U.S.S. North Carolina: Jewel of Wilmington

U.S.S. North Carolina, from Wilmington's downtown waterfront
Wilmington’s U.S.S. North Carolina, photo bombed by tropical storm Julia

Nothing like wandering around in the bowels of a lovingly restored battleship to open your eyes to the daunting threat America faced on the eve of the Second World War. Destined to be sold for scrap after her decommissioning, the U.S.S. North Carolina now floats proudly in her moorings on the Cape Fear River opposite downtown Wilmington’s peaceful waterfront, a labor of love kept afloat by North Carolina and the generosity of charitable donors. The ship’s website suggests two hours for the self-guided tour to see the ship; it is not enough, friends. In two hours’ time the three of us—Handsome Chef Boyfriend, the 23-year-old who cleverly suggested this outing in the first place, and I—navigated through only a fraction of what’s currently on exhibit in the ship.

The tour is physically demanding, emphatically not for the elderly or the very young. There is no easy way out to find a toilet or take a break: once you start, you’re fully committed. And if you find tight spaces bothersome, best to stay outside on the main deck and enjoy the engineering marvel that is this magnificent floating city. Imagine her 2,000-plus troops engaged in the toils of war every hour of every day, if you can; I cannot. Piped-in music of the day, 1940s photos shot from the very spot where you now stand, human cutouts to help provide scale where you can’t go—all of these conspire to interpret daily life aboard the ship; hat tip to the U.S.S. North Carolina. We will visit again.

Shooting without a flash in low light remains a challenge for me, what with my old-ish Nikon, novice sensibilities, and unsteady hand; I get a little better with each exercise. Add to these challenges the tourists queued behind you while you’re trying to set up a shot, and the consequence for me is sloppy work. I don’t need fancier equipment ‘til I improve my hand with what I possess at the moment. I’m not a lifelong photographer, but in other pursuits I know this truth: producing a high-quality result should not depend on special equipment, but once you have it at your disposal, you spend less time “fighting” to get the results you want. I’d be thrilled for other photographers to weigh in on this in the comments.

Things I’m learning about myself as I explore photography: my eye is drawn to beautiful lines, to thoughtful industrial design, and to timeless materials (brass and copper, for example) used copiously in an era when manufacturers took the same care with the creation of a name plate as they did with engineering the “thing” itself. None of these is in short supply on the U.S.S. North Carolina, an appealing new example around every corner. And HCB could not have been more thrilled to find the ship’s many galleys fully restored, stocked with equipment cleaned and polished to a fare-thee-well and looking for all the world like it could be fired up again tomorrow. He explained to us the purpose for every appliance and fixture; many have changed little through time, some look superior to what we use nowadays.

A few geeky factoids about the ship:

  • Launched June 13, 1940
  • Commissioned April 9, 1941
  • Built in New York Navy Yard
  • 729 feet in length
  • 108-foot beam
  • Maximum speed 28 knots
  • 141 officers
  • 2,115 enlisted men
  • 85 marines
  • 15 battle stars earned
  • Decommissioned June 27, 1947
  • Moved to Wilmington October 2, 1961
  • Dedicated April 29, 1962

All told I shot nearly a hundred images, edited about 50 and threw out as many; here are the best. Steal ’em and you’ll be walkin’ the plank, though; aaarrggh. Welcome aboard.

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Wilmington in Black and White

Mason's Inlet at Wrightsville Beach
Mason’s Inlet at Wrightsville Beach

We pulled the Subaru into our Vermont driveway late yesterday afternoon with another 2,200 miles on it, a couple of road-weary travelers we, still a little sugar-frosted from the beach and lightly crisped around the edges. I made it all the way to the Pennsylvania state line on Saturday before I fought back tears thinking about my boy, wishing I had more time with him. This is progress: usually the emotions well up in me much sooner. I think of this young man as unfinished business, not yet fully formed when our family came unglued in 2011; he still has a long way to go, and the road is fraught with peril, as a friend would say. The reality is I can’t guide him how I could if we were closer, and that weighs heavily on me all the time. But he looked and sounded good during our week together, and that is a joyous thing to see.

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He’ll hate that picture if he sees it: mainly I got the palm of his hand when I reached for my camera. It’s too dang bad. I am entitled to a few mama privileges, which happen to include indulgent squeezes, sloppy cheek kisses, and unsolicited photos. I like that one.

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I enjoyed toying with black and white filters and special effects last night. That was our final beach day, Friday. I completely overlooked packing a kite, thought of everything else—how could I have forgotten that essential piece of beachy fun? So I occupied myself with an unknown beach goer and his own kite-flying skills, impressive, but the wind I think would make launch pretty easy even for a novice. We felt a little of tropical storm Julia’s punch during our week in Wilmington, but the beach is always windy—it’s exceedingly gratifying, flying a kite at the beach—it makes you feel accomplished, and with so little effort.

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This marina on the Intracoastal Waterway kept us company during our late lunch. We had fun imagining how stupid rich one must be to own and maintain boats of the size we saw here.

Our last day in Wilmington ended with a planned outing to Fermental, a wine and craft beer joint where The Catch food truck was scheduled to purvey its acclaimed food; HCB and I had researched this well in advance and anticipated the evening with something approaching fanaticism. I foolishly believed the young man in tow would relish it too, but in no time flat he declared the live music in the garden behind the place too “touchy feely” and took off for our car across the street the instant he finished his spicy fish tacos.

We oldsters liked the touchy feely music just fine and stayed for a song before we abandoned ship. But the food truck had disappointed us—the kitchen staff ran out of a couple of entrées early, were slow getting out orders, and the truck’s power failed repeatedly during service. All avoidable, according to the chef sitting at my elbow, who critiques food the same way I do ballet. Too bad—this food had the highest potential for greatness of any culinary outing during our brief time in Wilmington. But it was still a beautiful evening, food and touchy feely music notwithstanding, if a bit wistful with the end of our vacation week in sight.

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There’s the boy, wearing a striped shirt and standing next to the chef awaiting our order. And here is the boy with his mama, at our beach rental a moment before we said goodbye ’til who-knows-when:

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ezpass

Way Down South Trip postscript: On our first day of travel navigation lured us into Washington’s E-ZPass Express Only lanes in her most sultry syntha-voice, where we traveled for many miles. We understood our mistake too late, but HCB’s quick thinking saved the day: if you own up to your mistake and settle your debt right away on the Interweb, the highway gods will spare you some stiff penalties. Nice try, Ms. TomTom, but we’re wise to your ways now. The moral to this story? Navigation sometimes leads you astray when you most need instructions in black and white.

Wilmington Lifts Her Skirts, Just a Little

Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus
Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus

Yesterday I had the 23-y-o all to myself for several indulgent hours while Handsome Chef Boyfriend played golf, something he does exceedingly well but has far too little time to do. And wouldn’t you know the instant my son and I pulled out of the golf course we met a jeep in traffic whose driver spotted our plates, said he was from Rutland, and wondered where in Vermont we were from. Betcha we found the only Vermonter in all of Wilmington. What were the odds?

Then last night the three of us struck out for The Pilot House, a celebrated restaurant in a historic downtown structure. Sadly, we could not celebrate the pricey, pedestrian food and lackluster service that eclipsed the charm of the place, but still enjoyed our nighttime walk afterwards in downtown Wilmington.

Today our city touring continued after a brief howdy and bakery dropoff for my colleagues at the Wilmington offices of one EightOhTwo Digital Marketing (NineOneOh Digital Marketing here, say the snazzy new coffee mugs), my employer back home in Vermont. We had late lunch at a downtown dive called The Dixie Grill, less expensive by a mile and far superior to our dinner last night. We walked and walked and my lens found no shortage of the vernacular historic architecture I love so much. I need several more weeks on the ground here.

Nightlife thrives in downtown Wilmington, the city’s main thoroughfares teeming with just about any kind of watering hole a person could want, live music and canned spilling out onto sidewalks everywhere you walk, sometimes on the sidewalks themselves—even on a Wednesday night. I could tell the young man with us was coveting a little social action he is not likely to get in the company of HCB and his mama. (Not to worry, we’re headed to this spot tomorrow night.) Wilmington is quirky, interesting; the city possesses much beauty, some of it shiny and new, some gritty and ancient, with a healthy dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. The people in Wilmington seem friendly and pleasant, the economy strong: her vitals appear healthy.

We also toured the battleship USS North Carolina today, a long and physical foray into American history that tired us out thoroughly and impressed us profoundly. It deserves its own post, as soon as I have a while to parse through and edit the scores of pictures I shot. For now, I give you eine kleine nighttime, and some daytime too, in downtown Wilmington, NC.

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Charleston Reunions, Enough Sun in Wrightsville Beach

Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant
Spanish Moss in Mt. Pleasant

This morning I lamented to anybody listening it feels like we’ve been in the car for three days. We have, kinda. Sunday afternoon we arrived road-weary at my ex-sister-in-law’s-but-still-my-sister’s Mt. Pleasant home (we  just call it Charleston, it’s close enough) for a long overdue visit, first one in the flesh in too many years. One 23-y-o young man who belongs to me met us there in a questionable car, unscathed if rattled. My ex-sis-but-still-sis rolled out the red carpet for us with a proper Southern dinner set upon a gracious Southern table, vegetarian style.

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Her co-hostess is the Best Black Lab in the World, all but impossible to photograph. This sweet Lab was also the most patient dog in the world, willing for a dog-deprived woman to wallow in her dog-ness for a long while. Good girl, Waco.

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Yesterday morning three of us struck out for a longish, steamy walk while Handsome Chef Boyfriend undertook an ambitious jog from the house to the center of Charleston’s jaw-dropping Arthur Ravenel Bridgeabout a seven-mile trek out and back in the heat, all told. Meanwhile I tried to capture the Spanish moss that is so defining of the landscape in the deep coastal South.

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Our time there was delightful end to end, far too brief. We had only a little while after our walk for a geeky camera tête-à-tête (I’m still a newbie, pressing our more camera-savvy hostess for answers to hey-how-do-I-work-this-thing kinds of questions), and not much else before HCB gently reminded us it was time to hit the road. Again.

Thence to Wilmington, NC, the 23-y-o rattling down the road behind us in heavy traffic and persistent rain. Navigation misled us once, but we finally arrived, rumpled and weary. There was time only for the grocery, a quick dinner, and welcome sleep.

But today! Today was beach day. In the intervening years since my move to Vermont I have had occasion to walk the craggy beaches near Camden, Maine (a very different kind of coastline than North Carolina’s to be sure), and to sniff the surf of the Jersey shore once on a frigid day when I was miserably sick with a head cold. Being here with my boys—both of them—is restorative and wonderful. The skies rained on us this morning and then relented. We gathered our things and took off for nearby Wrightsville Beach.

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We are eating well, too much, enjoying each other’s company and also indulging in the luxury of doing nothing at all, except being together. We have a few other things on agenda in the coming days, more stories to come.

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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.

Providential Weekend: Photo Essay

NYLO 12

How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.

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Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.

It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.

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Worcester 2

We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.

Warwick 1

Warwick 2

Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.

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Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.

This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.

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Vet Theatre 1

Vet Theatre 2

We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local;  we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.

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We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)

Garden State Highway: Beauty in Unexpected Places

Garden State Parkway

If driving were a metaphor for the rancor which seems to characterize the tenor of American politics these days, it is playing out on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. Any remnant of human decency that real, face-to-face interaction demands is lost once you’re behind the wheel of a car. And on this particular stretch of road that privilege evidently extends you carte blanche to be a bonafide jackass. It’s the kind of behavior you might have known standing in a cafeteria line with the bullies in your sixth grade class—elbowing and pushing and jostling, cutting in line: generally behaving like a jerk. You’d never tolerate it in the grocery store queue as a grownup, where you could directly confront your offender.

The stakes are much lower in the sixth grade cafeteria line than they are on a multi-lane highway where the speed of traffic is easily ten- to fifteen-miles an hour over the limit to begin with. (Apologies to my New Jersey friends, and you have my deepest sympathies if you must travel this road.) The most infuriating aspect of the driving we saw on the Parkway yesterday was the overt expression of this sentiment: my agenda is more important than yours, and I am willing to risk your life to achieve it.

The reason for our visit to the Jersey shore is bittersweet, a memorial service for a beloved family friend who was an exemplar for a life well lived. It was also supposed to be a nice, if brief escape from our little corner of the world for the Chef and myself, but a virus that insinuated itself earlier this week is now in full bloom, leaving me holed up in the hotel with a box of Kleenex while everybody else is at the church; thought I could power through this one quickly, I was wrong. I feel bad for anyone who’s had to be near me for the last few days, not least of all HCB. I figure his symptoms should emerge just about any second now.

Spring has not arrived here like it has in the South, where I gather foliage is already exploding left and right. Here (at least in Vermont) we can only just see the tiniest hint of fullness and color coming into the tips of deciduous branches. At home our chives have sprouted, but elsewhere the land still lies barren from our mild winter, with snow still in the forecast.

Spring foliage covers a multitude of sins, but it’s still way too early. The scenery whizzing past yesterday was brutal: seamy, industrial, poor, decrepit towns and suburbs, juxtaposed against beautiful ancient foundations in the woods and stacked stone fences that once marked property lines. I could not get them in my lens, and instead aimed the camera skyward and surprised myself with the results, at least until it was yanked out of my hands by the G-forces of the car as we swerved (again) to avoid being nailed by another selfish somebody. HCB has excellent reflexes.

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Clouds 2

Clouds 3

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Clouds 5

Decaying barbecue grills and forgotten backyard toys and other roadside detritus will soon be obscured by spring’s lovely foliage. It is just too dang bad it can’t do anything to obscure the human condition as it careens down the Garden State Parkway.

Carpe Diem, and All That

Ballet Workshop Clock

When you discover two of your favorite people are performing in the same weekend in separate but (kinda) nearby venues, albeit in completely different kinds of shows, and you think you can somehow make it to see them both, you tell them, Heck yeah, I’ll be there. Every opportunity to go to the the theatre for a performance of merit is a golden one, more glowing still when you know somebody on the stage. And if it requires travel to two cities (and neighboring states) in the same day, well so be it. Maybe it is a function of age, but more and more I feel a sense of urgency about doing things, and seeing people who are important to me. I would not go so far as to call it a bucket list. Just urgency.

See that ugly flower clock up there? It was part of a most impressive collection in a Massachusetts dive where Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I stopped on our way down to his sister’s on Friday night. The place was full of clocks and plates and needlepoint, a lifetime supply of them, clearly somebody’s labor of love. And there were wagon wheel light fixtures for days. This funk-vibe little eatery may have been firmly rooted in about 1972, but it was clean as a whistle, staffed by earnest young folk, and offered a superlative and surprisingly forward-thinking menu. Here is the authentic-tasting falafel sandwich I had as evidence (trust me):

Wagon Wheel Falafel

Betcha it was not on the menu when they opened.

Anyway, that clock. It struck me (ha ha) I’d seen it somewhere before: that clock was one and the same hanging on the ballet classroom wall at my mom’s small 1970s school, the erstwhile Ballet Workshop in Memphis, Tennessee, where I trained for a few years of many, from about age twelve ’til fifteen or so. Hideous clock. But it brought back a groundswell of memories.

Like the first time my mama took me to the theatre as a spectator. I imagine I was held in her lap, but what I recall was the tiny sliver of glowing blue escaping from the bottom edge of the curtain as the house lights came down—magical. It was a beautiful mystery that held so much promise.

Hanover Theatre II

Or the moment when I first saw the stage lights come up behind a scrim that seconds before seemed opaque, but now revealed an entire world behind it. Magical.

Or the boom of a live orchestra in the pit when you least expected it.

Or the smell of the theatre; it changes when the cutain opens, whatever lingered behind it spilling into the house. (You can see the air moving whenever there is fog; fog will always tell you which way the wind is blowing as it curls over the lip of the stage. I’ve always wondered how it feels to the musicians in the pit—does it mess with their instruments? Make playing more difficult? Or do they get caught up in the magic, too?)

That silly clock made me think about the ballet. But as HCB and I sat in the Massachusetts dive and ate dinner, I also thought about whether we could realistically make both performances: a Broadway show in Worcester at 2 and a 7:30 ballet in Providence. HCB was powering out of a week of illness, and I was feeling its first symptoms.

Damn.

We warned his sister we were sick; she was a saint for still taking us in for the weekend. We decided we’d keep our date for the first show (and our breakfast with Ryan Carroll, my friend in the show), and then reassess afterwards how we felt about going to the ballet in Providence later that night.

HCB Deb Ry

That is moi, sandwiched between Handsome Chef Boyfriend (a rare sighting, I know), and Ryan. I’ve known Ryan for about a decade or so; he more or less showed up out of the ether in Knoxville looking for guest teaching gigs early in Knoxville Ballet School’s history. Southerners to the bone (Ry is from Montgomery, Alabama), we became fast friends and our connection continued to grow through the years with his frequent visits to the school. He always stayed at my place and we enjoyed late nights watching videos and talking ballet trash.

I also saw him on several occasions in NYC (where he lives) over the years when I was in the city for teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. We both had the proverbial rug yanked out from under us (in different ways), and in more or less the same time frame. He is a dear person who was always a champion of Knoxville Ballet School; so many young students, even outside the immediate school community, benefitted from his generosity.

Ryan is also a beautiful ballet dancer with impressive Broadway credentials. At the moment he is touring with The Producers in the role of Carmen Ghia.  The first time he guested for me I had the great fortune of observing him teach Bye Bye Blackbird from Fosse (a show he had danced for a very long run with the likes of Ben Vereen, et al.) to a roomful of teenage girls. That was magical, too, and I shall never forget it.

Producers Playbill

By Saturday morning my voice was already gone. I tried to cram three years’-worth of questions and narrative into an hour-long coffee date with HCB and Ryan at Starbucks. Then quick as a flash it was over. HCB and I had a little rest and made it to the theatre for the 2:00. We made it through the performance with discreet coughing, but it was abundantly clear by then the ballet would have to wait.

Insofar as The Producers—and J. Ryan Carroll—I will only say you should drop what you are doing, check this schedule, and find tickets for a city on the tour near you. Sieze the day: you never know when you will get another chance for a wonderful little piece of magic like that. (‘Til soon, Ms. Gwynn Root.)

Hanover Theatre I

Homecoming, Part the Fifth

Knoxville 5

That’s me up there, flanked by my bosom buddies Bett and Emily. The three of us and our families have known each other for decades. They are the kind of people who see you through everything that happens in your life, and you them. I assumed we’d be together as friends forever. And there are so many more I wish there’d been time to see. If there is a template for Southern graciousness, those two are its exemplars, along with a handful of others I know.

Thursday began early with our breakfast at this eatery, only three blocks from my erstwhile home in Knoxville: I used to walk there routinely to meet friends for coffee or lunch. It was admittedly weird to be in my old neighborhood again; I made myself drive by the house, although I did not linger. I was satisfied that its new people appear to be taking good care of it, but sad for so many other reasons. Anyway, I wanted Handsome Chef Boyfriend to see the setting for so, so many stories I’ve been telling him for three years now. It felt important to do.

But I digress.

HCB was a prince for joining a “girl” breakfast that was mainly about catching up; three years is a long time to go without seeing your homies. But I knew they’d want to meet him, so I pressed him to come. It was a lovely breakfast and I am genuinely pleased to see that the neighborhood bistro is still thriving; others of its ilk were not so fortunate.

Thursday was probably the most ambitious day of our homecoming week; I think HCB was growing weary of somebody’s possibly too-ambitious plans by then, and in the intervening weeks since we’ve been home there has been discussion that somebody’s contract as tour guide may not be renewed next time around. As ambitious as the day was, it is oddly the least represented in photos; I did manage to grab a few.

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Yep, I had the mop chopped; plans were hatched weeks earlier. When I moved to Vermont I had very, very short Annie Lennox-style hair. It was a life-simplifying decision I made in 2009 just ahead of the first leg of my teacher training at American Ballet Theatre. I did not do it for vanity, but as time wore on I really appreciated short-short hair even more. And during the worst year of my life, when my family came unglued, hair maintenance was the very last thing on my mind.

When I moved to Vermont, this is how I looked:

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I was a hell of a lot skinnier then than I am now, too; that was a selfie I made for HCB, just being silly. I was also terrified, and about to experience all kinds of loss on a monumental scale, not least of which financial. I grew my hair long because it was one less monthly expense. For the better part of two years now it has been getting on my last nerve, as a friend of mine used to say. I called upon the amazing and gifted Sunshine Carter, a Knoxville stylist, to take me back a few years. My hair, anyway—I have to work on the rest of me now. I think she did a beautiful job. There was a long exhale afterwards; props to my son B for shooting photos, and to Sunshine for the cute haircut. I left the salon feeling restored, much more like myself.

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People in the South are just friendlier. There. I’ve said it.

This is not a statement about regional character, that people down South are somehow better people than folks in other parts of the world. (And of course the South is beleaguered from time to time by news-making, hate-mongering sociopaths, as the world well knows.) But I do think Southerners—the non-sociopath ones—behave better in day-to-day interactions with others: warm, effusive, friendly exchanges really are a Southern specialty. It does not take all that much effort to smile and be nice to somebody. And you feel better when people are nice to you (at least, I do). A case in point: the fine staff at the salon, who made us—myself, B, and HCB—feel so welcome. And it really was a recurring theme in so many places we went.

After a brief recharging at the hotel it was time for another reunion, this time with a trio of my former ballet students for gelato at Whole Foods Market. (Yet another sign of the burgeoning economy down South, however you may feel about them, ditto Trader Joe’s—Knoxville had neither when I left it in 2012.) This threesome started pre-ballet at Knoxville Ballet School when they were barely bigger than toddlers. And they were on the leading edge of children at the school who had the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum from the earliest level, which at the time was Primary Level A.

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As often happens when like-minded families are thrown together by their children’s enrichment activities, the school proved to be a galvanizing experience for these girls and their parents. I can’t believe how much they have grown, truly. Here are the same girls, in the same exact order, just after their affiliate exams in 2011, numbers 3, 2, and 1. (And that is moi, with my brilliant accompanist Eva Holder, and ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School Principal, Franco De Vita. It was the second time Franco had come down from NYC to adjudicate; we were all so very lucky.)

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And we are still lucky. I am glad to see my young students moving on, whether they choose classical ballet or not, especially glad that they wanted to see their former ballet teacher. Our time together was too brief, then and now.

Our day ended with a blissful dinner at the home of incredibly talented friends Bett (see above) and Doug; I have no photos to show. I could have walked around snapping pictures of their incredible home, the beautiful salmon they smoked for us in the Big Green Egg, the amazing things they’ve done in the patio and yard since last I saw it, Bett’s exquisite artwork (in all kinds of media, most especially pottery and rug hooking), the dog, and the cat. But that would have been, you know, weird. What I can say is being there in that place again, where we often found ourselves when our kids were little, and then slightly bigger, and then all of a sudden teenagers and young adults, was life-restoring. We had a wonderful, relaxing time with friends, telling stories, remembering the fall of the company that brought so many talented people to Knoxville, Tennessee, Doug and Bett among them, and life after big transitions. I did not want to leave.

But we did; Friday’s adventures required a good night’s sleep. About which more 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:

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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.