Vacancies in Vacaville


In 2003, a few years after I graduated from college, an American Journalism Review piece came out called “Vacancies in Vacaville” highlighting how small, local papers faced a staff shortage because young journalists were cooling to the idea of toiling at a paper nobody ever heard of in return for equally unimpressive pay.

It resonated with me because my first job as a reporter had in fact landed me in a Vacaville of sorts. After graduation in late 1998, I got in my car and drove across the Carolinas, stopping to interview at tiny papers in postage-stamp towns. I smiled politely over a lot of plates of collards and paper-piled desks before accepting a job as the sports editor of The Havelock News, in a North Carolina town of the same name. The paper’s circulation was whisper-thin and running the sports section meant covering everything up to and including Little League and fishing tournaments. I laid out the sports section in the waning years of paste-up still being a thing. After my time there, I moved on for a short stint to help out at the sister paper up the road, The New Bern Sun Journal, before arriving at The Daily Reflector in Greenville, N.C., for a few years. The Palm Beach Postwould come later. Today, it’s these smaller, local papers I’m thinking about.

At The Havelock News, my colleagues were a husband-and-wife publisher-editor duo who were a reasonable facsimile of a power couple in a town best known for its military base; a jack-of-all-trades guy named Tom who was the news department, photographer, and circulation system all rolled into one; and a few ad sales folks who liked to dissect the local high school football team’s performance that week with me while they chain-smoked out front. At the Sun-Journal and the Reflector, I came to know more incredibly kind, incredibly dedicated journalists who didn’t obsess about when they’d move up to a major metro paper, but rather, focused on giving something of value to the town they served every day.

There were the senior columnists who held the institutional memory of the town and for whom you actually wanted to add a “Mister” before their names because they were old enough to be your grandfather and they had as much gravitas. The editorial writers who served as the collective local conscience, or at least tried to remind everyone that they should use their own each day. The lifestyles writers who knew where to send you when what you needed was the lighter but no less crucial stuff in life – barbecue and pie, a good craft beer, live music, a spot to gaze up at the stars on meteor shower nights. Reporters who went after shady county commissioners one day and dove into a strawberry festival the next, without being patronizing about the latter. Editors – great editors – who worked with cub reporters unaware of how to locate their ass in relation to their elbow, coaching them patiently, aware that these kids would likely move on in a year or two, but treating it as an investment in the kid and the profession itself.

Local papers are located in strip malls and anonymous office parks. They’ve got nondescript furniture and stained carpets and break rooms with coffee pots that haven’t been properly washed in a decade, if ever. (The high-definition digital screens displaying real-time, online metrics in the closest major city’s newsroom might as well be the moon.) At local papers still occupying an original building dedicated by long-gone town elders, they’ve got a cramped back room where artifacts like old photos, ancient lead typeface, and yellowed back issues are piled. It’s a room that gives that particular generation of the paper a sense of their responsibility for unspooling the thread of the town’s story at that moment in history. How what they do matters no less than what the guys at the bigs do.

A small, local paper’s staff is a microcosm of the town. You build friendships, taking time to talk about each other’s hobbies and pets and kids in a way that’s not rushed, superficial workplace chitchat but is instead borne out of genuine curiosity because it’s a curious lot attracted to this job. You bitch about and to the editors together. You can stand up in News and lob a jab at someone in Sports and Features hears it and joins in. You’re connected, physically and emotionally, in a way that just doesn’t always happen at the large papers. On the hardest days – a harrowing murder needs covering, or Sept. 11 happens – you pull each other through and then slump into the same bar booth together that night and cry or just stare off into space together or offer each other words of comfort and the darkest gallows humor the moment calls for. Then you all get up the next morning and do it again. From scratch. Together.

Yesterday, the fraternity of men and women who help unspool that thread of local storytelling suffered an unspeakable blow. Today, an awful lot of us who ever got paid a little bit to find the words, simply can’t.


Take Heart, Hillary.

On Tuesday night, as Sec. Hillary Clinton delivered a rousing victory speech upon having cleaned up in four key primary states, MSNBC anchor and talking Vineyard Vines bowtie Joe Scarborough had some helpful political advice for her face while delivering the speech:

Much has already been expressed about why and exactly how Joe Scarborough can go screw himself. For example here and here.

But I thought I’d do some historical research. It turns out you can take heart, Secretary Clinton. The “Smile.” guys throughout history have put you in excellent company.

Smile, Cleopatra.

Smile, Joan of Arc.SmileJoanofArc

Smile, Marie Curie.SmileMarieCurie

Smile, suffragettes.SmileSuffragettes.jpg

Smile, Marian Anderson.SmileMarianAnderson.jpg

Smile, Rosa Parks.

Smile, Dolores Huerta.SmileDoloresHuerta.jpg

Smile, Kathrine Switzer.SmileKathrineSwitzer.jpg

Hey, Progressives: Stop Bringing Fists to a Gun Fight


I’m rarely surprised anymore by the disingenuous nature of arguments against gun violence prevention. But I’ve gotta give a standing, sarcastic slow clap to one of my friend’s Facebook chums who spent a portion of his day yesterday arguing that if we limit guns in any way, we need to do the same for fists because those can kill people, too.

Certainly you remember the time 26 little children and teachers got punched in the face while cowering in their classrooms in Newtown, or the day when 32 college students and professors dove for cover and frantically blocked doors to avoid getting socked at Virginia Tech.

It’s ludicrous. Get a brain morans, amiright?

Yeah, well here’s the thing though: This side is winning the argument.

In fact, they’re not even being forced to make an actual argument. After a shooting — pick a shooting, any shooting — they need merely to fill a few days with defensive butthurt posturing about how we’re all coming for all of their guns
…and their freedom
…and it’s about tryanny
…and #notallgunowners
…and those stats have suicides in them
…and black-on-black crime in Chicago
…and mental health!

(By the way, if you want to have some fun, ask the people opposed to any gun control who hide behind the mental health argument after a shooting the following question: “Oh, do you regularly vote for candidates who advocate for increased funding for public mental health services?” You’ll see the facial equivalent of the three blinking text dots.)

Earlier this week, before we all saw the new depths of depravity to which our gun culture could sink, a local conservative writer whom I follow on Twitter shared a chest-thumping news item about a 14-year-old boy forced to use a gun to defend his sister during a robbery. Because that’s what passes for a well-regulated militia these days: Kids who have to take up guns to defend against adults with guns, being fetishized by adults who love humping their own guns so much that they don’t think any guns ever are the problem. Rather than sharing this story as evidence of a country that needs a course correction right this actual goddang nanosecond, the writer shared the mainstream media news item with his version of the trademark ho-ho-chortle, “Bet you won’t read about this in the mainstream media!”

So what’s to be done? Here are a few modest proposals:

  • Stop smiling politely at people who argue that there’s nothing wrong with this nation’s relationship with guns and there are no laws that could possibly improve the shooting-of-the-other-people-frequently situation. This attitude would be laughable if the consequences weren’t deadly. Call them on their b.s. then and there. While Facebook is the great connector of people with diverse opinions, it’s also fostering the mistaken notion that all arguments have equal consequences. Repeat after me: some arguments are insanely naive and dangerous. Declaim and shame.
  • Stop tolerating your favorite progressive politician trotting out her or his gun bonafides in awkward campaign-trail hunting photo-ops. Nobody’s coming for hunting. It’s still your right as an American to blow the head off of a deer from time to time, as the Framers intended. But Democratic politicians don’t do this ridiculous hunting photo-op to send a signal that they support hunting; they’re blowing a dog whistle to let gun owners know they’re totes cool about all this gun stuff because they’re regular Joes, just like them. Instead, demand all politicians prove their “real America” cred by trying to find a parking spot at Costco on a Saturday morning or get a @#% Jibbitz into a Croc.
  • Put your money where your Facebook posting is. Take a second now and give to the Brady Campaign.
  • Start calling the NRA (as an institution) what it is: a special interest machine that is actively funding and promoting violence on American soil. You’re a responsible gun owner who is cool with what the NRA does in the halls of Congress in your name? Then you’re not a responsible gun owner. Take the gun, leave the gun violence lobby.

Finally, and this one’s the hardest: Don’t give up.

I did, for a long time. After Newtown, seeing the paralysis of my President and Congress in the face of 26 executed elementary school children and their teachers, I gave up. We got to the point where these massacres — Navy Yard, Isla Vista, Lafayette — weren’t even registering for more than a few days of the news cycle.

I gave up until this week. In part, it was the fist argument yesterday. I mean, seriously, that f*cking guy. Come on.

But also this week I sent my daughter back to school. First grade: the same as many of the Newtown victims. They’re going to have a lockdown drill so my 6-year-old knows where to run in case of a shooting in her classroom.

This week, two journalists were shot to death on live television.

We can keep living in this America. The one where we give up when afforded every opportunity and encouragement to do just that. Or we can organize, we can give money, and we can demand better. After this week, what seems the most sensible thing to you: gun control, or rolling over again?

Take It Down. Wake Up.


When I moved onto the sorority hall my junior year of college in South Carolina, I inherited from the previous room’s inhabitant something of an heirloom. It was one of those sturdy wood loft beds that double both your dorm space and your risk of falling out of bed drunk in the middle of the night.

This particular loft bed was coveted because the standard-issue beige had been painted white and decorated by the delicate, artistic hand of my sorority sister. Its posts were totem poles of femininity, with garlands of kites and pansies — our sorority’s symbols — and tiger paws — our school’s symbol — and other sophisticated doodlings. It also had a small, daintily painted Confederate flag.

The day I came into possession of the bed, one of my sorority sisters walked into my room, zeroed in on the flag and asked flatly, “You’re going to paint over that, right?” I mumbled something about how it didn’t really mean anything to me as a symbol so it didn’t matter one way or the other. The withering, give-me-a-fucking-break look she leveled at me shamed me into walking downtown to the store and getting a small cannister of paint. I covered it up later that week.

White People of 2015, it’s time to walk to the store.

It’s time to at least deliver on what has to be the most belated, half-assed measure of decency and respect we can muster for this nation’s black citizens: Take down the flag representing an ideology rooted in ownership of their great-great-grandparents.

For some of you, the velocity of your knees jerking upward into your faces right now has left you writhing and howling on the floor so I will say loudly and slowly what apparently needs saying these days: Nobody is blaming you personally for slavery. I’m going to repeat that because you’re still making a lot of horrible noises down there. Again, nobody is blaming you personally for slavery. We’ve Googled it. We’re reasonably sure you weren’t there. You are still entitled to cold beer on a Friday night and a pair of jeans that fit just right.

(For the record, this week someone pretty smart pointed out that the same folks who feel the need to protest that slavery had nothing to do with them because it was 150 years ago seem to have no problem engaging in some time-and-space-transcending tongue kissing with the Founding Fathers of 239 years ago. But I digress.)

What people are asking you to acknowledge, some White People of 2015, is that slavery provided a disgusting introduction to this country for black people. Weird how that happens when they were forced here in chains and endured a holocaust en route and upon arrival. Before you cry foul on this assessment, keep in mind that you get genuinely upset when you check into a hotel room and it doesn’t match the online pictures. (Seriously, this is apparently such a widespread source of dude-rage that they based an entire commercial campaign on it.)

After slavery came more lynchings, systemic violence, Jim Crow, poverty, dogs and firehoses, separate and unequal education, mass incarceration, and every other pile of insane nonsense up to and including the inability to walk without disruption into their own damn houses some nights.

Then this past week a young, racist terrorist used an old, racist terrorist tactic: murdering black Americans in a church. Instantly, the obfuscation began.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley released a statement that she was simply baffled by the motive, even though it was already widely reported by credible news organizations that the massacre was motivated by hatred of black Americans. Fox News called it an attack on Christianity, and um, nothing else at all to see here so move it along and go buy some gold or something. And South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham urged us to blame only the killer; that there was no blame to set down at the base of the Confederate flag pole that was a rallying symbol for this homicidal degenerate and supremacist hate groups across the nation.

Now, I need to pause here and say that I used to intern for Senator Graham back when he was Representative Graham on the other side of Capitol Hill, and I was on the other side of the political spectrum. And these days when I drop that bit of personal history in the middle of a deep-blue cocktail party and I’m greeted with a wall of stinkface and a chorus of “WHAAA?s” I always say the same thing, with a shrug. “I used to be a Republican in college. It was a phase. I was experimenting. He’s a good man and his party doesn’t change that.”

That’s the thing. Senator Graham is a good man. So was the gentle, soft-spoken sorority sister who painted the Confederate flag on my loft bed as an artistic afterthought, not a political statement. So are most of the kids, parents, and teachers who every morning walk into public schools named for Confederate generals and whose mascots and banners carry these outdated symbols. For many in South Carolina and across the South in 2015, the flag is as innocuous a symbol as the Vineyard Vines whale.

That is a monumental problem.

The Confederate flag is a visual manifestation of horror and genocide for a lot of folks, so — and this is a hard concept for some White People of 2015 to grasp — those folks win.

It’s that simple. Their opinion and demand is paramount. Their pain and righteous rage and incredulity is more important than nebulous hurt feelfeels and nostalgia. (Also, some of you invoking the “heritage not hate” argument aren’t exactly Shelby Foote. Quick… name three Kardashians. Now, just as quickly name three key Confederate figures at the surrender at Appomattox. Exactly. Take a seat, Herodotus.)

Yet we’re living in a time of pathological opposition to the value of one idea over another. Stories about climate change, which 97 percent of published scientific research concludes is an actual thing, need to give equal time to the 3 percent that doesn’t. Everyone gets a trophy for trying in the marketplace of ideas. Fox News says “Fair and Balanced” with a straight face.

As Larry Willmore pointed out this week in taking on Fox’s insanely disingenuous coverage of the Emanuel AME Church massacre, when these types of atrocities happened in the 1960s, the country at least coughed up the unified admission that they were motivated by race and we had a serious problem on our hands. Today, we’ve got Fox dragging us to the mountaintop, but this time it’s Murdoch’s Bullshit Mountain.

In contrast, it was a positive sign to see Mitt Romney say this weekend that the Confederate flag needs to come down. It was a public step outside the confines his party has carved for itself and he didn’t have to take it.

This week, I heard my husband, a Texas native, talk about the first time he realized he needed to actually say something out loud when someone said something racist. To actually wake up, shake off the stupor of this most insidious form of white politesse and acknowledge it’s not enough to mumble and stare at our feet. It’s not enough anymore to sit in uncomfortable silence on a bus headed to a fraternity formal as some jackass is scream-singing a ditty about lynchings.

Most people won’t rally at a state house to take down the Confederate flag, as some did today in South Carolina. Most people will unfortunately have the opportunity to speak up to racism at work, at the bar, on the ballfield.

When I painted over the loft bed Confederate flag, I didn’t end racism. In fact I couldn’t even entirely eradicate that flag. Despite my best effort, some of the red remained murkily visible under the surface for the rest of the time I owned it. It was a  ridiculously small step. I’m embarrassed I needed someone else to tell me to take it.


405947_10151593592441136_1000477886_nMy sister is going to run 26.2 miles and finish the New York City Marathon today.

Wait. I don’t think you understand.

Prior to 2013, she did not run. Like ever. In fact, she had the same pair of white Reeboks from high school for about 20 years. She’s naturally skinny and can eat whatever she wants and yes, you’d loathe her for this if you didn’t otherwise know her. The year she got engaged, she decided she was going to get in shape and went running with me around a large lake where we vacation. I’d always been the runner in the family. That day, I think she made it a third of the way around before I invoked the mercy rule on her behalf and we went back to the lodge to eat chocolate chip cookies.

So when she called me a little over a year ago and said she was going to run a half-marathon in D.C. because her company was a major sponsor, I burst out laughing. Then I realized she was serious. Then she did it, and I sh*t you not, she barely broke a sweat. It turns out that she is really, really good at this.

My siblings and I have very different personalities. Where I’m the creative hellraiser, she’s the controlled business exec. Where my life was a somewhat winding path of “hey, maybe I’ll do this now and I’ll care about this thing more than anything I’ve ever cared about!” hers has been laser-focused on ambitious, clear goals. She’s a superlative mother, a great cook, and in an age of oversharing, refreshingly discreet. All good things.

There’s a type of perfection in her first marathon (and her last, she swears) being the New York City Marathon. At this point she’s lived in this area longer than anywhere else. For more than 20 years, she’s worked in its heart and called the area home. It’s in her blood as much as anyone born out in Queens or representing Brooklyn.

She’s not looking to set any records today, just to finish. She’ll get to wind through the five buroughs at her own pace on her own terms. She’ll make her way into Manhattan at mile 16 and have 10.2 more to go in the shadow of that iconic skyline.

A few days after the Twin Towers fell, she told me that they’d been the symbol of the possibility the city held for her when she’d first arrived. A proxy not only for the entire physical, sparkly jungle, but for the spirit of what she wanted to achieve there — be big, own it. By the time they fell, she was successful in business and today, has even more: a husband who’s one of the good guys — one of the great guys — and two adorable tykes with the intelligence and cheery disposition of children from a 1920s English storybook.

We went together to pick up her race packet at the marathon expo. These things are always all high energy and free GuShots and moisture-wicking shirts, but this one was powerful, too. Because this was my big sister about to run the New York City #*%ing Marathon. She got her bib number and I held up my camera to take a picture and instantly started crying.

I can’t recall being more proud of her. Ten years older than I am, for my entire life, she’s looked out for me and cheered me on. When I was little, at church, she’d give my hand a little squeeze pattern during the Lord’s Prayer when we were both supposed to be busy praying for lost souls to sympathetic saints. A fashion exec, she spoiled me in high school with my first cashmere sweater and my first piece of Tiffany & Co. jewelry. When everyone else thought it was goofy that I was going to rush a sorority, she bought me my first set of real pearls.

For the past five years, in the most stressful moments of motherhood, I’d call her sniffling from my kitchen table… or the car… or curled up in the fetal position in a closet… and she’d listen, advise, and then pat me on the butt and send me back into the game ready to play another series.

Today, I’ll make sure she stays in the game. At mile 16 I’ll be cheering like a lunatic at the base of the Queensboro Bridge. At mile 20 I’ll be in the Bronx. At mile 24, I’ll be in Central Park. But she’ll cross the finish line all by herself. She’s the runner in the family now. I’ll be the one happy-crying on the other side of the camera.


Ho Ho Hum: The 2014 Restoration Hardware Holiday Catalog

Not sure when, but at some point in the past few years, Restoration Hardware became the company that appeared to be modeling its aesthetic and marketing pitch on a Bergman film. And not his zany sex farce period, either, but the ones where everyone’s very serious and very Swedish.

For most of the year this doesn’t pose much of a problem. Life is grim these days so having an $8,999 bed constructed of a whale’s bleached bones just makes sense, you know? But at the holidays, Restoration Hardware has to somehow perk things up a bit to get you to buy crap for your family and friends. This year though, (deep sigh), you guys? 

They just.

Let’s take a peek at how everyone’s favorite homegoods outpost is putting on a holiday happy face!

Sad Robe Couple is Sad
You probably shouldn’t have had that affair with the hostess in the Hamptons this summer. It became uncomfortable when the fall came ’round and the wind blew colder over the dunes, bending the tall grass just so against the greying sky. Some day we’ll laugh again I suppose. Regardless, these robes are very comfortable. It was thoughtful of your secretary to purchase them for 4

Holiday Pajama Time Sister Fun
“Is he still seeing her?” “I don’t know.” “Do you think there’s any gluten-free eggnog left in the refrigerator?” “Dammit, Jillian, I don’t know. Christ, would you lay off with the questions?” “I miss Nana and PopPop.” “Me, too, Jillian. Me, too.”photo 1 (1)

Holiday Time is a Flat Circle
It’s Christmas! In Carcosa! Nothing says it’s time for the birth of the king of Israel like decor fashioned by the King in 1

Holiday Carols
At this point in the catalog, Restoration Hardware lightens the mood with a plug for new sister act Larkin Poe. Their music sounds like this catalogue looks. It sounds…greige. And as an added bonus they’re actually related to noted laugh-a-minute writer Edgar Allan Poe. In Restoration Hardware world this is like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk and then having your McMansion’s jumbo loan mortgage refinanced at a lower rate all in the same 4 (1)

Christmas is Going to the Dogs
You’d be sad, too, if you were made to sit atop a pile of beds designed to look like they skinned your mother to make them. So this is dog. Much 2

These dogs are also sad. They’re covered in fur, and yet, that wasn’t enough for Restoration Hardware. They’re meant to wear more fur it seems. More. More. More. All that fur can’t bring happiness. Sigh…photo 3

I, Robot. I Struggle with Depression.
Hey, where’d all this color come from all of a sudden? It’s freaking Sad Cubebot out, man! Jesus, tone it down a notch, red Etch A Sketch! STFU, Rubik’s Cube! Cubebot just lost his best friend in a freak Goodwill donation bag mixup and doesn’t need to be processing all this saturation of hues right now! ARGGHHHH!photo 1 (2)

Giant Vintage Chess Set
For the friend who has everything. Except, it appears, another friend with whom to play chess. photo 5

You Can Never Go Wrong with Framed Photos
How about a picture frame with a photo of a worker in grinding poverty hauling a back-breaking sack of grain that will be used to make food he will then sell at a market to others to try to scrape together enough at the end of the day to feed his own children? So pretty!photo 3 (1)

The Hot and the Cold Are Just So Intense/Put ‘Em Together
They Just Make Sense
Finally someone’s having a little fun in a Restoration Hardware catalog! Look at that smile. Well guess what, motherf*cker, this is a Restoration Hardware catalog and you’re about to melt. Over and over and over. Talk about time being a flat circle, 2 (2)

And Then Put a Bow On It
Because brown paper packages tied up with string may meet the requisite neutrality laws of Restoration Hardware, but they don’t convey the necessary menacing undertone for which the company is ever striving. If you want that kind of cozy twee pretension, you haul your tuchus over to Anthropologie, mister. At Restoration Hardware, every gift should look as if it may contain a limited-edition Beretta or a subpoena.
photo 3 (2)

“Margot Fonteyn didn’t have great feet.”


Nothing good ever results from a charity silent auction at a child’s school.

Earlier this year, when I won a $180 gift card to a hoity toity ballet academy for only $50 I thought, “Aha! I have beaten the racket that is charity auctions. Eat it, moochin’ kids dreaming of desks and chairs and textbooks!”

Before we proceed with the rest of this story, you need to know a few things about me. One, I get horrible leg and foot cramps on a near daily basis. In the grand scheme of things, this is a marshmallow malady so I don’t complain about it. I do however, avoid bending my feet voluntarily whenever possible. And the second thing you need to know about me is that when it comes to demonstrating I am competent at whatever the task at hand is, I am a control freak who does not like being in over my head.

So it was with deliberate precision that I selected “Beginner Ballet” to begin my ballet academy instruction. Here’s how it went.

* Enter ballet academy. Inquire as to location of Beginner Ballet and the nice lady at the desk refers me to Studio B.

* Make the turn to Studio B and see women splayed about on the ground outside of it doing rather advanced looking stretches. “Weird,” I think to myself. “I figured they’d teach us how to do proper stretches as a starting point. It’s like these women already know how to do them. But clearly that is silly and not true because we are all beginners here.” A woman who appears to be in her 70s sprawled on the ground begins windmilling her legs in their hip sockets. “She is quite limber for an older woman,” I think to myself.

* Notice another older woman in pink tights and a black leotard with a little old lady tiny potbelly. She is adorable and her outfit makes me giggle. “Old people are so cute,” I think to myself.

* Door opens and we’re welcomed into Studio B. This room will be the rocks upon which I dash myself. My Waterloo. By Battle of the Little Bighorn. My Godfather III.

* The instructor assures me I’m in the right place because this is “Beginner Ballet.” Oddly enough she does not use finger quotes around the word “Beginner.” Instead, she makes ill-advised use of our brief time together to point me to the bars set up in the center of the room and tells me to find a spot.

* My 20 other compatriots in the class enter the room and appear to be normal, human women who are also new to ballet (for the moment I set aside the voice nagging in my head that they looked awfully impressive stretching in the hall). They range in age from 16 to late 70s. “This is going to be fun learning a new artform and growing in this community of strong, beautiful, empowered women!” I think to myself. “Let’s get it, sisters!”

* The instructor begins going through the coming steps in rapid-fire French — “Kinda quick there and um, a lot of those words are not in English,” I think to myself — and the accompanist begins at the piano and immediately it becomes clear that this community of women has been learning and growing without me. They all know what they’re doing. I tentatively slide my toe out to the first move and it’s instantaneous: FOOT CRAMP

* I go up on my toes as instructed. CALF CRAMP FOOT CRAMP STILL HAPPENING NOW IN BOTH FEET The women are now all pivoting around and I am facing a line of them facing me at the bar. “Crap,” I think to myself, swinging myself around to at least face the same direction as they are, even if none of my limbs are even remotely approximating what theirs are doing. FOOT CRAMPS follow the swinging.

* The old lady in the pink tights and the leotard has suddenly become the Black Swan and could mop the floor with me.

jpeg* She and the others are now all gracefully swinging in the other direction. I am clutching the bar and it’s just all CALF CRAMP FOOT CRAMP ALL THE TIME from the hips down. I begin praying to all the saints and the angels and the apostles and Ballet Jesus to please, please make it stop. I think back to one of my favorite books from childhood, the nonfiction A Very Young Dancer, which chronicles a girl navigating the School of American Ballet in New York. Frantically, I try to conjur any helpful tidbits from the book I cherished and read obsessively as a child, but all I can remember is the yogurt she got to snack on between school and ballet and a picture of Suzanne Farrell looking amazing in oversized sunglasses and a silk headscarf watching a rehearsal.

* CALF CRAMP I look at the clock. Twelve minutes have passed. Twelve. The class is 90 minutes long.

* Now the damn corps de ballet is smoothly and efficiently responding to French instructions to demi-plié and tendu and do a move that I swear to God is just the name of a Starbucks beverage and all I can think is, “Center Stage LIED! This isn’t fun at all! Dammit, Jody Sawyer!”

* When I said that, I was talking out of pain and shame. Center Stage is a really good movie.


* My m.o. in most new activities is to fake it until I make it and that begins with looking the part. This being ballet, the pale pinks and the black and the wispy skirty things were right in my wheelhouse. As I wheeze and spin and move my Frankenstein monster feet to catch up with the rest of the class, it occurs to me that in buying the ballet shoes and gear for this class I’ve already spent more on it than the gift card itself. “Damnable silent auction, you’ve won again!” I think to myself. FOOT CRAMP

* Every time the instructor yells out “sous sous!” I want to respond with “Sussudio” in my best Phil Collins voice and do a little hip shimmy. I get the feeling this would not be appreciated.

* In a brief moment of pause, as the women are readjusting their feet for the next series, I frantically whisper to the young woman next to me to ask whether this is in fact beginner ballet. And she looks at me with stunning big, doe eyes and whispers back apologetically, “Yes, but it doesn’t mean what you thought. I think you want Intro to Ballet which is for people who don’t know what they’re doing.” Had we been in the South this statement would have assuredly been capped with, “Bless your heart.” She does add, “I think it’s on Saturdays.”

* “I am in the wrong class,” I think to myself repeatedly. FOOT CRAMP REPEATEDLY “I am a beginner. These women have for some reason self-identified as beginners. Under no circumstances have they just begun. Does “beginner” have another meaning in French? Why the hell did I waste all that time studying Spanish in school? I’ve never once needed to find a biblioteca in Madrid or let someone know that I consider them mas guapo than Juanita, and I am now in desparate need of French terminology.” CALAMBRE EN EL PIE

* Suddenly everyone stops and all of the women are smoothly and efficiently hustling the bars from the middle of the room over to the side. I take the opportunity to hobble over to the instructor and inquire as to the talent level in the room. She is, for her part, super cool and relaxed about all of this. “Oh yeah, beginner doesn’t really mean beginner in ballet. But you’re doing greaaaaaat. Staaaaay. By the way, you want Intro to Ballet. It’s on Saturdays.” I nod pathetically and promise to stay, before waddling back to the now-cleared floor. FOOT CRAMP CALF CRAMP

* Next up, is the part of the class where we dance without the support of a bar. I’m doubly impressive because I dance this portion of the class without the support of the bar or talent.

* And then we arrive at what I’d dreaded most, other than the FOOT CRAMP CALF CRAMP: division into smaller groups. We will be crossing the floor to perform an inscrutable series of foot maneuvers in groups of four or five. I watch Group 1 arabesqueing their way across the floor. “Aw hell nah,” I think to myself and just keep moving to the back of the line.

* The accompanist begins playing “La Vie en Rose.” I contemplate sitting down next to her on the bench and singing.

* Finally, mercifully, it ends. I am not aware that the end is coming, having given up on both my feet and my calves and the clock and my dreams. But the rest of the dance cabal appears to know that it’s the end because they all, as if on silent cue, smoothly and efficiently move into a graceful stance and go through a series of maneuvers that the instructor didn’t even explain ahead of time. Beginners, my derrière.

* Derrière. That’s a French word I know.

I clap for the accompanist, which is a thing that I quickly intuit how to do when the rest of the not-beginners automatically do it. I crawl for the door. I thank the instructor. I make my way to the front desk and say, “Um, yeah, sooo, I think maybe I was in the wrong class? That was ‘Beginner’?” — and here I most definitely make use of finger quotes — “but it didn’t seem like it was maybe?”

The women at the desk are very kind and apologetic and say ohmygoodnessno you shouldn’t have been in that class if you don’t know anything about ballet. “You want Intro to Ballet!” they announce in near-unison. “It’s on Saturdays!” And then the younger of the two women, who is clearly a dancer, looks at me and says, “Oooh, or you could also do our stretching class at this same time. I think it would be uhmaaayzing for you.”

And with this, I thank her, take the Intro to Stretching brochure she presses into my hand and head out into the rainy, dark night.

Necesito una cerveza.

“Every Thursday should end exactly like this.”

9781423121909-blackout12_zoomMy mind today meanders as it does every year not just to the obvious — to The Day — but to Aug. 14, 2003. The day the lights went out and New York City found itself in what should have been an entirely unfamiliar position: powerless. The northeast blackout.

And what always stays with me each year on Sept. 11, is the memory of something I read in the days following the blackout. I don’t remember where I read it or the name of the guy who said it. But he was describing the mood of the city that afternoon and evening. The initial prickly tension that came when, a little after 4 p.m., the power of the city hummed down to silence. It was two years and too soon after The Day. Again? Please not again.

But then, despite the gridlock, despite the heat, despite the abandoned subways and too-clogged taxis and tired feet — despite the general weirdness of it all — when evening fell and folks trudged home, there came a cheerful resignation. There were picnics and impromptu rooftop cocktail parties and neighbors sitting on the stoop to talk and escape the heat inside.

There was, this guy said in the line that has always stayed with me, a sense of almost-giddy relief when the realization came that, on this day, nobody was trying to kill us.

blackout_07A few years ago, an artist named John Rocco released a beautiful children’s book about that night called, simply, Blackout. As happens now, they made a book trailer to promote it. These trailers are a little goofy fact of book promotion life these days, but I actually like this one. Because it captures the eventual delight of that day. The sense of community. The knowledge that there was still a type of misfortune that could be chuckled at.

A woman in it smiles at the memory of that day. “Every Thursday should end exactly like this.”

It certainly should.

Because You Can’t Eat Mailer or Updike, That’s Why

A fair number of folks on Facebook these days are sharing the 10 books that have stayed with them throughout their lives. I don’t mind and I don’t judge anyone’s entirely genuine and not-at-all-engineered lists, but as an English major there is no way to create that list without coming off like an insufferable talking tweed jacket. I mean Ulysses would be on my list. Seriously. The book haunts my waking life and it’s largely because I hate most of it but keep rereading the damn thing to try to figure it out. My bookshelves are clogged with annotated guides, and deconstructions and reconstructions and I’ve touched the door at No. 7 Eccles Street in Dublin like Ouisa Kittredge high-fiving God on the Sistine Chapel. So at this point it’s fair to say that it’s a book that has “stayed with me” even as I’ve hurled it across a room. Come at me, haters.

But in an effort to avoid literary induced violence, I thought I’d try my hand at creating a totally new type of list: The 10 meals that have stayed with me. Not literally of course; that would be gross. What surprised me while considering this list is that only a few of them are on here because they were at a specific, ballyhooed restaurant. The majority were about the mood, not the meal. In no particular order, they are as follows.

* Tasting menu at Le Bernardin, New York City, 2014. By myself, with a book. Eric Ripert’s culinary temple was on my bucket list and I suddenly found myself alone in the city with spare time one night while already dressed up from an event. “Why not,” I thought? It ended up being a spectacular decision, albeit one that cost approximately $3 per minute. Got free dessert later that night though when I joined two older gentlemen who’d struck up a conversation with me from the neighboring table. “Nobody who pre-orders souffle from La Grenouille could be a murderer,” I thought before taking the serendipitous leap and joining them. Fun night, nobody got murdered and I probably only vaguely came off like a culinary call girl. It was the most uncharacteristic thing I’ve ever done and the universe was chill about that on that night.

* Homemade taco dinner at my place in Adams Morgan, 2006. A perfect, warm, breezy summer night getting to know a new friend at the time, Johanna. We sat on the balcony that was more like a beefed-up fire escape, with the brick walls of the neighboring buildings rising up around us like Rear Window’s establishing shot. We listened to Amy Winehouse’s recently released Back to Black on constant repeat, our dogs at our feet, dishing for hours and the whole time it was “yayyy, new friend!”

* New family dinner, hospital room, 2009. It’s a tradition at the hospital where I gave birth to our daughter to do a special meal for the new parents. Above-average hospital dinner and sparkling cider plus a pledge that the approximately 148 residents, interns and admins normally coming through the room like Grand Central Station wouldn’t bother you for 30 minutes. I don’t remember what we ate – other than an amuse-bouche of painkillers for me — but I do remember that it was awfully interesting to have a new dining companion. I didn’t even mind that she was sleeping and drooling, which I normally consider rude from my dinner guests.

* Backyard bbq, Labor Day 2003, West Palm Beach, Fla., at the home of friends Mary Ellen and David. I didn’t know anyone well yet, having arrived only a few months earlier to work at the paper, so I cheerfully accepted the invite from my reporter colleague Mary Ellen and her husband. Their beautiful Spanish-style, very West Palm Beach-y home was the heart and homebase for many Palm Beach Post folks, the site of frequent parties with a bohemian flare and a menu to match. Turns out on this particular night, when they pulled together about five or six friends for a casual dinner, there was plotting afoot. Because they very specifically and deliberately invited one of the newspaper’s crime reporters, too…

* 19th birthday dinner, Kinkead’s in D.C., 1996.  Oddly enough I don’t remember much about what I ate — pepper crusted fish of some sort was involved — but I remember vividly the navy and green plaid skirt and navy blue v-neck sweater I was wearing to visit the now-shuttered institution with my parents for my 19th birthday. Making conversation that night with my parents and enjoying the dinner, I remember feeling very, very mature and very, very #ThisTown before I even knew what that was. I was neither, for the record. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure that meal gave me food poisoning because I spent the next day throwing up uncontrollably, but it’s still on this list because it was really hard to get a reservation there in those days.

* Oysters and champagne, New York City, summer of 1997. Yes, if you do the math or remember the date from the item above, I would have been underage. Let’s move on. So there I am in New York City for the summer with a Harper’s Bazaar magazine internship and an editor who was a nice, chic fairy godmother. She’d rescued me from what was then the viperous bitchpit of the fashion features department, staffed by terrifying mean girls who in retrospect were likely all of 22 or 23 and living five to a one-bedroom apartment. Anyhoo, this editor took me under her elegant, Calvin Klein-sheathed minimalist wing and into her one-woman design features department. She would tote me along to gallery openings in the evening, and on this one particular night, the toting was to a gallery where we met the Beastie Boys, because one of them had taken an interest in obscure vintage pottery. (I have no idea either. Don’t ask.) Then we decamped to the Village and I had my first oysters and drank champagne and we made our tipsy way back up to midtown on the backs of bicycles peddled by God knows who. That was pretty much Peak Cool for me.

* Cornbread with honey and fried alligator at Southern Culture, Charlottesville, Va., 1994. I’m pretty sure this restaurant is long gone but it was an upscale Southern cooking, must-do hotspot when I visited UVA as a high school junior on my tour of potential colleges. After years traveling the South as a kid, this was my first time exploring it as a soon-to-be-adult and I was considering whether I wanted to live there or head north. I still remember the way the late afternoon light came into that place and refracted across the table when it hit the honey, stored in a plastic bear for irony’s sake. That dinner and that night helped confirm my belief that the whole laid-back, southern eclectic thing was what I wanted to be a part of in the coming years. Also, biscuits. I wanted sun-drenched, butter-and-irony honey-covered biscuits.

* Goat cheese mousse on homemade cracker perched atop citrus salad, Fiola, 2014. We were celebrating my recent promotion. Snow was falling outside. I still fantasize about this dish. To quote Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.”

* Tea at The Plaza, Lattes in Orlando, 1990-1994. When you’re lucky enough to have two siblings way older than you, they serve as your sherpas to a cooler life and as an added bonus, they foot the bill. So it was that in the space of these years, when I was a teenager, that I first headed up to visit my sister in New York and she took me for a sumptuous high tea at The Plaza. And while I thought I was quite fancy, I wasn’t talented enough to fake being fancy through an entire pot of bitter tea, so I insisted on a silver pot of hot chocolate instead. There were scones with clotted cream and little cakes and by the end, I was likely in a sugar coma but I felt like tween Eloise. And then a few years later, I visited my brother and sister-in-law in Orlando and they took me to a decidedly hip coffee house and I ordered my first latte that came in a mug the size of my head. I poured a half cup of sugar into it and nodded knowingly as we listened to whatever early grunge or poetry slam thing was unfolding in front of us. Reality Bites had just come out, Singles was a couple years out, and it was like we were in these movies, people.

* Lobster bisque in little porcelain teacups, the Hay-Adams’ Lafayette Room, Oct. 25, 2008. It was all grey, gloomy rain outside and glowing and soft inside. My brother came over to my table and pointed out that we were playing Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” at that particular moment and that he loved that. Scott and I were particularly dressed up on this occasion for some reason. Utter glee. The bisque was delicious.


Aw, screw it, here’s my 10 books anyway: Ulysses (We’ve gone over this. Stuff it.), Little House in the Big Woods, The End of the Affair, Sunset Gun, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, All the Presidents Men, Cash: The Autobiography.