to find mention of Buie's obituary in The New York Times which I personally pitched to the newspaper upon learning of Buddy's passing three years ago.

But, unfortunately, the book did not delve into much about the work our team from The Headline Group did in spring 1999, save mention of a spring picnic at which food from The Varsity was a treat and a noise complaint brought things to an early close (I was there!).

But I'm not gonna let it bother me tonight.

Photos via ARS, Schiffer Publishing and SI.com featuring AP photo by Scott Applewhite

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Taking in 'Paul Simon: The Life' by Robert Hilburn

Last month in New Jersey, I stumbled upon a new audio book in the public library near my summer 2018 address.

Robert Hilburn's thorough biography titled "Paul Simon: The Life" sort of jumped off the shelf and into the CD player for the drive back toward Atlanta. 

To my chagrin, this authorized biography of the 12-time Grammy Award winner remained off my radar since its mid-May release.

Later found myself wishing I had known of and read it during the summer spent near Newark, where Simon entered the world 77 years ago this month.

The book is a page-turner as it's fun to learn the back story to so many of Simon's works during October, Major League Baseball's post-season for a sport which Simon aspired to play professionally while growing up in Queens, N.Y.

Whether you're a lifelong fan or only discovering Simon's music, this is a great read. 

There's two five-ringed connections in the text.

First, there is reference to a song titled "Western Movies" by a 1950s band named The Olympics, which I learned is a band also known for the song "Good Lovin'" (later a No. 1 hit for The Rascals).

Apparently Simon enjoyed The Olympics' version more as it is cited as the inspiration for one of his pre-Simon & Garfunkel tunes scribed not long after the duo performed together in a middle school musical.

Second, the Simon & Garfunkel song "Citizen of the Planet" was hand-picked by Olympic broadcasting's Dick Ebersol to run during NBC's closing credits of the Athens 2004 Olympic broadcast. 

"Paul Simon: The Life" is dense in its detailed descriptions of Simon's family upbringing and youthful neighborhood interactions. Often teased about his height, the future husband to Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher stood up for himself when kids picked on his outfit of choice (cargo shorts) on a hot summer day. 

Readers learn that standing up for himself, smart and methodical planning and an incredible work ethic are each common themes throughout Simon's life.

To earn pocket change as an aspiring musician, Paul logged innumerable hours playing as a house-guitarist of sorts for labels in Manhattan, along the way picking up industry tips to guide his own career. For instance, he gained the rare-to-his-peers insight to maintain copyright ownership to all of his creations, which no doubt paid off in countless ways through six decades of performing.

As a 20-year public relations executive, I found it fascinating that Simon shrugged off the aid of publicists during the early years of his career, but somehow by the time "Graceland" entered the charts he had the moxie to hire an issues management P.R. firm as his world music recordings included sessions that some predicted would draw flak over connections to Apartheid-era South Africa.

The same award-winning music and sessions, for which Simon engaged numerous African and other international musicians, earned him the Zulu name Vutlendela or "the one who opens the way" in honor of all the connections he helped establish for world music.

Simon's crisis counselor also accompanied the singer when he stood up to a group of South African protesters who reneged on a settlement during an embarrassing-for-Simon press conference in 1992. The incident is tied to Simon's adult son by his first marriage, Harper, and a lesson he wanted to teach him.

Decades earlier, a preschool Harper also played a part in Paul's lyrics for "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," for which "snappy rhymes grew out of a good-natured rhyming exercise Simon had" with his son.

Hilburn's research is packed with quotes from interviews with the likes of Lorne Michaels, Burt Bacharach, David Geffen, Quincy Jones, Clive Davis, Charles Grodin, Dick Ebersol, Carrie Fisher, Philip Glass, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Martin, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Van Zandt, Sting and Chuck Close.

Surprising photos in the book include Simon in an embrace with Fisher, baseball legend Mickey Mantle with Simon during the video shoot for "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," and a candid snapshot Michaels captured as Simon autographed a speeding ticket received during his drive to Memphis, Tenn., for their intentionally fanfare-free first visit to Elvis' home.

The book also provided a fun reminder of Simon's cameo as a music executive in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall."

Big awwwww for the description of Paul's love at first sight introduction to Edie Brickell when he crashed her appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (Simon's deep connections to the show's run from Season One to present also get their due).

Of course the reading (and listening to the audio book) made me sentimental about the two Paul Simon concerts I was lucky enough to attend, including the first one in 2011 that included an impromptu high-five from the artist as this blogger snapped an arm-extended selfie on the front row.

And all those wonderful songs, and the vivid lyrics, play in the readers' head as the context and scenes of Simon's world unfurl on the book's pages.

And the moon rose over an open field
And I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all come to look for America

Photos via Simon & Schuster, United Artists, Twitter.com/PaulSimonMusic 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Family Secrets Revealed Sans 'One Moment In Time' in Kevin Macdonald's Latest Documentary 'Whitney'

The first time I watched a film by British director Kevin Macdonald, the cinema was only steps from the Sydney Opera House.

It was summer 2000, on the eve of the Australian Olympiad, and the story on the silver screen was "One Day In September," the Oscar-winning documentary about the terrorist attack in the 1972 Munich Olympic Village. It was such a great film, I watched again twice before returning stateside.

Macdonald packed 94 minutes with deep history and surprising interviews all in the five-ringed context. 

So, when news arrived that "Whitney" -- billed as a family-authorized Whitney Houston documentary -- got assembled with Macdonald's skilled craftsmanship, my curiosity piqued and I started counting the days to its July 6 release. 

How would the director weave in Houston's Olympic anthem "One Moment In Time," I wondered. 

And would the film billed as "an intimate, unflinching portrait" at last reveal both when and how the singer/actress met her husband Bobby Brown? 

In "Whitney" (now available streaming and on DVD) Macdonald does deliver the goods on Houston in many interesting and revealing ways -- it is so well done, I've already watched it thrice. 

As in "One Day In September" there's no way around the tragic ending, and Macdonald treats the subject's troubling spiral head-on sans varnish. There's great, surprising interviews, and amazing footage of Houston's best performances around the world, starting with her showstopping national TV debut, many of which were new for this longtime fan. 

For more about what "Whitney" does include, please jump ahead seven paragraphs. 

Though Carl Lewis taking an L.A. Olympic victory lap appears in a montage of 80's nostalgia, much to my disappointment, "Whitney" does not include reference to "One Moment In Time," Houston's Seoul Olympic anthem and her seventh single to reach No. 1 on Billboard's chart for Hot Adult Contemporary songs. 

In fact, many of the singer's late-80s/early 90s hits are glossed over while the filmmaker focused on Houston's personal life of this period, highlighting tours and TV appearances during which she defended herself from an Al Sharpton-led movement labeling her "Whitey" Houston (ever the publicity hound, Sharpton makes a later appearance, at 180 degrees, praising the singer on the day of her funeral). 

The film segues to the common narrative that Houston met and flirted with her future husband Brown during the Soul Train Awards, skipping what I believe to be the real narrative, that Brown met Houston while filming the video and recording for the anti-drug PSA "Stop The Madness" (a close look at the credit roll reveals that Houston and Brown, as part of the band New Edition, willingly participated). 

For a peek check the video time stamps of 1:44 (Houston solo), 3:01 (Brown on front row in gray jacket) and 5:06 (end credits listing The New Edition and Whitney Houston as lead vocals).

I am dying to ask Macdonald and his team whether this "Stop The Madness" clip ever met their eyes, and if so, did they ask about it during their interview with Brown or others they captured on film for "Whitney."

Would also love to ask him about the "One Moment In Time" omission. No response to my requests/queries to the Roadside Attractions PR team, so far. 

"Whitney" opens with Houston's own voiceover -- from an early-career publicity interview -- with a vivid description of her recurring dream in which the singer runs across a fiercely swinging bridge while chased by an unknown giant.

"That's the devil chasing you," according to Houston's mother, Cissy, later introduced as a backup singer for Aretha Franklin turned matriarch of the East Orange, N.J., home where Whitney and two brothers grew up blocks from racially-divided Newark. 

Viewers also meet Whitney's father, aunts (including Dion Warwick and her sister, Dee Dee, sometimes tapped as a babysitter when Cissy traveled in pursuit of her own singing career) and other players of Whitney's youth and early career. 

Devoted churchgoers, the Houstons were affectionately named "The Cosbys" of their neighborhood by one Macdonald interviewee, but viewers learn soon enough that choices of infidelity, greed, drug use and other human behaviors all factored as Whitney's star gently rose then took off like a rocket to the moon. 

There are many poignant moments, including mother-daughter scenes in which Cissy imparted wisdom and affection for Whitney. 

And there are professional milestones presented with the perspectives of agents, producers, stylists, friends and ex-boyfriends, and several light-hearted moments showing Whitney at her most playful and upbeat self. One "get" that I suspect Macdonald wanted was an interview with Robyn Crawford, Whitney's closest confidant from high school to the late 1990s, when a wedge (Brown) created a rift too great to overcome. 

Macdonald delves into several darker influences (bullying, racism, drug-using relatives, homophobia) that, all combined, may explain the sharp turns Whitney took around the apex of her success, arguably the months after "The Bodyguard" and the worldwide tour that brought her to meet Nelson Mandela, who dried her tears at their introduction (her performance in Johannesburg stood out for this blogger).

Her private homes, including her childhood abode, an early fame custom-built mansion in a New Jersey forest, and later residence with Brown in Alpharetta, Ga., provide some insightful peeks. 

Atlanta's cameo in the film is anything but flattering, but the panoramic drone views of summer in Midtown are spectacular. 

Interviews with Brown, L.A. Reid and others who deny discussion or knowledge of Houston's drug use left some audience members dumbfounded. 

And much of "Whitney" and the milestones of her addiction are where the film is just plain sad, punctuated by an interview with the personal assistant who found Whitney a Beverly Hilton bathtub. Not a dry eye in the theatre. 

There are also many gut-wrenching revelations into the world and demise of Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina. 

But the big reasons to watch "Whitney" are her astounding live performances as a teenager, energetic and new-to-fame twentysomething and those early 1990s moments in time. 

The backstory about her Super Bowl performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is inspiring. 

And her work on "The Bodyguard" is interesting (Macdonald only really touches on this, her first film, and her final film "Sparkle," leaving out "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Preacher's Wife" for unknown reasons -- maybe time as "Whitney" clocks in at exactly two hours). 

I was hoping the DVD would include extended interviews with Kevin Costner, her production company leader Debra Martin Chase, or her film agent Nicole David, who seemed to be the only person interested and actively trying to save Whitney from herself and the demons of her addictions. 

Loved the original albeit haunting music by Adam Wiltzie that scores some of the most sorrowful moments of Whitney's life. 

It's not clear whether Macdonald's latest work will earn the same acclaim as "One Day In September." It would be interesting to see the filmmaker tackle another topic with five-ringed connections. 

My suggestion to Macdonald: Enter the Olympic ring again, this time with heavyweight sports documentary filmmakers like Leni Reifenstahl and Bud Greenspan who captured entire Olympiads of competition for the ages. Macdonald as the official O-film director for a "Tokyo Olympiad" sequel in 2020, anyone? Yes, please.

For the longtime Whitney Houston fan or a younger viewer discovering her music, "Whitney" is an excellent and rounded view a life filled with many big moments in time. 

Images via Roadside Attractions, Arista, HeyUGuys.com

Friday, September 28, 2018

High Museum Fist Bumps with Artist Glenn Kaino and Olympian/Human Rights Icon Tommie Smith


Next month marks 50 years since Mexico City hosted the Games of the XIXth Olympiad.

In step with this five-ringed milestone, on Sept. 29 the High Museum of Art in Atlanta opens a new human rights- and Olympic-centric exhibition to remain on view through early February.

For an LA-based conceptual artist and one of history's most iconic Olympic gold medalists, the exhibition With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino & Tommie Smith marks the culmination of a six-year partnership.

In press materials for the installation and in conversation at the exhibition's media event, Kaino said he found inspiration from Smith before they met at the athlete's home in Stone Mountain, Ga., during 2012.

John Dominis, Time & Life/Getty Images
At his California studio, Kaino had a picture of Smith with teammate John Carlos and Australia's Peter Norman on a board, sort of in the background. The artist said once an opportunity to meet the athlete took shape, the process to arrange an introduction and discuss a collaboration moved quickly.

"My practices are process-based and so the conversation was really 'let's take a journey together and let's see where this goes," said Kaino.

Smith concurred, and according to Kaino, "The first thing I did was cast his arm."

After experimenting with several life-sized and miniaturized versions of Smith's outstretched elbow and fist, including a few thousand Kaino described as small G.I. Joe-like versions, the duo discussed the option to create a suspended sculpture.

The finished work titled "Bridge" -- featuring 150 gold-painted steel casts, fiberglass, wire and gold paint -- is now the centerpiece of the project, with the suspension elements connecting the past, present and an arm's length path to the future.

"The image of Tommie's silent protest on the victory stand has become an iconic symbol of resistance and unity for generations," said Kaino. "Our goal with this project is to ensure that Tommie's message resonates for years to come."

For Smith, who contributed several objects from his personal archives -- including photographs, uniforms, Olympic souvenirs spanning 1968 to present, and other mementos of his travels -- the exhibition is an extension of the pro-human rights messages he sought to convey before, during and since his record-setting 200m run of 19.83 on October 16, 1968.

Tommie Smith (left) and Glenn Kaino
"Mexico is a part of my life where [I] had to sacrifice to move forward," said Smith. "Dr. [Martin Luther] King said, 'there is no forward movement without sacrifice' and I believed in those words.

"In other words, take a chance, and that's what I did," added Smith.

With Drawn Arms fills the lobby and second levels of the museum's Anne Cox Chambers Wing, with an original 2018 sculpture titled "Invisible Man (Salute)" greeting visitors to the High's outdoor piazza.

The life-sized likeness of an arm-raised Smith is cast in blackened aluminum and mirrored stainless steel, inviting all to experience their own likeness "within a continuum of history since 1968," according to the High press release.

The lobby gallery features several works on paper including drawings, alcohol transfer prints and a colorful montage of silk-screened boards on view across from a framed black T-shirt with the message "UNITE" (the "I" in white ink is Smith's arm as captured in the 1968 Olympic photograph by John Dominis via Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images).

Visitors may also see brief excerpts from a planned documentary film about the six-year collaboration. It was interesting to watch edited images of Smith climbing Stone Mountain as part of the film.

In addition to experiencing the gallery-sized "Bridge," the second level spaces showcase Kaino's 2013 recreation of a 1968 Olympic medals podium.

The work titled "19.83" is a steel-and-gold-plated work "presented with related prints and drawings depicting frame-by-frame images of Smith's race" as it aired on ABC.

The alcohol transfer prints featuring the screen grabs are reminiscent of four treatments Kaino executed, on view in the lobby, with an enlarged Newsweek magazine cover that labeled Smith "The Angry Black Athlete" heading to Mexico City.

Kaino honed in on the magazine cover during his first visit to Smith's home, and Smith's copy of the July 1968 edition is on view in an upstairs gallery.

Some of the surprises in the exhibition are drawings Smith created, including one scrapbook collage featuring youthful track and field snapshots and hand-drawn captions. Kaino also asked Smith to draw himself, which the athlete, teacher and civil rights leader created as ink on paper illustration from the outside looking in at himself.

It is also fun to spot Smith's official 1968 athlete pin -- an oversized badge with an athletics ribbon that served as his accreditation for the Games -- in a shadow box filled with other Olympic pins he collected (Smith told me he had many more pins still at home).

A three-inch plastic button promoting the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Smith launched months before Mexico City in order to bring attention to issues in Africa, the Americas and worldwide, is centered in its own frame near Smith's portrait in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama.

Smith and other 1968 Olympians will gather in Mexico City next week to celebrate 50 years since the Games, so I asked him whether there's a word to describe his feelings about this milestone.

"Fulfillment," said Smith.

For readers who catch this post in time, Smith and Kaino will participate in a conversation with the museum's modern and contemporary curator, Michael Rooks, at the High on Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. The event is free for High members, with non-member reserved tickets ($14.50) available online.

Exhibition photos by Nicholas Wolaver; 1968 image by John Dominis via Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images; top image via AFP

Glenn Kaino (American, born 1972) Bridge 
courtesy artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago
Copyright Glenn Kaino. Photo by Mike Jensen
Glenn Kaino
(American, born 1972
fiberglass, steel, wire and gold paint
Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago.
Glenn Kaino. Photo by Mike

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Guest Post: Every Curl Begins At Kays

Associated Press

My longtime friend and fellow International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) member J. Brian Carberry spent part of his summer vacation in Scotland.

His mission (in addition to taking the family to an Ed Sheeran concert): Visit the homeland of Olympic curling.

More specifically, the place where all Olympic competition curling stones are made: Kays of Scotland.

The following guest post by Carberry tells the tale, initially inspired by a national news story we both spotted a few years ago. Brian also suggested a video for additional context.

As told by J. Brian Carberry ...

“Oh, Boiling,” expressed factory manager Jim Bright in a distinctive Scottish dialect, as he walked out to meet me in the modest industrial granite yard.

The weather was sunny, and the sky was clear with a temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit on this spring day of May 24, 2018.  The yard was hot with the whirring of factory machinery in the background acting as a reminder of the heat index.

It struck me as a counterintuitive setting for a foray into the ice sport that is curling.

Korea Times
Curling is a sport invented in Scotland in the mid-16th Century, and along with its Summer Olympics counterpart of golf, it represents this nation’s contribution of sporting cultural heritage to the Modern Olympics program.

The inaugural 1924 Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France, was the setting of the first Olympic Men’s Curling tournament.  This Bonspiel in 1924 was held in a state of historical limbo for 80+ years.  It was seen by some as an official Olympic event and relegated by others as a mere demonstration until the tournament was officially recognized with full-fledged Olympic Medal status by the IOC in 2006.  

With the decision, the first, second and third place finishers were definitively elevated to official Olympic medalists. 

And at this time (2006), the 1924 Great Britain Men’s team that hailed from the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Perth, Scotland, joined the women of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Gold Medal team representing Great Britain as the only Olympic or Paralympic Gold Medalists in Curling from Scotland.

There have been seven Olympic tournaments for men, six Olympic tournaments for women, and one mixed gender Olympic tournament through 2018.  As well, there have been four Paralympic mixed gender tournaments to date.  

Scottish curlers won one-sixth or 16.7 percent of all Olympic and Paralympic gold medals contested.  Likewise with silver and bronze Olympic medals in the Olympics and Paralympics over the years, Scottish curlers have teamed up to win one-sixth or 16.7 percent of all the medals awarded at the Olympics and Paralympics under the flag of Great Britain.

Kays of Scotland in Mauchline, Ayrshire, Scotland is where the world’s finest curling stones, and those used exclusively in International World Curling Federation Competition including the Olympics, are manufactured from granite exclusively sourced from the Isle of Ailsa Craig, a distance of 34.2 miles away (according to Google Maps) in the Firth of Clyde. 

On the heels of an exciting gold medal-winning tournament for the Team USA men's curling team in February 2018 at PyeongChang, curiosity was piqued by a segment on CNBC to visit this singular locale for the manufacturing of Olympic curling stone implements. 

A family tour of Scotland was in the planning and development stages this past February.  As I followed the Olympic Curling tournament, visiting Kays of Scotland campus was a stop I suggested for the itinerary.  

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the appointed time on that Tuesday afternoon, our traveling group of three drove into the town of Mauchline in Ayrshire. There is little to no indication upon arrival that this is the world’s capital of curling stone manufacturing.  With the address checked and double checked in the navigation software, I found myself on an apparent residential street.  I happened upon a resident in the doorway of what surely was a townhouse, but might be a mixed use corporate office where all indicators suggest should be the locale of the factory’s address.

After brief discussion with the resident, I was directed to a small opening in a gate across the street, where was no visible signage.  

Unsure of the scene, I walked into a small yard and eventually spied some circular stones that could be in the beginning stages of the manufacturing process to become a curling stone - or they could be garden stones, I pondered.  

I ventured on with a veneer of assured confidence with my unsure family aside, like a wayward incarnation of a real-life Clark Griswold on some Olympian National Lampoon romp.  

In short order, we were intercepted by a concerned employee and politely yet firmly directed to an office where I sensed our arrival was not exactly expected nor understood. 

We eventually learned the contact who welcomed us (via email, weeks earlier) to come by for a tour was not at work that day, and I sensed no one was told we would be stopping by for a tour.  

In spite of this "surprise" visit, I was invited to examine a display of souvenir jewelry and miniature curling stone paperweights that served as a gift shop or at least storage for their website’s online gift shop.  

We perused the wares as the awkwardness dissipated, and an office worker tried to determine how to proceed with what is now clearly our unexpected arrival.

As I exited the small office to the yard, curling stones came into view in various states of manufacture or, in the case of those traded-in for new stones, stored for repurposing.  

I was politely informed that someone would be happy to show me around (perhaps escort me off the grounds) and briefly answer questions, and I was presented a professionally produced brochure.

On cue, the aforementioned factory manager Jim Bright appeared, wearing a work jumpsuit that displayed the logo for Kays of Scotland I recalled from the website.  For the first time since arriving, I was now convinced (at last) we were indeed in the correct place!

At the same time, I sensed that I was now the subject of curiosity. Who flies to Europe and drives out here to look at a small factory with their family in tow on holiday? 

After all, there were state-sanctioned castles and abbey tours to occupy tourists!  It also occurred to me I should probably be drinking locally sourced single malt whisky about right now.

Mr. Bright turned out to be a generous, albeit impromptu, host who indulged my questions and curiosity for about 25 minutes while escorting us through the small yet busy complex.  

I worried the extent to which we were keeping him from his work, and he informed me that his experience previously included manufacturing optical lenses to precise specifications; his skills were well-suited for the precision skill involved in fashioning some of the most unique granite in the world into world-class sporting implements that must meet very specific requirements.   

In addition, he informed me that he helped design the machinery for the production of the small souvenir curling stones that are offered for sale.  One such item inevitably became a keepsake/justification of our visit.

Kays of Scotland does not have a regular open-to-the-public factory tour and museum. It is not of the type of outfit found at the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Museum and Factory Tour in Louisville, Kentucky.  

Scotland is not the United States where such brand-based manufacturing tourism not involving whisky has a market I quietly determined.  

Perhaps this is rightfully so. Kays of Scotland is a small factory operation, and they have work to do.

I was getting the vibe that my family felt we had other touring to get to, but I decided the local Robert Burns Museum could wait while considering my own thoughts on “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

I was informed by Mr. Bright that this shop creates approximately 1,750 competition curling stones per year for shipment to locations around the world.  The process for each stone involves multiple steps of cutting, joining, diamond cutter lathing, setting and polishing.  

All of this happens after the raw quarried granite from Ailsa Craig arrives on sight.  In addition, the shop refurbishes for the recreational market or, in case that is not possible, repurposes granite for other products from old stones that are traded in on new orders.  

From afar, I peered into the facility that houses the heavy equipment that cuts and polishes the stones.
In the worldwide market for curling stones, Kays of Scotland and their exclusive mining rights to Ailsa Craig have a sole competitor in the way of a quarry in Wales where granite is sourced for manufacturing in a Canadian factory.

Geologists have determined there are two types of granite from the island: the Blue and the Green.  Both types are used in the component manufacturing for their world-class stones that players and aficionados have come to revere.

According to Mr. Bright, stones can last over 100 years, but time, use, storage conditions, climates, and differing ice playing conditions are all variables that can lead to stones eventually losing their action, grip or suitability for play at a given locale.  

Curling venues have house sets of stones that all players are required to use for play.  Individual teams and players do not travel with their own curling stones for play. For this reason, they do not sell stones to individual players.

In essence, the curling stones become part of the venue insuring Scotland’s role in hosting international Olympic competitions for the foreseeable future, and thusly contributes to the specialized niche nature of this business.

As I consider the path from a small granite island in the British Isles to the spotlight of Olympic Ice in the life of a curling stone, the Scottish bagpipes laden hit song by AC/DC comes to mind.  “... It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock'n'roll!”

Photos by J. Brian Carberry except where credited 

Forrest Gumping It At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

One of the many clever scenarios in the "Forrest Gump" screenplay is the title character's repeat visits to The White House.

Whether Gump arrived a football star, war hero or global ping-pong sensation, his run-ins with presidents and many bottles of Dr. Pepper brought smiles.

And though not a single Dr. Pepper was consumed on site, April 27 provided some Gump-like deja vu when this blogger joined the media pool for another Team USA visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This second Blogger Nick visit to The White House featured many similarities to the first, which took place in October 2016 in the wake of the Rio Olympiad. 

In both experiences, the credential confirmation arrived at the last minute, though in 2018 I was told the week's prior diplomatic visit by the French president and first lady factored for the late-arriving green light for all media (the credential approval came in at about 8 p.m. the night before, which made for a very close booking). 

Both times included press check-in at the same gate where the accountant best friend in "Dave" drove in to aid the film's impostor-in-chief. 

This year's visit provided a repeat selfie photo opp near the lawn north of the West Wing, which this time included a motorcade arrival for German Chancellor Angela Merkel as I was leaving the property.

I also savored the experience again sitting for a few moments in the Jim Brady Press Briefing Room. 

And as in 2016, the fun of it all was centered around the athletes who competed at the current year's Olympiad, and I thoroughly enjoyed spotting many of Team USA's stars of PyeongChang for the first time in the two months since South Korea closed its outstanding Winter Games.

The biggest difference this time, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief, and longtime readers of this blog and my other social media posts know this writer is no fan of our current president nor his administration. 

But I admit that seeing Donald Trump in person -- after many youthful days and nights (early 1990s) of playing the tycoon board game that bears his name, and after all those weeks watching "The Apprentice" years later -- was interesting and memorable.

And to his credit, Mr. Trump treated his guests -- several dozen of Team USA's Winter Olympic and Paralympic delegation -- with great respect, often inviting star athletes to the mic for some impromptu remarks.

Trump also stayed on script, mostly. There were a couple of cringe worthy, albeit expected, off-the-cuff remarks (i.e. mentioning the Paralympics was "difficult to watch"). But overall he was jovial and seemed genuinely in awe of the Olympians who attended. 

Sadly in the weeks and months since the Presidential event, any "good vibes" from the experience vanished with No. 45's daily absurdities. Olympic-inspired talks between South Korea and North Korea did pique my interest amid a summer of many personally fun travel adventures. Anything that can keep my mind off of D.C. politics is a welcome relief. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Rest of the Story

On March 26, my longtime Olympic friend Brian cornered me (a second time) nudging for a conclusion to the mid-Games cliffhanger posted from PyeongChang in February.

"Time flies when you're having fun," I shrugged.

In our memberships with the International Society of Olympic Historians, Brian and I occasionally summon our inner Paul Harvey, the on air storyteller who, for years, wove detailed color into his radio broadcasts. 

At Brian's request, finally now on April 27 (started April 12), here is the rest of the story:

On the day of my mid-February PyeongChang post, I had a second news story in the works to follow-up the pin trading tales of the Games' first week. 

In that one afternoon at the Main Press Center, it was fun to meet not only the Team USA women's figure skaters at their first press conference of the Games, but also a British reporter I nicknamed "Stephen Merchant's doppelganger" seated near my blogging station. 

The incomplete post -- including answers to my questions posed to Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell -- was drafted under the headline "Hello, Ladies" in reference and reverence to Merchant's short-lived HBO series, of which I was a big fan (as big a supporter of ladies' Olympic figure skating). 

But here's the deal: I caught a nasty head cold during the middle weekend of PyeongChang, and by the afternoon in question the congestion and coughing was rough. Dog tired, facing a 45-minute snowy mountain commute, and an early morning slated for the next day (to attend figure skating in coastal Gangneung), it made sense to grab a bite, call it a night early and catch some ZZZ's in my AirBNB. 

This plan worked except for sleeping in the next morning and getting a call from my AirBNB hosts who wanted to present me with a going away/New Year's gift. By the time we connected in person, the day's schedule was pretty much shot except for meeting a friend for an evening women's hockey match. 

Illness persisted for three more days, with better health not at all aided by my attendance at a string of outdoor (and Arctic cold/windy) events including a rescheduled downhill ski event and cross-country ski competition. 

Then there was the packing process including nearly a thousand new Olympic pins in need of sorting and two-week's worth of dirty laundry. I would have gladly traded pins with anyone who could read the Korean script on the AirBNB's new clothing washer-dryer. 

The search for new lodging (one-night only at the sweetest Art Hotel on the planet ... resting in a giant bowl-shaped bed) then getting there (a long drive south of Gangneung) devoured a day.

And then the ultimate distraction from blogging arrived ... from Russia with love. 

You see, during Sochi 2014 I made and new friend while attending the Cultural Olympiad concert performed by American jazz musician Brian Lynch. When the Grammy-winning trumpeter asked the mostly-Russian audience whether they knew the location of Milwaukee (where his family was watching the Sochi concert via Skype), I hollered from the balcony my approval of the Wisconsin city much to the amazement of the packed house, the band leader on stage and to a Moscow-based interpreter/translator seated on my row. 

The Russia-born linguist, a woman named Valentina, spoke fluent English then and now, and after four years of friendly Facebook messaging, in January 2018 she accepted my invitation to "meet me in PyeongChang" like good folks sometimes do in St. Louis. 

So the morning after the Art Hotel and viewing its museum (including a Pinocchio collection) and expansive modern sculpture garden, I took the speed train to Seoul's airport to greet Valentina then bring her back to the Olympic city.

Valentina proved to be a very funny and fun-loving travel companion. On our first day of re-acquaintance, she opted to join me for a Korean Cultural Olympiad event, which turned out to be a musical version of a popular folk tale.

The program hinted "audience participation" in the second act, and guess who got picked to go on stage and perform a Korean "fan dance" in female costume?

Answer clue: It wasn't Valentina. 

She instead delighted in snapping photos and video proof of my on-stage humiliation (the mostly female cast dressed me in the finest Korean silks and placed me center stage for a "fan dance" to the glee of, well, everyone but moi.

After the show, Valentina and I shared hearty belly laughs while losing count of the middle-aged Korean women smiling and proclaiming me "the star" of the performance.

Sorry, ladies. No autographs!

Though there was no time to blog about it, the next day my Muscovite buddy and I trekked to the furthest-afield venue to experience the women's ski event at which Lindsey Vonn ended her Olympic career and Mikaela Shiffrin earned a bronze.

Valentina was a natural at securing blog-friendly photos of Slovakia's yak-like fans, and the two of us managed to get her into the venue press center for Shiffrin's press conference. Kinda fun to get in the last question for the two-time gold medalist and her approach to the Beijing 2022 Games (I will post this interview at a future date). 

A long bus ride, a lost mobile phone, countless pin trades, two days and at least two Korean barbecue meals later -- as well as a 90-minute drive down the South Korean coast to meet V's longtime mentor (an interpreter and his wife who worked at the MPC for the Olympic Athletes of Russia), and it was already time for Valentina and I to hit the PyeongChang Olympic Superstore, attend the Closing Ceremony and then drive 3.5 hours back to Seoul.

Between work assignments, venue visits, meals and drive times, I think we averaged about four hours of sleep per night, making for one exhausted Olympic blogger by the Monday after Games' end.

Valentina must have enjoyed my company, too, for she said "meet me in ... Istanbul" as a follow-up experience. We're both flying in to the Turkish tourism capital on May Day.

Before our reunion on the other side (west end) of Asia, there's one upcoming 2018 Olympic experience yet to unfurl: The USOC's announcement of the Team USA Awards presented by Dow in Washington on April 26, followed by the athletes' visit to The White House just like in 2016.

Of course my credential request is submitted, and here's hoping for more time to blog this month following a visit to D.C.

And that is ... the rest of the story.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver and Valentina Kucheriavenko

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Olympic Pin Fever Spreads Across PyeongChang

Olympic pin trading is an unofficial sport of the Games, and in PyeongChang this longtime five-ringed tradition has taken off like a full-speed ski jumper.

Whether collectors seek Korea's sponsor pins, 2018 media badges, national Olympic committee (NOC) treasures from athletes of competing nations or more generic local organizing committee and volunteer pins, there's something for everyone and everyone seems willing to exchange across all corners of the Olympic venues, Main Press Center and Olympic Parks in PyeongChang and Gangneung. 

There's even robust trading opportunities, I learned, in the main Gangneung Station and spectator park-and-ride lots. 

One of my best 2018 trades so far was at the team competition of figure skating, where Mirai Nagasu walked up to me in the press mixed zone after winning bronze. She reached out and pointed to my blog pin and asked for it!

Later in the week, TODAY Show host Hoda Kotb accepted a pin in exchange for a selfie. Sweet!

I started pin trading, sort of, during the national championships what is now named Odyssey of the Mind (formerly Olympics of the Mind), a creative competition for elementary and junior high school students. 

One of my favorites from that era of my youth was an Expo '86 pin promoting the World's Fair in Vancouver, then as far away from Oklahoma as I could imagine. 

Fast forward to Calgary '88 and the winter Olympic pin trading magazine feature that ran in Sports Illustrated. I got hooked big-time, and as a volunteer for U.S. Olympic Festival '89 in Oklahoma City, my Olympic pin collection got going with free Seoul pins from mail-order coupons in the Sunday newspaper. 

Thousands of trades and hundreds of Ebay sales later, my core collection now includes about 10 fabric pin books, five framed sets and badges spanning the 1930s to present. 

Photo via WABE.com
My specialty is Olympic bid pins followed by NOCs and media pins -- or pretty much any pin I think is high quality and easy on the eyes. 

My rarest find, by far, is a hand-made Rome 1960 pin carved on a shell from the beaches near the sailing venue and Mount Vesuvius "steaming" out five Olympic rings. Found it an an antique store in Mankato, Minn., during college and cannot wait to visit that part of Italy someday to see if some little family-owned gift shop as a trove of these beauties. 

Here in PyeongChang my favorite trades were exchanges with officials and athletes. For our third conversation in as many Olympiads, HRH Prince Albert of Monaco (IOC member) presented me a Team Monaco pin in exchange for a blog pin. 

Mister Tonga's team generously shared several pins (two designs as shown with this post) as did Nigeria, Lichtenstein, Jamaica, Finland, Luxembourg (a tiny pin) and several other NOC athletes in the Olympic Village. 

On the media pin front, Reuters created three large pins in green, red and yellow to represent 'Citius-Altius-Fortius' and faster-higher-stronger trading. 

Several Japan media pins are proving to be difficult acquisitions, as is the large Sports Illustrated pin featuring a colorful pagoda. 

The Associated Press, I am told, made pins but they remain in someone's stateside (a pin-headed blunder if there every was one).

Building upon its sponsorship tradition of London, Sochi and Rio, the Samsung pavilions in the Olympic parks and MPC feature a pin-earning opportunity. 

For each interactive activity visitors explore to learn about Samsung products, guests may earn one of 20 free pin designs featuring winter Olympic sports disciplines and icons of the host nation. As in previous Games, once collectors secure their first five badges, they earn a free display board. And for the few who fill a board, they have an opportunity to take home a rare Samsung Worldwide Partner Galaxy Note 8 featuring the Olympic rings. 

The last time I fell in love with a mobile phone was the Galaxy Note 3 in Sochi, and the Note 8 was also love at first touch (so light, so delicate, so powerful). 

Must ... get ... Note 8!

In the Samsung at Gangneung Olympic Park, the interactive options to secure points and pins, are very cool. 

Visitors should be sure to look at all of the museum display Olympic torches and pins from 1998 Nagano to 2016 Rio, then pose for a photo holding the classy white porcelain 2018 torch design. 

There's also an Infinity Room experience in which guests may project their Instagram photos and descriptions set to music, and another area to put a selfie into famous works of art or local sports venues. 

I have a couple of media questions in to Samsung: First, how many of the PyeongChang contest pins exist, and second, why not include the Olympic rings on more of the designs. Their New York-based public relations counsel is looking to the answers (stay tuned for updates here). 

Other sponsor pavilions seem to be generous with their pins at this Games, with designs from new TOP sponsor Alibaba Group, as well as PyeongChang suppliers The North Face, Toyota and Coca-Cola opting to give our pins for free.

A fancy-schmancy set of mascot pins comes in the form of a thick plastic mascot pin in which a VISA credit card chip is embedded. Load up your pin with W100,000 or more (about $100US) and scan it anywhere VISA is accepted (I bought mine at the MPC then used the funds at the Super Store in Olympic Park for the win, er, pin). 

Coming back to Coca-Cola pin trading, the longtime pin hobbyist partner opted to create only one small version of an Olympic pin trading centre at this Games.

Nestled along the south end of the Gangneung Live Site, about five to seven volunteer collectors man the trading area in one half of the centre, while visitors enjoy a peek at pin collecting history and etiquette chatted up by Coca-Cola employees in the adjacent room. Brisk business seems to be underway in the centre each time I stopped by (twice so far).

For those not in South Korea, there's a new option to showcase personal collections or keep up with the action and emerging pin designs spotted in PyeongChang.

Tucker, Ga.-based Pincentives created a new online "Collector Dash" platform -- "an organized encyclopedia of pins" -- and app the company is beta testing during PyeongChang 2018. 

Users sign up for a free account then have the option to upload a pin photo from their mobile phone "in the field" or via their laptop when the collecting day is complete. 

I put the new Pincentives.com features to the test last week and found the site generally easy and fun to navigate, and some 347 of the 2018 designs popped up on the site so far, indicative fellow collectors and Olympin members may be enjoying the test phase as did I. 

My mission by next Sunday is to unload all of the 500 or so remaining traders packed in my Olympic luggage, and to return to Atlanta with more PyeongChang pinventory than any recent Olympiad. Also on a hunt to earn a POGOG staff pin from an employee of the local organizing committee (do they exist?) or a volunteer Swatch watch. 

Wish me luck.

Happy collecting!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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