Battle Cry of the Middle-Aged Bullied

The Bully List
The Bully List

How much bully-induced rage does it take to finally push a person over the precipice?

Schoolyard bullies have enjoyed too much press for the last twenty or so years: there is nothing new under the sun to report about that, except possibly its lightning fast delivery through time and space thanks in no small part to sophisticated electronics and the ‘net. I don’t have a thing to add to that conversation.

But I might have something to say about this phenomenon dressed in its grown-up clothing—you could call it passive aggression, but make no mistake: what I’m talking about is bullying. This mom blogger did it way more justice in her 2010 post-gone-viral than I can hope to here. I understand her, even if my own child’s circumstances were a tad different, because I witnessed the kind of grown-up pushing and shoving she describes too many times during my parenting years. Its more benign version occurred every single day in the guise of compulsive parent volunteers who not only “selflessly” signed up to serve on every school committee or volunteer at every event, but also made sure the rest of the world (read: the parents who did not sign up) knew all about it. Call it magnanimity and self-sacrifice if you will, but it is needful superiority, plain and simple, practically oozing from the pores of parents who knew they were better than you because they stepped up to the plate more often.

I can think of distinctly more sinister examples of grown-up bullying, like a particular weekday morning in 2004 when I dropped my challenging child in the fourth grade classroom at the pressure-cooker private school he attended at the time. It was the worst school year to date—his, and by extension ours—and proved to be his worst ever school year when everything was said and done, as measured by how bloodied my family’s collective noses were at the end of it. For the umpteenth time I stood there just outside the classroom talking to my kid’s teacher, probably about his latest infraction, and probably also scheduling still another round of meetings with school admins and outside professionals in the eternal and exhausting attempt to give this kid a fighting chance for a normal existence at school. These efforts were futile for a multitude of reasons, but I lacked the wisdom to recognize this truth at that moment because of my own relative youth and inexperience. And hope springs eternal, after all.

But mainly I persisted for this: when your compromised kid has faced all kinds of challenges since preschool—some you already know about, others you’ll learn about later—it is your responsibility as his parent to advocate for him. The “system” never will, whether it’s a public or private one, and that is a fact. That much I knew at least, and that alone was reason enough to stand there and talk to this difficult, tough as nails woman about my difficult child. I probably had not gotten much sleep the night before, the shower still awaited me back at home, and also the coffee pot: I am sure I looked like Ish Kabbible, as my mom would say. In short, my general deportment did not give me much credibility.

Then I heard the unmistakable clackety-clack-clack of heels on the deck outside the classroom, recognized the silhouette of Professional Mom in her pencil skirt and suit jacket who also needed to bend the teacher’s ear about something or other to do with her wunderkind: the kid who had skipped a grade and landed here in the same classroom with my kid who had already repeated a grade. She was in a hurry, because, Professional Mom.

She glanced condescendingly at me and without missing a beat interrupted my sentence and started an impromptu meeting of her own. What’s more, the teacher allowed it to happen (see self-advocacy above). I struggled the rest of the day to find an appropriate lightning rod for my anger. Ish Kabibble stepped aside for Pencil Skirt on that morning in 2004. She could not possibly have known the monumental undertaking it was to convince my anxious kid to get up, get dressed and to eat at least a little something—especially important because the meds he needed to simply get through the academic day with a modicum of focus and calm had the unfortunate side effect of killing his appetite for the duration—and to get him out the door for our half-hour commute to school. It was a complicated ritual we practiced five mornings a week.

I think I know why women, especially Southern ones, are accused of gathering bitchiness in middle age: it’s got nothing to do with hormones (okay, maybe some) but more to do with politesse and tolerating grown up bullying, sometimes for decades, to the point of exploding. I get it now.

It could be worse than sounding off to superior parents in your kid’s fourth grade classroom: the beauty pageant scene in Little Miss Sunshine, for example. You know the one, where the pageant director with an acorn up her ass has her comeuppance at the end, where the parents finally reveal the truth about beauty pageants on the stage in support of their distinctly un-pageant like child.

When you’re a kid who bullies other kids, adults and sometimes institutions dole out the consequences. But adults who bully other adults, or their kids, suffer more “organic” consequences, if you like. I’m less likely to put up with women in pencil skirts and high heels these days, or aggressive fuel truck drivers on icy Vermont roads, or really anybody who is wont to push me around: the way I see it, I’ve done my time in those trenches. Call me bitchy if you want, and I’ll wear that moniker with pride.

My kid is still struggling to find his way, no thanks to some of his school experiences that should have been so much better. He did not turn out to be any of the nefarious characters as predicted by “professionals” at various times during his childhood—cruel to animals, a sexual deviant, a violent ne’er do well—not even close: the ignorant folk who made those calls got him so, so wrong. Quite the contrary, my “problem” kid as a young man is well spoken, loved and admired by his peers, and more often than not will make you pee yourself laughing with his comedic timing. He has a long road to travel yet towards being “whole,” for lack of a better word, continuing to wrestle with depression and anxiety that may have been there all along but certainly were not helped by some of the adults in his life who should have known better, people quick to marginalize others, who assumed they or their children were better or more deserving than we, or who assumed whatever misinformed thing they may have assumed about us—these are the same people about whom that mom blogger opined nearly a decade ago, who are more than happy to judge you for your apparent failure as a parent. They deserve to be called out for bad behavior, then and now.

I’ll never understand the “no regrets” ethos to which many folks so stubbornly cleave. I have regrets upon regrets, a multitude of tapes I’d like to rewind. (That morning outside the fourth grade classroom comes to mind.) I did finally blow my lid the day we were given the boot from that school, with enough pent-up frustration by then I could have spewed a much bigger volcano of rancor than what ultimately spilled out, and I’d be plenty justified. But there were some beautiful teachers on that campus, and are still, who did care about my kid and helped him learn: to those people I owe a great debt.

And as for my parenting skills, go ahead and judge: That fourth-grade teacher happened to drive through the line at a fast-food eatery where my kid was working the cash window a few years back. She did not recognize him after so many years, but he recognized her right away. He engaged her in friendly conversation, pointed out his beloved car in the parking lot, and invited her to sit down over lunch with him some time.

On Patience: How Long is Forever?

Sometimes, just one second.—Lewis Carroll

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Forever

The great, big exciting thing that was happening yesterday, the colossal event that was to be the subject of this post (and which many friends and readers have already surmised from various spoilers I’ve sprinkled in the cybersphere), is on hold ‘til this coming Friday. At least, we hope it happens Friday. Nature interfered with our plans, pliant schedules grew less forgiving, a couple of expectations required a tweak here and there, and that is that, dammit. It’s merely another reminder how unimportant is one’s own agenda, no matter how stridently one wishes to position it at the center of the universe.

Patience. It’s a virtue my parents urged me to improve in myself time and again as a child, so did my grandparents, so did my teachers. At some point in the development of my young noggin I suspected there might be a problem in this particular department, as the echoing of that one word indicated. One afternoon when mom was pregnant with my brother she farmed me out to an elderly couple down the street who said they’d be glad to keep me company for the day. Off I went with a Christmas ornament decorating kit tucked under my arm; I was seven and giddy about this change of scenery. I can’t recall a single thing about the day, not one minuscule detail, save this: the woman quipped, “She needs to be more patient,” when she handed me off to my mama later that afternoon.

Four years earlier three generations of self-assured women had observed the same flaw emerging me, only it caused notable damage on one occasion in particular. These three women—my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother—had taken me to see The Sound of Music, a movie for which there had been a big buildup: I was excited down to my socks. We stood in line for tickets, waiting, waiting, w…a…i…t…i…n…g. The boy in line ahead of us was not moving quickly enough to my way of thinking, or at all, really. I decided he needed help if we were ever to get inside the theatre, and so I did the sensible thing: I kicked him. I meant him no malice, but decided a gentle reminder to GO was in order, really just a thoughtful poke in the calf. The way my mom tells the story now, the kick was more of a stomp that scraped the back of his leg, painfully; she had seen the wheels turning and so had my grandmother, each of them going for an armpit, not quick enough on the draw. Impatience, 1; toddler, zip.

I did not grow out of this habit, the impatience, that is—I have not kicked anybody in a while (have wanted to, plenty). In my early twenties I bought my first car, a ’76 Olds Cutlass Supreme; it was a thing of beauty in powder blue with a white vinyl top and coordinating blue crushed velour interior. It came from my parents’ next-door neighbors (also older folk), who had driven it gently mostly, but it sported a sizeable dent on one side and its transmission leaked. Still, it was a bullet-proof car, reliable transportation whose problems were nothing I could not handle on a college-kid budget; I kept a case of transmission fluid and a funnel in the trunk and topped it off every time I got gas. The car served me well except in ice and snow, when I occasionally put it in a ditch (not my fault: rear wheel drive, no snow tires). But one hot Southern day while it sat and baked in an asphalt driveway its interior rear view mirror fell off.

This was a car made in an era when GM routinely attached accessories and trim with cheap glue, a low point in the history of the American auto industry if you ask me. Anyway. I bought an epoxy repair kit, the kind where you mix the sticky substance from two tiny tubes, et voilà! Heavy-duty adhesive in a flash. I followed the instructions diligently and all was well until I got to the part where you were supposed to hold the thing being glued (rear view mirror) to the other thing (front windshield), and wait. Suffice it to say the epoxy’s performance fell short of my expectations and a person better schooled in patience had to step in and finish the job for me. Impatience, 25,385; college kid, zip.

When Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I first met we talked endlessly about cuisine; we still do—it’s a passion I share with him. I once opined to him it takes a real gift to create exceptional cuisine, high art on a plate—a gift I had observed in him time and again. Maybe, he said, but mainly it takes the P-word: patience.

Dammit, dammit, dammit. It has been lobbed around these parts often, the P-word. So HCB joins the pantheon of folk who have felt it incumbent on themselves to point out this character flaw in me, and often.

It’s okay, all you patient ones in the universe, I’ve got this, at least this time. I live in Vermont now, where it takes forever for the snow to finally melt in the spring, where it takes forever to drive anywhere (because the destination is always far, far away), where it takes forever for your car to warm up in the morning because it was Below Zero during the night. This impatient person has waited three years for this milestone event—what’s one more week? And anyway, I’ve been called worse things. Like the time in second grade when my mama was summoned to school for an urgent conference with my teacher who said I was an instigator. Really.

Let me tell you something about instigators, gentle reader: instigators know how to get the job done.

But that is a story for another day.

It’s *good* to covet things.

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Bett’s Pecans

One of the best presents ever, those pecans. My dear friend Bett sent them to us last Christmas; she said she gathered them from the bumper crop on the ground under two pecan trees near where her mama lives on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. I saved the tags and stuck them to the walls in my work cubicle, a daily reminder of so many wonderful things. I think about Bett when I see her sweeping hand in red marker; I am sentimental that way. I also think about her when I swill my coffee from a fabulous little vessel imprinted with the familiar “M” stamp on the bottom, her signature bear-and-honey-bee motif marching around the outside of the mug. Bett is an American folk artist with distinctly modern sensibilities; her forebears would be proud to count her as one of their own. She is also a diligent student of the South, and I love that about her.

As for the pecans, they did not last long: you can’t get anything approaching the flavor or texture inside those exquisite little kernels up here in these parts. But the union of Southern pecans and Vermont maple syrup? That is salvation, right there. (Still working on teaching Handsome Chef Boyfriend the proper way to say it: p’cahhhn, with a nice, soft ahhh, accent on the second syllable, instead of PEEEE-can, much harder on the ear. There is work to do yet.)

I miss my Southern friends; I knew there’d be casualties when I packed my bags and left home for good. I’ve been a poor correspondent, but everybody’s busy and life has a way of insinuating itself despite one’s best intentions. (Somebody had the gall to say this aloud at a going-away party for friends many years ago and everybody in the room was shocked; I don’t know why—it is the truth.)

It’s not just that, though: seems once you reach a certain place in your life it’s a big imposition to ask for a new friendship, perhaps impossible to forge relationships of the kind that unfolded naturally earlier in life. I know there are exceptions, but it still feels more challenging now than it did way back when; nor does the scattered configuration of the population here help any. And because the tap root I yanked up in 2012 still has a ways to go before it’s reestablished in new soil, I’ve been gun-shy about seeking my “tribe,” if it even exists. I don’t have a church family as I did in Tennessee; my child is grown and lives a thousand miles from me and so I don’t have a place in any of the powerful communities parenting seems to foster; the ballet school I founded in 2006 is long gone; and I have not set foot inside a ballet classroom since October of 2014.

There was a loud rip in the universe in January of that year, my second year as a Vermonter, when I lost my Clarence-the-Canine to degenerative myelopathy, an insidious neurological disease which ‘til then had slept quietly inside him unbeknownst to anybody. This may seem trivial to anyone for whom the companionship of a dog means little or nothing.

The death of my steadfast companion was not all. At the time I was living in a beautiful part of Vermont on 180 spectacular acres where woods, water, meadow, and mountains intersect to create nothing less than a sublime landscape. My loft home was open and sunny and inspiring, truly delightful in most ways, a rare opportunity that came to me by way of a ballet school colleague. Had I any notion I might live in this place after my colossal 2012 reboot, my heart might have leapt, a little.

But had I occasion to reflect on living in complete isolation there without my dog, and with few Vermontish winter survival skills (I must underscore this: surviving a rough Vermont winter alone in the middle of nowhere, however intoxicating the surroundings, requires a certain savvy no novice from the South possesses), I might have reconsidered my course. And in spite of being in a comfortable spot in my still-new romance, I felt the most intense loneliness there I’ve felt in my life, ever. My colleague assured me her land had healed many folks, situated as it was there in Vermont’s beautiful Upper Valley. I never doubted her, but healing seemed to elude me. No amount of HCB’s cajoling in our epic nightly phone calls would convince me otherwise: I was in a terrible financial bind and completely alone, anxious as hell to get out. (And anyway, HCB was two hours away on the other side of the state: it may as well have been a million miles.)

It does not take much to set me off even now: a song that was popular at the time, a smell in the air—these things raise my hackles and set me on edge. The truth is I could not see the forest for the trees, and that is all. But the brief chapter (really just a couple of sentences) that still arouses dread when I have a half-second to reflect on it, continues to change shape as viewed from a greater distance—even a minuscule change in focal length can yield a very different image, a reality I observe each time I pick up my camera. I think I failed to recognize healing is often uncomfortable; it occurs to me now that healing is probably exactly what unfolded there, in the little house in the middle of nowhere.

In 2012 I walked away from unhappiness holding an empty bag, equivocating some, wringing my hands mostly. A dear friend held this question right in my face: Isn’t your freedom worth it? Yes, probably, though I could not have imagined the monumental challenges I was about to face. But does not the void left by something of towering importance imbue that thing with still deeper meaning, make it still more worthwhile to have? As HCB said to me shortly after we met, some things really are worth waiting for.

It’s undeniable—I’m in a better place now than I was a couple of years ago, and if you asked him, HCB would most likely agree the same holds true for him. I spend a fair amount of time yearning for things lost, things still beyond reach, and a few things perhaps unattainable (never quit trying); so does he, with less fervor than I—he is far better at rolling with the punches. It is possible we might even covet a few things. I don’t think that’s unhealthy.

Yesterday we pawed through some stuff in our storage locker, disappointed to find interlopers of the rodent variety had made a big mess and destroyed a few of my belongings; there is probably more destruction buried deep inside the locker, judging from the extent of damage on the surface. (It’s a continuing theme around transitions: move your things, store them, move them some more, and there will be damage and loss, guaranteed.) But there is also this: next weekend we’ll finally achieve this monumentally important thing we’ve missed for nearly three years. It’s most definitely worth waiting for, and it’s about time.

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Way Down South Trip: Travel Days Are Difficult

Bumper to Bumper Traffic in Virginia
Bumper to Bumper

Really I have so little to complain about: Handsome Chef Boyfriend did the lion’s share of driving today, from the moment we pulled off our mountain all the way to somewhere-or-other just past Fredericksburg, VA, where we missed our intended exit. A few truths from the day:

  1. Three in the morning is a difficult time to strike out on a journey: the brain is slow, the limbs and extremities unresponsive. It took me five tries to buckle on my sandals before we walked out the door.
  2. Dodging wildlife in the pre-dawn hours gives you white knuckles even when you are the passenger.
  3. People who get anywhere within, I don’t know, about 100 miles of New York City, are just plain crazy behind the wheel, ditto the people on either side of our nation’s capital.
  4. Chefs get grumpy in fast-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic, worse when it slows to a halt, and so do their girlfriends.
  5. The New Jersey Turnpike is an abomination.
  6. More than thirty bucks in tolls? Seriously?
  7. It’s all good, as they say, because at the end of a tiring travel day your plain vanilla hotel room looks pretty dang inviting. And even corporate chain food is appetizing, an exponential improvement over what you stood in a long line for at a Turnpike service center much earlier, and later at a gas station.
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Sunrise over New York, as viewed from New Jersey
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Delaware Memorial Bridge
Beautiful Engineering on the Delaware Bridge
Beautiful Engineering
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Baltimore, Francis Scott Key Bridge
Susquehanna River
Susquehanna River
Pentagon Art
Just Past the Pentagon

In the morning we head still deeper into the American South, destination Charleston, SC. ‘Til soon, rested and restored.

The Wrong Side of Every Door: Finding Paradise

The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.—T.S. Eliot

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The oppressive heat of high summer in Memphis, Tennessee reaches its fingers across the flat landscape and foists itself upon every living thing. Nor is rain any relief, for it invokes heat’s accomplice humidity to wreak havoc in its wake. Even when you live your days in air-conditioned comfort, step outside late at night in August and the heavy air defies your lungs to work at all. At least that is how I remember my years growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s. A morning shower will hold you in good stead for a while; by high noon you’d gladly pay somebody for the privilege of another.

I believe this is why a singular Harper Lee sentence always resonated with me so deeply from the moment I first read it: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” She was writing about a South deeper still than Memphis, but I knew exactly what she meant in that beloved opus, my favorite story. She makes the heat sound romantic; it is not.

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On a memorable summer day I see the silhouette of my mom on her hands and knees in our upstairs bathroom diligently scraping rubber from the floor’s ceramic tiles with a razor blade. In the days leading up to that moment Memphis and other parts of the country had felt the effects of a dangerous heat wave that had already killed scores of people as it marched across the land. Our air-conditioning and everybody else’s failed; and like most people we had to take a number and get in line for the repairman. When at last the cool air was restored we found the backing on the bathroom rugs upstairs had melted and congealed against the hard porcelain. If you have never experienced high summer in the Deep South you may raise your eyebrows. I speak the truth.

In the seventh grade I attended one of the worst public schools in the city, during the worst of the tumult that was called desegregation. It was built on an anthill, went the local lore; there were ants everywhere. You could see regiments marching across baseboards and up walls; they were even said to have gotten inside classroom clocks and stopped them.

The school was not air conditioned. That meant for a few dreadful weeks in the fall and the spring it would be hot, and I mean hot. The heat inside that building brought with it short tempers during a time that was already supercharged with tension, and it intensified the unmistakable odors that marked poor, unscrubbed adolescent children, children who lacked hygiene at home and abroad. The school was a petri dish for those smells and so much else that should not have been allowed to fester and grow. My tenure there was mercifully short.

By the end of high school I’d had enough of Memphis. It was not all about the heat, although it impressed me. There was also a healthy dose of nest-soiling, the need to thumb my nose at my silly childhood and move on. My future was uncertain, except for this one thing: it would not unfold there. Ninny that I was, I believed with every stitch of my being that life would get underway soon in earnest, that my Avalon might have been out of sight for the time being but was certainly attainable. I had but to arrive there.

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I was wrong, of course.

I did not think the culture of the American South had anything to do with me. I did not acknowledge that Memphis had birthed the Blues, had no cause to walk Beale Street. I did not care about the Sun Record Company. (And everybody knew Elvis was a hayseed—all you had to do was look at his fans.) I did not pay much attention to the city’s difficult history, palpable evidence of it everywhere. I forgot about the institutions I once held dear: Brooks Museum of Art, Ellis Auditorium, the Orpheum Theatre, the exquisite Memphis Botanic Garden, the beloved Pink Palace—none of them mattered to me anymore.

All those things were somebody else’s Avalon.

Too bad for me: I missed it all when I’d gone, the second I sprouted a lick of sense. I waxed poetic about these things to anybody who would listen after I moved out west to Colorado for a few years, much to the chagrin of people around me, I am sure. And on the eve of last summer’s homecoming to Knoxville, Tennessee—the city that was mine for three decades and my ancestors’ far longer—I am sure my wistfulness about the South I left behind invoked more than one eyeroll in the people around me here in Vermont.

Vermont, where I am struggling once again to come to terms with impossible (to me) winters even though this one has been mild thus far, observing others doing the same. I often think in my heart of hearts life should not have to be so difficult for a population who often struggle to make ends meet. Where is their Avalon?

There is no paradise, said a wise person: this is the truth. Avalon is everywhere and anywhere we live, and a smart person can find it. I am no ninny, nor am I wise. Winter in Vermont pushes hard, like summer in Tennessee. I will feel it tomorrow when I drive to work on a sketchy road that may or may not have been plowed to my satisfaction after a little squall comes through tonight. I’ll have white knuckles and will keep a close watch in the mirror for more seasoned winter drivers who wish I’d go a little faster. I will not appreciate the beauty of the landscape as I should. But I will try to find Avalon in this still-strange landscape.

And I will try like heck not to be a terrible bore.

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Homecoming Finale: In the Company of Artists

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That is one Gwynn Root, a beautiful professional ballerina who currently dances for Festival Ballet in Providence, Rhode Island, although she has danced professionally with several other companies in her career to date. Here she is more recently, with Festival this past summer, in an image from the WaterFire Providence website:

Gwynn Festival

I met Gwynn eight or nine years ago, just as she was preparing to embark on her life as a dancer; the connection was my mom, who was and is still occasionally Gwynn’s coach. In the intervening years since our first meeting I’ve had the great privilege of also meeting and spending time with Gwynn’s family, who are among the most talented DNA-sharing people I know. Gwynn’s mom and dad are artists, Peggy and Tom Root, Peggy known mainly for her lush landscapes, and Tom for his incredible portraiture. Tom made that picture of Gwynn when she was little and uses it on a professional brochure.

And there is also younger brother Charles, probably the most gifted twelve-year-old kid I’ve ever encountered. He comes by it honestly.

They are also quite possibly the kindest people I know. I really, really miss the Roots. When HCB and I started planning our Way Down South trip, I suggested we set aside a day to go and see them (all except Gwynn, who had already launched for the fall season in Providence) in their home city of Jonesborough, TN. If you have never heard of Jonesborough, you should know it holds the distinction of being the oldest town in the state (challenged by some), and also the storytelling capital of the world.

Amazingly, despite having grown up in Tennessee and living there most of my life, I had never been to Jonesborough. I wanted to go there to see the Roots, to see their new art school on Main Street, and to see the town. And to have another chance to spend a few moments with my mom and her husband and their young daughter Grace (who is officially and incredibly my 50-years-younger sister).

So that is what we did. Peggy opened up her huge, huge heart and the school to host a potluck lunch for us. Mom and Peggy did all the work, we did none of it. It was incredibly incovenient, and they were unbelievably gracious to do it.

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Jonesborough 1

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That’s Grace, who needed to sample some of the chocolate cake she helped bake for this event. She needed to sample it often.

Charles was also able to join us. I shot one photo of him, which does not represent his demeanor at all, but does capture his handsomeness (the Roots are all beautiful people).

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It was a bright, hot summer afternoon in the South, and I think that is clear in Charles’ expression. He is growing up in a way that is rare indeed these days, with ready access to the businesses that dot Jonesborough’s Main Street, ducking into them as time and temperament allow, helping out when he is needed. Everybody knows Charles. It is a wholesome existence that is a throwback to another time. Not surprisingly, he is already an accomplished musician and artist. This is a piece inspired by his sister Gwynn and her life as a dancer. They love each other very much.

Charles Root Dancers

I also had permission to shoot some of the work hanging on the walls at the school.

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Jonesborough 5

And my own handsome son B continued his theme of selfie photo bombing.

We abandoned ship when Tom came in to set up an afternoon session with his students.

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Which was the perfect opportunity for chocolate from the shop adjacent to the art school.

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And then Peggy (who somehow escaped my camera lens) walked up and down Main Street with us. For me, this was a delicious, indulgent sampling of the vernacular architecture I love so much, led by someone who knows the town intimately.

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HCB, B and I made a brief detour to the visitors’ center just up the road, where we saw the beautiful mural painted by none other than Tom and Peggy.

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And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.

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And sadly it was time to say goodbye, but not before a brief chat with Gwynn when she called mer mama.

We finished our day, and our whirlwind tour of East Tennessee, with barbecue at one of B’s favorite eateries:

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Yes, it was pretty damned amazing. But bittersweet. I hate saying goodbye to my son. I really hate living a thousand miles from him.

That was Friday. Saturday morning launch for Vermont came early, but before we left Tennessee for who-knows-how-long ’til our next visit, we stopped by mom’s to get some of my things she had been storing for me. And I was able to wrestle this out of her hands:

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It is one of Peggy’s. Mom agreed to make it my Christmas present, a wee bit early.

Our Way Down South trip was stressful, fun, emotional, exhausting. It was important to do. There are things I miss about the South, others not so much. I hope to flesh out these thoughts more.

I’ve spent the last three days in the company of artists from all over the country, about which more very soon.

 

 

Homecoming, Part the Fourth

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I don’t know what it is about ballet schools and railroads, but just about every single school where I’ve studied or taught has been on top of them; you learn to deal with the teeth-rattling thunder of the enormous diesel engines barreling down the tracks. It’s part and parcel of operating in a low rent district, I guess.

Those engines were my brother Tom’s salvation when we were kids. For years my mom owned and operated her own small ballet school in a Memphis suburb; most days my brother had no choice except to hang out there during afternoon classes. But it was also where he could assuage his inner choo choo geek whenever one rattled through.

He came into this passion as a little kid, obsessively counting and naming cars at railroad crossings <eye roll from big sister>, mimicking the clanging warning sound of the crossing bars as they lowered. Every. Single. Time. He was so earnest about performing this pantomime (it also involved his hands and fingers) that he never bothered coming up for air—he just kept “clanging,” sucking in instead of exhaling the sound when he ran out of breath. (Sorry, Tom: your secret is now out on the World Wide Web; you’re welcome.)

Later this enthusiasm morphed into model railroading, a hobby to reach epic proportions in our downstairs playroom when everything was said and done. By late elementary school he routinely trolled a stretch of Southern Railroad tracks not far from our Memphis home, where he discovered the joys of smooshing pennies on the tracks, keeping the flattened oblong copper disks in jars on his dresser next to a rusty collection of castoff iron spikes the maintenance crews left behind. At some indiscernable moment during adolescence his bedroom took on the slightest hint of diesel fuel vapor.

The pinnacle of this gathering enthusiasm occurred when he built a real, functioning handcar with the help of a friend, the two of them trailering it to the tracks on weekends for excursions. I am certain this was both dangerous and illegal. But when you possess that much passion for a thing….

Tom ultimately turned his passion into a career, where he has enjoyed much success at the front of operations at Knoxville Locomotive Works,  working in a hands-on capacity that recently earned him inclusion in a patent for a piece of engineering used to retrofit locomotives with green technology. It’s a pretty big deal that has garnered some press. If you own a diesel engine, you send it to KLW to be retrofitted with this new technology.

My little brother is living the dream, and has for just about all his adult life.

I wanted to show Handsome Chef Boyfriend and my son Bentley the amazing Knoxville Locomotive Works facility, and so I asked Tom if he would be so kind as to give all of us a guided tour at the end of a work day. I shot lots of photos with my new-old Nikon; most did not turn out well for reasons that elude me for now. I include the better ones here to try to illustrate the enormity of this impressive operation.

The first three are pieces of the new technology in an engine that is used as a demonstrator. When you are there in person at KLW, you have no choice except to be in close proximity with these massive locomotives. It really is quite something. Tom gave us a thorough explanation of the new technology (which I can’t synthesize), including a “back to the drawing board”-style commentary on its evolution as ideas were tried, failed, revisited, and reimagined, until the whole business finally worked:

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Another finger of this interesting company is its acquisition and restoration of old cars and engines; I find that part especially appealing. Tom and his colleagues at KLW restored this old sleeper (among others) some time ago; it was in the shop to be retrofitted for new, non-leaky window fittings. If you’ve ever seen an old car sitting on a stretch of tracks near the Thompson Boling Arena entrance to the University of Tennessee campus, it is this one. It’s the pride and joy of Pete Claussen, KLW founder and Chairman and CEO of Gulf and Ohio Railroads. We pressed Tom for a peek at its interior and he obliged; there was no power, so I used my flash. I love the thoughtful and simple lines in early twentieth century design:

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And here is where you go when you need access to the underbelly of a giant diesel engine (I KNOW, right?):

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And here is a small-and-mighty GE engine (I think I can, I think I can…):

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And here is what you’d see if you were at the helm of the Southern engine shown way up at the top of the post:

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Tom also gave us a peek inside another building on an adjacent lot where work is currently underway to see whether this beautiful, old steam engine can be restored:

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And in case you’ve ever wondered how a steam engine looks without its nose thingummie:

Steam Engine Nose

We finished in nearby downtown Knoxville with dinner at one of my favorite eateries, the Tomato Head; it is a place near and dear to me also because the owners were early and avid supporters of Knoxville Ballet School, and once went to some trouble to come and visit me in Vermont. I was pleased and surprised to see its sleek new interior and expansion, changes that have happened in the intervening three years since my New England move.

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I did manage to snap a very nice photo of my son B and my brother:

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We had been joined at KLW and for dinner at Tomato Head by my mom and her husband and their daughter, and also by Tom’s wife Kathleen and their son, my nephew Tim. Amazingly, I somehow did not get photos of them. Gah.

HCB and B and I lingered awhile in downtown Knoxville, where I could not get over the commercial progress made in recent years. This beauty still awaits restoration:

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And this is the vibrant weeknight view looking south on Gay Street towards the Tennessee River:

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My favorite theatre, the Tennessee, underwent a massive restoration several years ago, long before I left. We did not have occasion to go inside this time, but you can get some idea of its more-is-more Moroccan-themed glory here.

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We found dessert at Coolato Gelato; it was only meh, but B made a nice pic:

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Thence to this giant sunflower collage, real but mostly faded, where I asked B to photograph me and HCB. I did not exactly get permission to post this, but too dang bad. I think it is a nice picture of the two of us:

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However eventful that much of our day had been, it was not all. We had a lovely morning tour of the Ice Chalet courtesy of director Larry LaBorde, another person who was a fan and supporter of Knoxville Ballet School from the get-go. The school would never have come into existence were it not for the rink’s early involvement in it, and Larry himself was so helpful during my difficult and at times painful transition through closing the school’s doors and relocating to Vermont. HCB was also the happy beneficiary of some hockey equipment after the tour ended; we had a long, happy lunch at a nearby eatery. No surprise that hockey-playing HCB and Larry had so much to talk about.

It was nice for B to revisit an institution that was so much a part of his growing up years, through hockey and figure skating, and being a part of the bigger Ice Chalet family. Thank you, Larry.

For a few brief moments, I was once again an Ice Chalet mom:

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And that was only Wednesday; so many more homecoming stories to tell. ‘Til soon.

Homecoming, Part the Third

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Before we pulled out of Chattanooga on a hazy Tuesday afternoon, my dad reported he’d seen a burgeoning praying mantis and stick bug population this summer. And evidently my son is a praying mantis whisperer. I could not capture the kind of image he did, a challenge I threw his way. And what it lacks in resolution it more than makes up for in composition, in my humble opinion.

Howdy there, praying mantis.

Dad had taken us all to dinner at a barbecue joint in downtown Chatt the night before, during which time the boy selfie-photo-bombed a photo-in-progress; it was to be a continuing theme for the week. From the praying mantis sublime to the selfie ridiculous. I’ve always maintained that next to “ridiculous” in Webster you’ll find his name as its definition. He hones it to a fine sheen and wears it proudly.

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Tuesday was another travel day.

Knoxville, Tennessee rests in a valley between the Cumberland Plateau to its west and the Smoky Mountains, the central portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to its east. The Tennessee River flows north to south between Knoxville and Chattanooga, but has its origins very near downtown Knoxville, at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers. Whatever weather is happening on the plateau, or in the mountains, tends to moderate in the valley, making for easy winters for the most part. For that and so many other reasons it’s an attractive place to put down roots; my family did so in the 19th century.

But despite the region’s lush and mountainous beauty, the city itself can feel seamy; Cormac McCarthy captured that quality in Suttree, his 1979 semi-autobiographical novel set in 1951 Knoxville. Suttree is brilliant writing by a man whose childhood home was only a few blocks from my own young family’s home for the better part of the last couple of decades.

Knoxville has struggled with something of an identity crisis for much of its life, famously called “a scruffy little city” by Susan Harrigan writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1980. What was meant as derision was and is held up by locals as a source of pride. That kind of thinking is admirable on the face of it, but maddening to me. I don’t miss that about Knoxville. When I opened a small classical ballet school there in 2006 I felt like I was fighting the “scruffy and proud” mentality on many, many occasions, trying to scratch and claw my way to bringing something special to the arts community there. Ultimately the school met that goal, with the help of many, many people and a whole lot of tireless effort, short-lived though it was. It happened in the guise of Franco de Vita, principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. Twice he visited the school to adjudicate exams (and by extension my own teaching). We put our vulnerable selves out there for those visits, and were all the better for it in the end.

Lots of folks did not get that, or did not care about it anyway. The local press showed very little interest in it. But the parents of kids (and the kids themselves) who had been along for this ambitious journey at the school certainly got it. This is one of them, who has continued to pursue her passion for classical ballet. She has talent coming through the pores of her skin; she’s danced at ABT’s New York City young dancer workshop and elsewhere, currently splitting her time between Knoxville and Atlanta to get the training she needs. (Would that the school had continued.) I have a proprietary interest in this child and others; this one came to me at age six and it is hugely satisfying to see she is on her way.

We spent a delicious Tuesday evening catching up (she had just come from ballet class as you can see), her own erstwhile-ballerina mom and I talking about her plans for the future and the realities of life as a professional ballerina. My photo-bombing-selfie-taking kiddo obliged me with the photo; props to him.

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Knoxville’s economy was rough when I left three years ago; the school’s demise was in no small part a consequence of that, among other complicated things. But I will say the worst of it appears to be finished, at least for now: I was overwhelmed by bustling new development in the far reaches of the city limits and in its center. There is a lot going on.

In the intervening days since the end of my homecoming I’ve reflected on this, and the reasons my new home state of Vermont seems to continue to struggle so, so hard to keep its head above water. I am still getting the lay of the land here, figuring out the Byzantine political and economic landscape. I live in a state whose population continues to shrink, whose children grow to maturity and then leave, to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We could use a little boost, but sometimes I wonder whether we’re our own worst enemies up here in the Green Mountain State.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were filled wall-to-wall with important reunions with family and friends. They deserve their own attention, about which more soon in separate posts. ‘Til then.

Homecoming, Part the Second

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It is beyond me how 1000 miles disappear so quickly in the rear view mirror, or how four days dissolve in what feels like a half hour. It’s what has transpired in the intervening hours since 2:30 Saturday morning when Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I began our long drive south to see family and friends, some for the first time in three years. And for HCB to see the gaping hole left by the taproot I yanked up three years ago. And just to get out of Vermont for a few days and shake off the cobwebs and stretch our legs. The sun rose Saturday morning in Pennsylvania.

I wish we had more time already and we’re only now settling into my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville for a few days. I have so many thoughts about the landscape between the place I call home now, and the one I once did. And a desire to learn more about the vernacular Dutch architecture that dots the Pennsylvania countryside, a place that blurs the lines between North and South. The moment the first cheerful “How are you’uns?” washed over our weary selves snuck up on us. Some thoughts are gone already, some I may be able to reclaim. It feels like we’ve crammed months into hours.

Partly by design (and the balance geography) we started in Highlands, NC, where the small cottage that served as a happy vacation home in the last chapter of my life stands forgotten and neglected, suffering, awaiting its unknown fate. We went to check on things and reclaim a few belongings. I knew it would be hard, and would bring raw emotions to the surface. It did that in spades. I did not make photos of the house, but I did the landscape, seen above and below, and a busy intersection of a town teeming with new life and new young families. I no longer have a life there, but I hope its vibrant pulse bodes well for the future. An unlikely encounter with a favorite babysitter and her own young family felt perfect: my son was with us on this leg of the trip, and the reunion with the person who first introduced us to Highlands—in Highlands itself—brought much needed poetry to an otherwise difficult and emotional day.

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The Ocoee River Gorge hems you in for mile upon serpentine mile, the river on one side, sheer rock walls and gnarled outcroppings on the other, the instability looming overhead urging you to keep your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. After a while you yearn to be let out, walls closing in with the fading light of day. Sunday was an exemplary specimen, the intense late-day sunlight filtered through rain, then late evening darkness gathering quickly, the backdrop for memories recalled along the way and answers to questions unresolved until Chattanooga grandparents could address them later. (What was that sketchy looking thing up on the ridge? A water flume, turns out, been there since the 1930s, carries water to this day.)

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In two days’ time we ate our way through Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dad’s lovely wife shared with us one of her own traditions from the Deep South, biscuits with butter and chocolate. We were in bewildered awe, any doubts I had about properly introducing HCB to Southern cuisine evaporating with the steam coming off the melted confection set before us.

Downtown Chattanooga remains a favorite. The three of us struck out on our own for a day at the Tennessee Aquarium and some walking. Devices are a foregone conclusion; life—aquatic, avian, insect, and even human—could still hold sway over them from time to time.

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I have everything to learn about making beautiful photographs with my new-old camera, even more about capturing motion. But I was able to pet a moving sturgeon, and that is something.

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Climbing from the Aquarium into Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District is worth sweaty knees and elbows, as is a late afternoon at Rembrandt’s for coffee and handmade chocolate; but chocolate does not always hold sway over devices.

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Hunter Museum

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Back at our hosts’ home there was not enough porch time for this Southern girl, but I am especially fond of the porch itself, which emphatically does not hold sway over devices.

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In all fairness to the boy, he had just snapped several amzing photos of this incredible porch-time interloper; this is my photo, which paled in comparison to his:

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That’s my dad and his lovely, gracious wife; I think they look great. My dad knows so much about so many things. Water flumes built at the top of the Occoe Gorge during the Great Depression, the history and evolution of the Cavalier Furniture Company, WWII-era aircraft, the whereabouts of the nearest Krystal burger: he’s your man for all this and so much more. I hope like heck it’s not another three years before we see them again.

We’re already on the next page of this nine-day-long story; ’til soon.

 

 

Homecoming, Part the First

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This afternoon, for the first time since I moved to Vermont, a stranger made a comment about my Southern accent (which I can’t hear at all). I walked through the automatic doors at Home Depot, where a man wearing a familiar orange apron was stooped to some task or other. He asked me how I was.

Fine, thank you, how are you? That is my auto-response when people are friendly.

The “fine” drew his attention.

He stood up, turned around, and said, Ah, I love that accent.

Really, I asked? Nobody notices, I said, or if they do they don’t say anything.

There’s no mistaking it, he went on. He explained he grew up in Brooklyn. What do you drink in the morning, he asked me?

Coffee I said.

With an ear-to-ear grin he shook his head in an endearing way.

It’s quwah-fee, he corrected. One of his colleagues suggested he was flirting.

I giggled and moved on, but could not help smiling as I went about my business.

His timing was impeccable. For the first time in three years—almost exactly three years—since my big reboot, the adventure-born-of-necessity that drew me away from my native South, my family, friends, and everything I’ve known and held dear for most of my life—I am going home. This time I’ll have Handsome Chef Boyfriend in tow. My parents and friends have not met him, nor has he seen firsthand the setting for so many, many stories I have told him.

Maybe I am turning on the Southern in anticipation, without realizing it. I have been eating grits for breakfast these last few days. That must be it: Southern-ness is in the grits.

This trip feels important and we are both excited about it.

And I for one am also nervous. January was the last time I was nervous, standing at the threshold of a big career change, and a big life decision to combine my household with my sweetheart’s. I don’t completely understand how my head works under the influence of nerves. HCB called me to check in one night in January just ahead of the move and asked me how my day had gone, what I had been up to.

Polishing silver, I said. This prompted some deserved chiding about what I should have been doing, which was packing.

And now, when I should be packing for this long-ish upcoming trip, I have been scrubbing grout. And walls and toilets. And doing some kitchen projects. And other domestic stuff. I mentioned this to my amazing yoga instructor this morning, and without hesitation she quipped, that’s called procrastination.

Maybe. But it’s also nerves. I am not expecting anything really heavy duty to unfold over the course of this trip. But I am anticipating some emotions, and some sadness. I have already surpressed a few tears, whilst reminding myself there is so much in my life that is joyous, acknowledging how grateful I am.

The ride has been rough these last few years, though.

Ergo, I am nervous.

It is my great hope to share stories as they unfold, no promises. There is another week of work and preparations, an absolutely filthy Subaru I must find time to prepare before next weekend, lists to be made, supplies to be procured.

Just a thousand miles, and we’ll be there. ‘Til soon.