taking a lonely: the uncensored inner monologue of a blogger in pursuit of cute vacation selfies

Oh my, who totally nailed her outfit today? WHO! Lightweight, linen blend sweater and cutoffs? LAKE LOOK ON FLEEK. Def gotta get a shot of this ensemble. Ooh, I know. I'll sit at the end of that dock down the road, the one with the picturesque faded planks. With the water in the background, it'll be perfect! Let me just grab my lipgloss. Oh and maybe a hair tie. Shit I should probably put on mascara too. Okay here we go!

(7-8 minutes of walking in 90 degree heat and 60% humidity later)

Phew, really is warm out today! I don't actually need this sweater. Like, at all. Just a quick shot then I'll take it off... Ah, here's the dock. Hm. I wonder whose it is. I doubt they'd care if I used it for a minute. Nah, I'm sure it's cool...

Oh wow, okay, so we're a little bit sleepy and dehydrated looking today huh? No worries, that's cool! Just gotta....angle it...a little bit....hmm. Well. Those crows feet really stand out in this sunshine, haha. Maybe...maybe just tilt it down...like...yes. Perfect. Now let's get the hell out of the heat.


So help me god I'm not leaving here until I get a pic of me jumping into the water. They will literally revoke my blogger's license if I don't get this shot. Literally. Okay, just gotta set up my Joby on Bill's dock... Oh, heh, look at that. The guys that were cutting the neighbor's tree down this morning are back from lunch. I wonder if they can see m--yep. Okay. Hm. Really pretty day though. Shame to waste it. Might rain again and I'm running out of time. Fuck it. Not like they've never seen a woman repeatedly setting a self-timer and running to jump in the lake before...

What. The fuck. Why can I not get the timing right?? I'm jumping the gun on every shot, damn it. Okay okay, I got this. Just have to wait until I hear the beeeeep....aaaaandd....


....SON OF A....


Okay well if I can't get a good shot of me jumping in the water, what if I just do a selfie of me descending into it?? That could be cute! Like, Oh, there she goes, getting in the lake for a swim! What a pretty scene! The mountain behind, all peaceful and--well after this boat passes by, I mean. And this one...

Alrighty let's see what we got. Yikes it's bright out here. Hard to see the screen. Carrying my phone around the corner into the shade after every take is really getting old though. And those guys up there are really taking their sweet time hauling the tree away. YES HELLO I SEE YOU TOO GENTLEMEN. I KNOW I LOOK RIDICULOUS, STOP SNICKERING. Gah, the one where my hips look best there's a stupid hole in my hair and the one where my hair looks cute is too dark. Whatever, I'll post both!


ZOMG pretty wooden stairs!

Cute! Wait, my feet are too straight...


ZOMG pretty weathered dock!

Cute! Wait, my feet are too crooked...


Oh god I almost forgot the feet-dangling-over-the-edge shot. Come on, Ellie! These are essential shots! Let's just sit right here, this is nice, okay, put our legs out and...

...Oh. Shit. The dock's too close to the water. My feet will be IN the water. NO WORRIES JUST STICK THEM OUT LIKE THEY'RE SWINGIN', ALL CAREFREE AND SHIT.


Don't do it, Ellie. Do not take a contemplative selfie. They are fucking stupid and you will look like a tool. What are you--no--put the Joby back in your bag--PUT THE JOBY BACK IN THE--oh for fuck's sake.



I really have to get a selfie with my actual face in it. Otherwise I look like that weirdo who only posts headless shots because she hates her face.

I hate my face.


Okay, just gotta get one of my signature butt-portraits, so everyone knows I still like my ass even though I'm forty!

I hate my back.



I'm poking fun at myself today, because I know how ridiculous selfies are. But the fact is, mini photo shoots like these take time and effort. And mine only contain me. Mine was the only time I wasted.

I cannot imagine putting small children through this sort of thing, multiple times a day, multiple days in a row. Dressing children not in what's most comfortable for them, but in what will garner the most likes on Instagram. Or sell the most sidebar ads. Posing them, positioning them, directing them like little models day after day after day.

Mommybloggers who do this - and you know who you are - you need to take a good, hard look at yourselves. Your kids are not props. Stop exhausting them with your need for validation, stop parading them around for strangers on the internet.


Just. Fucking. Stop.

PPRL: The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (winner, 1975)

I had to read The Killer Angels with my phone on hand, as I constantly needed to look things up I hadn't thought about since grade school. It's historical fiction, an account of the Battle of Gettysburg. So, actual people, factual dates and events, plus lots of dialogue lifted straight from documents written at the time - but much of the characterization and interaction comes from Shaara's imagination.

My Civil War history game was pretty weak before this book. Still is. But every night I'd share something I'd re-learned with Terence, and by the end he decided I was ready to film an episode of Drunk History. Not so sure about that, but at least I've been refreshed on Dred Scott. And I have to say that while history is not typically my jam, I was wholly sucked in, even emotionally invested, by the time the battle actually started.

Questions for consideration:
  • Discuss the commentary on the evolving nature of war. What kind of war is "better", if any?
  • What does war do for the character of men who fight it? (Improve it? Reveal it? Worsen it?)
  • How does a sense of exceptionalism fortify Lee for the barbarism of war? How does he see himself as a god-like figure?
  • Consider the politics and morality behind the choice to invade or only fight defensively.
  • How much does Shaara romanticize war in general? How much is the past used to calibrate expectations for the future?
  • Discuss the personal "wars" that run parallel to the actual battle (inner and interpersonal conflicts, etc).
  • What role does divine providence play?
  • What is the significance of Fremont? Why the frivolity and shortsightedness? Comment on the larger relationship between southerners and the English.
  • How prescient is Longstreet's discussion of modern warfare?
  • Compare Lee's faith in god to his faith in the army. 
  • Comment on the role of morale, and the momentum of previous battle wins. How much do these factor into Gettysburg's outcome?


The drive from Lake Burton to Highlands, North Carolina isn't long, just steep and winding. I suffer from wicked carsickness, so Bill agreed to white-knuckle it as my passenger and guide while I did my best to keep us from careening through a guard rail into the Appalachian mountainside. There's a country club coming up on the right here, very nice property, exclusive membership, all that jazz. Too rich for my blood. Really pretty though.

I'm sure it was pretty, but I barely glanced at it.

You know how carefully you drive when a -- well, when a senior member of society is in the car? Now imagine you're driving that person for the first time. On a narrow country road. And he's mentioned repeatedly how good a driver his granddaughter is, making you feel absurdly competitive, because being around him is triggering a kind of weird, quasi-filial reaction. Nothing bad. Rather nice, in fact; just not what you expected to find when you unpacked your cutoffs and sunscreen.

Okay well I guess that's a more complicated scenario to identify with, but you get the idea. I was concentrating.

Highlands is an alpine town of less than 1,000 residents high up in the Nantahala National Forest, just north of the Georgia state line. It was founded by a couple of surveyors who drew map lines from Chicago to Savannah and from New York to New Orleans, believing that the point of intersection would make an excellent trading and commerce hub. That point of intersection became Highlands, which at an elevation of 4,100 feet makes it one of the highest towns east of the Mississippi.

In other words, it's a great spot to cool off in the summer.

It's also a great spot to drink, because it's home to the Old Edwards Inn, a self-described "European-style resort" that seems to have earned a ranking on pretty much every 'U.S. best of' hotel list. And while I can't speak to that, as the only amenities I experienced were the terrace bar and its adjoining restroom, I will say they make a damn fine salty dog. Old Edwards Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places, which sets Bill up beautifully for some sort of age-referencing wisecrack. He'd make one, too, if he wasn't busy socializing with his blogger friend from LA and the couple seated to her right. Let's join them.


Tina is tiny. I won't fully appreciate how tiny Tina is until a few days later, when she's dangling helplessly in front of me on a zip line. But even now, everything from her doll hands to her Cupid's bow to her size five shoes seems diminutive. Everything except her personality.

Tina loves blue. And sparkle. Everything Tina wears is blue, or sparkly, or both. Drapey tunic, sleek leggings, heeled espradrilles. Rhinestones on her accessories, real ones on her fingers. Eyeshadow and nail polish that gleam like the dust of crushed sapphires. A bohemian rhapsody in blue. I suspect she's an Aquarius and purposefully dresses the part. I like her a lot. I've known her ten minutes.

Tina is an artist. She's swiping through her phone's photo album, showing me what she makes. She didn't volunteer this information; I had to ask to see pictures. Bags, jewelry, hairpieces. Brass hardware, peacock feathers, jewel tones, rich fabrics. Ornate and old-fashioned things. Things for women who like things older than themselves. And though I'm only seeing photos, it all appears well-made. Tina is talented.

Tina is originally from West Virginia. She reveals this with a wry, lopsided smile, as if to acknowledge there's something shameful about her roots. Actually, I'm totally intrigued. She thinks I'm thinking, Psshh, what a hillbilly. In truth I'm thinking, Wow, what a badass. I bet she's seen some shit.

Tina loves Bill, naturally. Everyone loves Bill. He's got a joke or a kind word for everyone, quick to self-deprecate and never taking himself too seriously. Smart as a whip, ready to defend his opinions but diplomatic enough to know when just politely listening is the better call. He's suggested this day trip to Highlands thinking I'd get a kick out of it, enjoy the mountain air. He's right on those counts but his notion that I want to go explore the three block drag of touristy shops (Go on! I'm fine here, I've got this nice young gentleman to refill my drink when I'm done.) is wrong. I'm content to just sit here, just enjoy his company. And Tina's, to whom I turn again.

Are you on Etsy?


What?? Why not?

I don't knowww. Her accent thick on this. It's just a hobby, really. She smiles and shrugs, shrinking back in modesty. I don't know how much I could really sell. Though I did have a show recently! That was fun. Taps at the phone again, shows me a display table draped in black velvet, carefully arranged with her treasures.

You should open an Etsy shop. These are so pretty, really.

Thank you, that is so sweet of you. What about you? She flips the conversation, self-conscious from talking about herself at length. When I explain how I know Bill, my blog comes up. She's keenly interested. What do I write about? Do I make money from it? Who reads it? Why don't more people read it? Why don't I try to make a living from it? Same reason you don't have an Etsy shop. We agree: self-promotion isn't our forte. 

Tina tells us a story about the freak accident she had in the spring. Slipped in the shower, alone in a hotel room, traveling by herself. Knocked the entire front row of her teeth clean out. Jaw wired shut for nearly a month. Dentists and surgeons didn't think they'd be able to reconstruct. But looking at her now, watching her elegantly spear salad greens and sip rose, you'd have no idea. I'm gobsmacked, not by her tale but by the tranquil tone with which she tells it. The woman must have nerves of steel. What's there to be afraid of, after something like that?

Her husband sits beside her, watching the game on a television mounted behind the bar. Swarthy and huge, dark ponytail and mustache. He listens with half an ear to our conversation, only occasionally turning his body to fully engage. When he does, a comment he makes leads Bill to correctly guess he rides a Harley. This earns Bill a proud nod and the rest of his attention. They discuss Lake Burton, boats, fishing. Southern stuff.

Husband, whose name I don't catch, rolls his eyes at something Tina says. Not nasty, just ribbing her. They've been together a long time. I get the sense they have wildly opposing interests, that the things they connect over have little to do with fashion or motorcycles. But there's a contentedness between them, a nice energy to be around. Like they've figured it out. Like they know they've got what the other one needs.

The four of us talk dogs; between us we have four of them. Phones come back out, get passed around. Everyone exclaims over everyone else's. The children of the childfree, the babies of the empty-nesters. No kids for Tina, either, and we click on that, too. We'll come back to that topic when we go zip lining, in fact. But right now she's talking about shopping. I have got to go check out such-and-such, on Main Street. Cutest clothes ever, candles and pillows and things too. Don't worry; she and her husband will entertain Bill while I'm gone. I smile; she's got that backwards.

Bill nods emphatically. Yes! Go! Don't you worry about me. Go explore! Have fun! Promising to return in 30 minutes (the town is tiny), I climb wobbily down from my bar stool. Oof. Good salty dog. 


There is nothing of interest to me, in the twee shops of Highlands. I hate tchotchkes. I hate burdening other people with them, as gifts. And I don't need any clothes, though I dutifully stop in the boutique Tina recommended. A delicious-smelling candle tempts me but its heft makes me put it back down. Goddamn baggage restrictions. 

I briefly considering hurrying down to the wine shop we passed on the way into town, trying to find a bottle of Sauternes for Bill and Woody. But it's getting close to the time I promised I'd be back, and chances are I'd make a poor selection anyway. Though they'd never tell me if I had.


Back at Old Edwards Inn, everyone has a fresh drink. Water for me, though; I'm driving. Knowing Bill will give me hell, I order a slice of chocolate cake. Partly to mess with him, but mostly because I've noticed how long hot food orders take here. When it comes it's a terrifying mound of whipped cream and sprinkles that I can barely put a dent in. Tina helps me though, while Bill shakes his head, pretending to be scandalized.

Tina asks what my plans are, for the rest of my stay.

Well, actually I'm thinking of going zip lining. We passed a place on the way up, they do canopy tours. Through the tree tops or whatever. I don't know how much it is or if they're booked up though...

Zip lining? Oh my gosh that sounds so fun, I want to go zip lining!

And just like that, I have a date for zip lining. I can't wait to see what she wears.


We stop at Dry Falls on the way back, so named for the walkway underneath where visitors can pass through untouched by the water. Bill, understandably shy of the stairs, waits on the walkway above while I pop down to see. Just head down right here, make a left around the corner, you can't miss it. Take your time, no rush. Seen it a hundred times myself.

Metal grid stairway, three steep flights. Narrow paved path into the ravine. You hear it before you see it. Feel it, too. That muggy, misty haze. Then the vista opens on a surprisingly impressive cascade of white foam. It's the first waterfall I've seen since the trip to Argentina with my dad.

The falls are pretty scarce of tourists, so while I hate making Bill wait, I linger, enjoying the spray and the solitude. Video for Terence, snapshots from every angle. This green though. I want to get it into my bloodstream.

Back upstairs Bill is admiring improvements that have been made: a new walkway running alongside the eastern end of the parking area, allowing for a nice view even this high above. We lean on the railing and look out. I tell him about Iguazu Falls, about the massive network of walkways running through the park, inches above the water. I try to impress him with the one fact I remember: Apparently when Eleanor Roosevelt saw them she said, 'Poor Niagra!'. He chuckles appreciatively.

I make a point of driving more slowly on the way home, so I can get a good look at the country club this time. Bill chats about the area, its history and the people who settled it. Hardscrabble, he calls them. Nothing grows easily up here. He points to the ropey green vines blanketing the cliffs we drive past. That's called kudzu. It's actually a weed. They brought it in to help shore up the bluffs but it ended up choking all the trees, killing them. I'm struck speechless at the perfection of this metaphor. Something that both supports and destroys that which it supports.

It's the second day of my visit.

recently, 'round here

After-dinner drinks at Casey's with Kross, where I had a White Russian AND a slice of chocolate cream pie, like a boss. Does that look like the face of regret? No, I didn't think so.

When he lays soaking up the sun like this, Terence hums wub-wub-wub like a power grid and calls him a "wub wub worm" and it is basically wonderful, is what I'm trying to say. 

We went to a great warehouse party last weekend, which isn't as exclusive as it sounds since it was listed on Songkick BUT STILL we felt pretty cool about it. The DJs were fantastic and though it was pricey at $30 a head, they didn't oversell it so there was actually room to dance. Chill crowd, neat space (Lot 613), would definitely go again.

This is the spot around the corner from our building where Chaucer plants his ass, completely and utterly refusing to move, and waits for Terence to get off work. For real. Will not budge, no matter how I beg or yell. There are worse creatures to be held hostage by, I suppose, and for worse reasons. 

Ilan Bluestone is an EDM guy I like who's come to Santa Ana a couple times but not LA - until this past Friday! I am not a fan of Exchange, the club where he played, but we found a decent spot to wedge ourselves into and ended up having a not-horrible time at all.

Oh, hai Mom. Yeah, vacuuming would probably be a good idea, since you asked.

Every so often we give in to our MSG cravings and hit up our favorite Chinatown spot, Full House Seafood. (We don't get seafood. We get fried rice.) Afterward we wander around looking for trouble, because it's Chinatown. (We never find any. Everything is always closed.)

We finally checked out Mrs. Fish, the unfortunately named underground bar that opened up near us recently. (Literally underground, not secret underground.) I dig it! Three levels, spacious, tables that don't require bottle service, friendly bartenders, and live music. The kind of place I'd take out-of-town friends, to impress. Hear that, out-of-town friends?? Come let me impress you!

lake tour

There's a town buried deep beneath the surface of Lake Burton. It wasn't a very big one, boasting a population of only about 200 people. But it was an important one, established in the early 19th century during the Gold Rush. By the time the Georgia Railway and Electric Company bought it in 1917, Burton had become a base for the local mining and logging industries, and the second largest town in the county. Most of its buildings were moved before the dam was closed and the reservoir flooded, but some were left to be destroyed by the rising waters.

It's eerie to think about, that underwater ghost town.

Almost every night of my stay, when the lake's western edge blushed with dusky pink twilight, I crept down to watch the water turn black. It takes a while. The surface shimmers through several shades of deepening blue, growing ever more still as boaters return to their docks. The shouts and splashes of lingering swimmers echo around the shore, which holds onto the last violet glimmers of light as if reluctant to let go. As if the silent, secret, watery town down below wants a sunset, too.

When darkness finally gets ahold of the lake, it's impenetrable. The mountains seem to close in, sealing everything in a deep tranquility that, with its southern strangeness, struck me as deliciously dangerous. God knows what kinds of spiders out there. What poisonous plants along the road behind me. And just beyond, in the hills, what wildness lurks.

I'd better go back inside.

Well, maybe five more minutes...


I've never been on a pontoon boat before. Which makes the dog I'm sitting next to the veteran, and me the n00b. I'm totally okay with this. I'm zooming around a 2,775 acre lake, in June, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in my hand, hanging out with my favorite octogenarian. The man driving the boat is named Woody. The dog is named Zoe. I'm not the only one enjoying a glass of wine. Yep, I'm totally okay with being a n00b today.

Zoe and I are at the front of the boat, which is lined on all sides with deep, padded seats. I'm tucked into the corner of one such seat, and Zoe, a standard poodle mix whose poodle-ness dominates her DNA, is at my feet. I'm nervous for her - about her - but I don't need to be. She's clearly done this a million times before. Her ears, fluffy white puffs the fur of which looks expertly crimped, blow back prettily as she gazes at the lake from behind a small metal gate. She's probably in heaven. I know I am.

Bill and Woody are a few feet away, conferring about the community. I catch snippets of their talk. Who moved in where, and when. Who moved out, and why. The real estate gossip of locals. Every so often one of them calls out some fact about the lake's history, or points out an especially striking home. They needn't bother with that, though. I've barely blinked since we pulled out of Woody's boathouse.

The houses are jaw-dropping, each more spectacular than the last. The kind of houses that are beyond envy, beyond aspiration. Another world entirely. The one-percenters. Most are empty save for the few days a year their owners can unchain themselves from whatever high-powered careers financed them. Some tower boldly right over the water, imposing mansions of beam and stone. Some hide demurely behind trees, their massive plate glass windows winking in the sun that breaks through. Woody nods towards one. Twelve fireplaces, he says with a grin. I don't believe him, and quickly scan the castle-like roof. Sure enough, there are twelve chimneys. Twelve goddamn fireplaces. Who are these people? I pet Zoe and marvel.

Now Bill's humble jokes about living at the "ghetto end" of the lake make sense. All 62 miles of Lake Burton's shoreline are charming, but some stretches are truly majestic. My host and his friend watch me take it all in. The city girl. Long way from LA. They don't realize that my Michigan roots are tingling with delight right now. I'm only recently a city girl. And I'm not really a desert girl, or a suburb girl, though I've spent most of my life in those. And no way no how am I beach girl. I'm a lake girl. Lakes have always drawn me in like no other landscape does. Peaceful. Contained. Safe. I grew up on a lake and if I'm lucky I'll grow old on one, like these friends of mine. Who knows though, and who cares right now. I'm on a boat with a dog, and we've got wine.

The lake branches into multiple narrow fingers that we tool through slowly. It's endless in the best way, and I can't get enough of the green. Every last twig and leaf I put in the pocket of my memory, not knowing when I'll see such lushness again. The three of us point out our favorite houses. I prefer the more modest cabins set back a ways in the woods. I like the idea of running out their back doors, down to the water, jumping in without a moment's hesitation. Woody and I both admire a trim lodge with a pretty green roof; it belongs to a woman they know, and has for years. Bill makes fun of one of the gaudier-looking manors, generally agreed by locals to be the lake's biggest eyesore. A colossus of a thing, all weird angles and too much height, jutting out over a bend in the shoreline. They tell me about the mysterious millionaire (billionaire?) who bought the small island in the middle of the lake. Built a property up from scratch, and a low stone wall around it to fence himself in. Completely isolated. An empire of solitude and beauty inhabited a mere two weeks a year.

Back in the main body of the lake, we speed up. Woody drives us to where, over the fourth of July, everyone gathers to watch fireworks. Hundreds of boats. So much water traffic it takes hours to disperse afterword. Later Hannah will describe how, when the fireworks end, all the boats starting up at once is a chaos of rumbling motors and backsplashing. I decided I only needed to see that once, she'll laugh.

Noisy holidays and eccentric outsiders notwithstanding, these people love their home and their lake. They love sharing it, and showing off its many wonders. I'm suitably impressed and incredibly grateful to be here - but my gratitude has less to do with the view than with the company I'm keeping.


Bird and Mole

Bird and Mole were two friends who moved through life in very different ways.

Bird liked to fly high above the trees, cooling herself in the clouds, soaring past steeple and spire. The spaciousness of the sky filled her with a glorious sense of freedom, and from such heights she could see a perfect patchwork of farms and orchards.

Mole liked to burrow deep in the dark, in the warm, safe ground, working slowly through field and forest. The feel of the earth so tight around her was comforting, and up close she could see a beautiful underworld of roots and plants.

Bird said: "If we traded places, you'd understand that everything fits together like a puzzle."

Mole said: "If we traded places, you'd know why it does."

in which I withhold all my awesome lake pics for one more boring wordy post

Breakfast at Lake Burton is a casual affair. Coffee and conversation, mainly. Toast sometimes, sliced thin, from bread Bill bakes himself. Fished by Hannah, with a chuckle and a butter knife, out of the temperamental Cuisinart I'd replace if I thought they wouldn't scold the purchase. Bill bakes a loaf or two every other day, often giving the prettier one away to neighbors. Sourdough and rye, though he's still perfecting his sourdough recipe. Still trying to master those elusive San Francisco air bubbles.

Bill occasionally indulges in a slice of country ham, thick and salty, doctor's prohibitions be damned. Perhaps as a diversionary tactic, he teases me about how much sugar I put in my coffee, a cup of which Kim, he and Hannah's son, sets aside for me every morning. (Halfway through the week I notice that though the cabinet is also full of ordinary mugs, Kim always selects one of the elegant, delicate teacups for me.)

Hannah, eighty-seven like her husband, comes upstairs each morning having dressed with more care than I take most days, and freshly made up. She brings sliced strawberries to the table, or grapes, or cherries. Until I catch on to her timing and do it myself, she then sneaks into the room where I sleep to make my bed. Sometimes she joins Bill and I on the screened-in porch, an extension they built themselves on their home of almost twenty-five years. She tells stories about growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, with three sisters and a brother. About courtship and love in the fifties. About her job at the phone company - land line phones, that is - before she quit to raise four boys. On hotter mornings she and Kim eat inside, and if the sliding glass door is open I can hear them discussing the news, or family, or any of the dozens of subjects on which Kim possesses an encyclopedic knowledge. Current events, culture, local history, politics; you name it, he can teach you something about it.

Bill and I spend this time getting to know one another more. We start on familiar ground: Mason. My oldest friend, his nephew by marriage. We gossip with affection about his welfare, his health, his social and romantic life. Mason is the reason I'm here, having introduced me to his uncle a few years back over my first "orphan" Thanksgiving. Bill and I clicked like clockwork, and have stayed in touch ever since. This visit to his home in Georgia is the result of over two years of him urging me to come and me gently demurring. I want to, believe me! I just can't justify it right now... But then: Bonnarroo, right around the corner in Tennessee. I couldn't not come, when I was already only a state away.

We move from Mason on to other topics. Religion - our dislike of it, and the atheist writers and philosophers we admire for tackling it. Los Angeles - our respective experiences of it, mine as a thirty-something and his as teenager. Relationships - their challenges, the trivial concerns of modern dating vs. the lessons of a six decades-long marriage. He laughs at my funny anecdotes of life with Terence and Chaucer, and I pay close attention to how he and Hannah interact, trying to grok the secret to their happiness (spoiler alert: no secret, just a deep mutual respect warming their every exchange).

I treasure these talks. They are the moments Bill most reminds me of my dad, wearing the keen, bright-eyed look of an engaged listener. He asks about my upbringing, probing gently about my childhood, my parents, my brother. His curiosity is matched only by his consideration and tact; he wants to know what's made me me, but he doesn't wish to press any bruises.

For his part, he shares openly and willingly, even the painful bits. The loss of three sons. Three. I knew this about him, it was one of the first things Mason had told me, but I didn't know the details. And while those details aren't mine for sharing here, I will say that considering what he, Hannah, and Kim have gone through...well, a week in their company was enough to shame me out of self pity for the rest of my life. What are you gonna do, Bill says simply, when I shake my head, stumbling through the only condolences I can think to offer.

What you do, if you're a T----. anyway, is move on, head high and heart strong. You mourn the loss but celebrate the life. Over the week I spend in their house, he and Hannah share enough family lore with me, show me enough photographs of their sons - and their sons' wives and children, all of whom they are still close with - that by the end of my visit I could sketch the T----. family tree, if asked. And I'll leave knowing not only who those people are, but why they loved one another.

But I never feel like an outsider.

Quite the opposite, in fact. I am treated with such warmth and inclusion that, frankly, it makes my own family vacations seem miserable by comparison. The word that keeps coming to mind, despite my efforts to push it back down, is "do-over". After a while I give in and accept it. This is like a do-over, of all those trips to stay with uncles and aunts and a grandmother who never really liked me, relatives who never made me feel like I belonged. This is what family is supposed to feel like. 

Kim, Mason's oldest cousin, is kinder to me than any of my own cousins ever was. The second morning of my stay, he gifts me a dream catcher. An elegant net of beads and feathers to hang in my temporary quarters, or just bring back home. I don't know where he got it, it may have been something he picked up years before and just held onto - but for whatever reason, he bestows it on me. He also gives me a magazine on photography (which from my endless snapping he's gathered I enjoy), in case the time change causes me insomnia. Another day he presents me with a local guidebook and thoughtful suggestions for day trips. Worried I'm not eating enough, he pushes bananas and apples at me.

I'm eating plenty, though. Am I ever. Shrimp and grits. Roast duck. Lamb lollipops and squab, which Bill dresses with herbs from his own garden. Yellow zucchini. Things I've rarely - or never - touched before. I'm drinking plenty, too. The first bottle gets uncorked around four, about the time I start pestering the cooks with offers to help (which are always rejected). Rose or white, followed by Bordeaux at dinner and Chambord on the rocks for dessert...or just Kahlua over ice cream. One night Bill and I and neighbor Woody even conduct a port tasting on the porch.

Neighbor Woody. I've been dying to tell you about neighbor Woody.

The first thing you notice is his cheerfulness, the sort of relaxed happiness that comes from years of good decision making - or at least being at peace with those years and those decisions. He wears thick bifocals, and has a way of tilting his head and smiling as he listens that suggests whatever you're saying is the best news he's heard all week. He's a staunchly conservative Republican. He's also one of the most likable people I've ever met. How's that for something straight out of the elliequent/r/paradoxes ERROR 404 NOT FOUND file?

Woody is Bill's best buddy, his partner in crime and his aide-de-camp. I found myself fascinated and inspired by their friendship, which persists despite fundamentally different world views and a nearly thirty year generation gap. I loved listening to them tell its story.

Woody actually got to Lake Burton first. He and his wife, both Georgia natives, visited Clayton on vacation. Saw the lake, fell in love with it. Pledged to someday have a second home there. Worked their asses off. Accomplished that goal. Bought a modest house at the more affordable end of the lake. Small, bare bones. No running water. That is, until Bill moved in next door, into a similarly modest house. Bill had a well. Bill invited Woody to tap that well. So began their 20+ year companionship. Together they watched Lake Burton grow. They saw the shore's original lake houses torn down, the land sold for a profit many times over that of its original worth. They witnessed the lake's revival - a huge infusion of wealth in the form of rebuilt vacation homes, left vacant most of the year. Indeed, there is an unavoidable sense of residents pitted against renters, in Lake Burton. Summer visitors and other part-timers come in droves. Drunk boating. Rich kids cramming the lake with speedboats, wave runners, water skis. They're loud and spoiled, and one gets the sense the year-rounds tolerate them with amusement if not exactly appreciation.

Yikes, now I've gotten off track.

Would you believe this is just an introduction? I haven't even taken you down to the water yet...

PPRL: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (winner, 2007)

I tore through The Road in two nights. It's less than two hundred pages, plus there's a swiftness to the story, a feeling of momentum that is surprising considering how ploddingly the characters actually move along. The writing is stunning, pure poetry:

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond. 

Despite passages like the above, the novel has an economy of language - seen particularly in the dialogue - that perfectly reflects the austerity of its post-apocalyptic world. There's little to spare, even in conversation. McCarthy accomplishes some other interesting things, like finding ways to keep an otherwise unchanging, monotonous landscape from feeling boring. The word "grey" must appear over a hundred times in the novel, along with "ash" and "dark" - but the reader isn't aware of the repetition. He does this in part by coining new words, usually involving descriptive geological elements. These become a helpful vernacular for characterizing The Road's otherwise unimaginably decayed world.*

Subjects for consideration:
  • the legacy of self-sustainment, as passed from father to son
  • the significance of dreams, and the ghosts that inhabit them (the ghost of love, for the man, and the ghost of childhood for the boy)
  • the metaphor of the shopping cart; the irony that something once symbolizing homelessness and destitution now represents wealth and plenitude 
  • the role of god, and the question of whether god is friend or foe; is god loved? feared? hated? is he a "good guy" or a "bad guy"
  • the way in which father and son merge; how they become, in a sense, a single being; the complicity of their choices, and how that has enabled them to survive
  • the meaning of being saved, one last time, by a shipwreck
  • the tenderness of the love between the man and the boy, despite (because of?) such horrifying circumstances 

* Gah, when I went back through trying to find an example of this I couldn't, but it would be something like combining "river" with "dregs" to form "riverdregs", something unique to and intensely illustrative of a post-cataclysmic environment. 

    right up the road

    Nestled in the northeastern corner of Georgia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Central Appalachians, sits the quiet, unassuming town of Clayton. It comprises a little over three square miles, an area some 2,400 people call home. If you were a resident of Clayton and you wished to spend the day in another state, you'd have three to choose from: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. All are within relatively short driving distance, accessible by some of the most scenic stretches of highway in the southeastern U.S.

    But if you lived in Clayton, Georgia - and in particular, on the shores of Clayton's manmade reservoir known as Lake Burton - I'm not sure why you'd want to leave at all.

    On the Monday after Bonnaroo ended, Terence and I and a bus full of exhausted revelers rode from Manchester back to Nashville, where we boarded planes to wherever it was we'd come from. Well, not all of us. Not me. I stayed right where I was, in a hotel adjacent to the airport that I booked online, sight unseen. I ordered a pizza, soaked my festival-sore body in the tub, and fell asleep by 9pm. All according to plan, in other words.

    In the morning I hopped a shuttle to the rental car terminal, where I loaded up a Dodge Journey with all the clothes Terence hadn't schlepped back home for me, plus my laptop, iPad, and Gorillapod. I started my sat-nav, crossed my fingers for an uneventful five hour drive, and set forth on what turned out to be one of the best weeks of my life.

    I only had to stop for directions twice.


    The route from Nashville to Lake Burton that Google chose for me that day starts out unremarkably. A few hours of flat-to-mildy-hilly monotony, southeast through Tennessee farmland, before beginning to flirt with the Georgia state line a few towns west of Chattanooga. That's where the landscape gets interesting. And by interesting I mean distractingly gorgeous. The green of the Central Appalachian mountains isn't like the green of other forests. It's an insistent green, brighter and younger-seeming than the woods out west. A green that threatens to swallow you up, if you dare step into it. And you'll have many chances to take that dare. SEE Ruby Falls beckons the side of a decaying barn, an invitation painted in huge letters, white on cheery, cherry red. Explore Breathtaking Ruby Falls urges the next, five miles down the freeway. SEE Ruby Falls, LOOKOUT MTN. The signs so frequent, so insistent you feel guilty disobeying them.

    But your hosts are expecting you, and it's getting late. So you skip Ruby Falls, which is probably chock full of tourists, anyway. You have a feeling better, more seldom-seen sights await you. So you press on, through mountain country, then lake country, dipping in and out of states you've never set foot in, losing cell phone service, hoping your GPS hasn't betrayed you, wondering, if you had to, if you could even read those two paper Rand McNallys you bought in a mild panic at the general store, where the lady with the crinkly eyes assured you Yep, Georgia's right up the road! It's been a long time since that semester of social studies.

    Though wow does your jaw drop when you enter Cherokee National Forest, snaking along next to the Ocoee River where sturdy lodges with canoes and kayaks out front promise adventure. Whitewater Rafting! Walk-ins welcome. Or the one that really tugs at you: Canopy Zip Line Tours. Maybe on the way back. Yes, you tell yourself. On the way back. I could even stay a night down here, rent a little cabin by the water. Why not? Haven't bought my return ticket yet. Play it by ear. For now, though, you have to keep going, tempted as you are to stop at the vacant pullouts alongside the road. Just listen to the rushing water. Just get a good look at this unbelievable place. But no. Bill and Hannah are waiting, the sun is sinking, and your night vision is terrible. You can stop all you want, on the way back to Nashville. And you will.


    Bill comes downstairs barefoot, to show me where to park. A cocoa-colored labradoodle circles his legs excitedly. Ziggy! I carefully inch the SUV around the tightly curving path, trying to collect my suddenly scrambled thoughts as I look up and realize (Oh my god, it's right on the) that the home I'd been invited to stay at (water, it's actually RIGHT ON THE WATER) isn't in the suburbs, tucked away in some smallish town like I imagined, a quick drive or at best a decent walk to the water. It's an honest-to-goodness lake house. It's on the lake. This house is on the fucking lake.

    I explode out of the car to greet the 87 year-old friend I've seen, before today, only twice in my life.


    to be continued...

    PPRL: Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike (winner, 1991)

    I actually finished this one back in April, but then it was Coachella this and mind-altering drugs that, and really, I can't be expected to pursue goals on odd-numbered years as well as even ones.

    Anyway, it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to Rabbit. As I so rabidly frothed once before, with this series John Updike coasted to the top of my favorite authors list. This last installment secured his place there, I expect, quite permanently.

    There is one particularly unforgettable moment in Rabbit at Rest I'm going to share in hopes of backing up my Updike idolatry. There's tons more context and background than I can condense quickly but I'll do my best.

    Picture a middle aged man, a former basketball star whose teenage athleticism remains for him his greatest source of pride. But now he's packing on the pounds, an incessant snacker whose lack of self-control causes him shame and frustration. He's losing his sex appeal, and that stings, too. Harry greatly relies on the respect of others - his friends, his wife, even his young grandchildren - to help keep his ego healthy. But he's losing steam, and his lust for life. Today he's at Jungle Gardens animal park with his wife Janice and their grandkids Roy and Judy.

    After the flamingos, the path takes them to a snack bar in a pavilion, and a shell-and-butterfly exhibit, and a goldfish pond, and a cage of black leopards just as Harry had promised Roy. The black-eyed child stares at the animals’ noiseless pacing as if into the heart of a whirlpool that might suck him down. A small machine such as those that in Harry’s youth supplied a handful of peanuts or pistachio nuts in almost every gas station and grocery store is fixed to a pavilion post near an area where peacocks restlessly drag their extravagant feathers across the dust. Here he makes his historic blunder. As his three kin move ahead he fishes in his pocket for a dime, inserts it, receives a handful of brown dry objects, and begins to eat them. They are not exactly peanuts, but perhaps some Florida delicacy, and taste so dry and stale as to be bitter; but who knows how long these machines wait for customers? When he offers some to Judy, though, she looks at them, smells them, and stares up into his face with pure wonderment. “Grandpa!” she cries. “That’s to feed the birds! Grandma! He’s been eating birdfood! Little brown things like rabbit turds!” 
    Janice and Roy gather around to see, and Harry holds open his hand to display the shaming evidence. “I didn’t know,” he weakly says. “There’s no sign or anything.” He is suffused with a curious sensation; he feels faintly numb and sick but beyond that, beyond the warm volume enclosed by his skin, the air is swept by a universal devaluation; for one flash he sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard.

    I know. You probably have to be there, at that instant when everything has led to Harry's existential crisis - but I had to try.

    And now for today's round of No One Asked For 'Em, and No One Needs 'Em discussion questions!

    1. How are birds totemic in the novel? Sparrows, starlings, hawks, buzzards, flamingos...what do they represent, in the story and to Harry personally?

    2. Discuss the significance of old cars vs. the new, modern models. What's being sacrificed and what's being gained? Widen this view to the relationship between Harry and his son, old guard vs. new etc.

    3. Consider Harry's (blatant? latent?) racism. How does it serve him? What does it protect him from?

    4. How does the state Florida become a character of the story? How does it comfort him? How does it antagonize him?

    5. SUPER BIG THESIS MATERIAL - compare the interplay of sex and money in Rabbit is Rich with the interplay of sex and death in Rabbit at Rest.

    6. Unpack the parade scene. How is the parade a representation of Harry's own life? (hint: short, ridiculous, desperately trying to own a character he's deemed important...)

    open letter to my would-be identity thief

    To Whom I Should Be Concerned About,

    Thank you for your recent interest in assuming my identity. As by now you're probably aware, my financial institution has unfortunately decided to reject your offer of anonymous proxy. I say "unfortunately" since, not having met you, I can't comment on whether this was a wise choice. Fact is, most days I rather suck at being me. You might very well have been better at it. Hurt fewer people, be more productive, cook more interesting meals - that sort of thing. Now we'll never know.

    That is of course unless you decide to reapply, say, after a respectable interim? I can assure you that my bank is quite inept as a rule, and I expect any additional attempts at grift to slide by unnoticed. Indeed I remain shocked this one even caught their eye.

    However, should you wish to take another stab at defrauding me, might I make one small suggestion? Sign me up for better websites. I understand you must be terribly busy, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting to know your intended victim. And I, dear sir or madam, am no Christian. In fact there are few places online that hold less interest for me than ChristianMingle.com. For future reference, I've taken the liberty of compiling a short list of sites I'm more likely to be found browsing:

    FistAndMingle.com, the web's premier destination for brachiovaginal-curious singles

    ChristianMangle.com, containing a comprehensive photo archive of ancient Colosseum bloodsporting events

    CrispinMingle.com, where Crispin Glover fans can connect over their love of this multi-talented actor, director, recording artist, publisher, and author!

    ChristieDingle.com, fundraising home of presidential hopeful Chris Christie's fecal conservative supporters

    Thanks again for taking the time to briefly, if unsuccessfully, impersonate me online. As a blogger, I sustain myself emotionally on the supposition that everyone wants to be me. I appreciate you confirming my suspicion!

    Until next time,


    stephanie's standards

    "Oh but he's such a catch," she said, when her friends raised their eyebrows at one another. "He's got some limbs and a mouth and a functioning brain. He speaks fluent English and has read at least three books for pleasure. He can boil water and operate a car. I'm quite certain he's never murdered anyone, and he doesn't kick my dog."

    Thus enlightened, her friends had no choice but to be happy for her. Except for Stephanie, who secretly wondered what sort of fish had been thrown back.

    40 Bonnaroo Moments (part 2)

    13. Billy Joel. Creeping around in the dark field as his set is starting, trying to agree on the optimum spot. We end up on the VIP hill, where to my right I see a crowd of ninety thousand, illuminated by the towering lights of the What Stage. A mass of waving glow sticks, launched in huge bundles towards the sky at key points during songs. LED hula hoops, jump ropes, and all manner of blinking totems. And the lanterns. Those delicate paper balloons carefully lit and set aloft by the crowd, to the triumphant cheers of everyone nearby. They drift by overhead, tiny glowing festival clouds that complete the magic scene that is Bonnaroo's last night. And the music. Terence belting it out, totally absorbed, totally transplanted (probably someplace close to where I've gone; we're only two years apart, after all). I get weepy during "Piano Man" and giddy during "Only The Good Die Young" and everything in between is just all kinds of wonderful.

    14. Sometime this spring, "Sedona" by Houndmouth got under my skin in a really big way. The story in that song...I don't know, I just love it. And when they played it, well. Terence standing behind for me to alternately jump on and lean into, breaking my face on the biggest smile ever. Realizing it was only Thursday night and we had another three days' worth ahead of us.

    15. Do you know STS9? I did not. I don't know how I'd missed them, studying up. Right up my instrumental alley. We caught them on accident, grabbing a bite next to where they played. Sometimes, being completely removed from a stage offers the best vantage point. This was one of those times. We could see the entire light show, lasers and strobes blasted in every which way to the pulsing beat. From a distance, the whole thing look contained, like a sci-fi movie set standing alone on an otherwise dark island.

    16. A small thing, but heartwarming to see: the various Robin Williams totems.

    17. I say this with love in my heart for AWOLNATION: AWOLNATION is a big dork. I'd dragged Terence up close to the stage in the blazing heat, half an hour early. We and everyone around us utterly defeated by the sun, hardly anyone talking. Shading ourselves with our hands, sending emissaries out for cold drinks. But then the music starts and we all gamely jump up. Faithful, sun-fried fans, going on pure anticipation. He's animated, undeniably spirited and pumped to be at Bonnaroo. But also...awkward somehow? When he tries to rally the crowd between songs he sounds more like a morning radio DJ than a rockstar. It's a surprise, a bit of a let down at first, but then fun in its own way. We giggle at how goofy he comes across, and give in to what now feel like cheesy anthems.

    18. Cooling off in the VIP tent, girding ourselves for another several-hour stint in the sun. Terence uses the bathroom, and when he returns he finds me in conversation with a middle-aged man holding a silver mylar balloon. He's round and pink, pleasantly toasted by sunshine and alcohol. He's telling me about the vibrations in his balloon. How it's picking up levels of sound beyond what the speakers are producing. People are freaking out, he says, when they hear it. Goes on a bit about frequencies and secret, mystical music. Clearly having some kind of spiritual experience, with the balloon, sharing it with everyone he can. Terence gives it a try, and the surprised look on his face delights the man. See? Totally different waveforms, right? The balloon is passed to me. Yep. Totally different waveforms. Pretty damn cool.