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.

uss-north-carolina-3

uss-north-carolina-4

uss-north-carolina-6

uss-north-carolina-5

uss-north-carolina-15

uss-north-carolina-50

uss-north-carolina-49

uss-north-carolina-10

uss-north-carolina-14

uss-north-carolina-11

uss-north-carolina-9

uss-north-carolina-8

uss-north-carolina-45

uss-north-carolina-44

uss-north-carolina-32

uss-north-carolina-30

uss-north-carolina-25

uss-north-carolina-22

uss-north-carolina-24

uss-north-carolina-23

uss-north-carolina-21

uss-north-carolina-20

uss-north-carolina-18

uss-north-carolina-19

uss-north-carolina-17

uss-north-carolina-34

uss-north-carolina-42

uss-north-carolina-35

uss-north-carolina-36

uss-north-carolina-33

uss-north-carolina-41

uss-north-carolina-40

uss-north-carolina-46

uss-north-carolina-39

uss-north-carolina-37

uss-north-carolina-38

uss-north-carolina-29

uss-north-carolina-27

uss-north-carolina-7

 

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.

bentley-at-wrightsville-beach

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.

crashing-waves-wrightsville-beach

bird-at-rest-wrightsville-beach

kite-flying-wrightsville-beach

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.

the-fish-house-3

the-fish-house-2

the-fish-house-1

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.

femental-1

fermental-2

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:

farewell-to-wilmington

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.

the-pilot-house-restaurant-2

the-pilot-house-restaurant-4

the-pilot-house-restaurant-3

the-pilot-house-restaurant-5

bijou-tiles

bijou-dog

bullock-hospital

downtown-drugstore-2

the-dixie-grill-4

the-dixie-grill-3

the-dixie-grill-2

downtown-wilmington-daytime-1

downtown-wilmington-daytime-3

downtown-wilmington-daytime-2

downtown-wilmington-daytime-4

downtown-wilmington-daytime-5

downtown-wilmington-daytime-6

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.

How many Vermonters does it take…

Apples and Oranges

…to change a lightbulb?

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I are T minus five days to liftoff for our Way Down South trip, part the second, with an impossible work load to accomplish ‘til then. I am a compulsive maker of lists, less compulsive in their execution. In a perfect world we’d have a vacation week before the vacation, and a small buffer on the flip side to rest up before going back to the salt mines.

Alas, the world is imperfect, and with so few hours remaining until launch, I’ve tried to kick it into high gear this weekend.

I had the foresight at least to take care of a couple of big line items last week, to wit: the Subi’s oil is changed, and most of his exhaust system (yep, he’s a feller) is now shiny and new, a condition that will help come inspection time in October. Rust is a thing up in these parts—all that brine and sand on the winter roads wreak havoc on metal faster than you can say, Hand me a new lightbulb. Unfortunately some other problems showed themselves last week whilst the car was on the lift, one of them a big ticket item: seems Yuri needs new head gaskets. Again.

They were replaced about eighteen months into my life as a Vermonter, when I was wiping the sweat from my brow and thanking the universe I’d bought an extended warranty for my second-hand Subaru. So call ‘em two and a half years old, and already they’re failing: “seepage” is how my very kind and diplomatic mechanic described the beads of oil he observed. It’s not as bad as gushing, he went on. Agreed, but can we reliably drive ‘im down to the North Carolina coast, thence home again safe and sound? Yes, he said, keep an eye on the oil pressure and know that sooner or later you’ll have to pony up the cash and fix the problem.

Okay, then. Another worry item for the compulsive worry wart, to go with costly and unpleasant dental work on the post-vacation horizon. Yuri needs new gaskets, because evidently nothing is made to last.

On to smaller things: devices. HCB and I are tethered to our electronics like the rest of the world. A few days before travel I start thinking about chargers and cases and screen cleaners (yes, really), to go with laptops, iPads, cell phones, Kindles, and cameras. HCB commandeered my iPad the nanosecond we combined households, for his bedtime web browsing and solitaire-ing and Angry Birds-ing and the like.

But my iPad is first generation, well past its expiration date. Which is to say it’s beyond the point where its operating system can be updated; it no longer works and plays well with much of anything, and just last night HCB quipped that all it’s really good for anymore is idle entertainment. We took it to the Geek Squad for kicks not long ago to see whether they could work some magic on it. Nah, they lamented, unless you’re willing to risk a complete, unrecoverable crash. I think this must be the hardware equivalent of my favorite email message: the following address has encountered a permanent fatal error. We thanked them and took our ancient technology home with its obsolete innards untouched but not yet dead, as the Monty Python folk would say.

That’s the thing I find so irritating, though. As obsolete as the iPad is, it’s really not old. My parents used to browbeat good stewardship into me: take care of your things, they would preach, and they’ll last forever. I took them at their word, because this wisdom seemed true. The new bicycle my dad gave me on my tenth birthday is the same one I took with me to college eight years later. Meanwhile, my mom still rides her childhood Schwinn (which is especially groovy now, because it’s authentically retro).

In July I finally relented and bought my first-ever iPhone for a song when I was due an upgrade. Thing is, the comparatively inexpensive LG phone it replaced was just fine on the face of it, but suffered the same disease as the iPad—an operating system that could not hope to keep up with all the new software updates. The phone had slowed to a crawl so that it was difficult to even, say, make a call. Just like the phone before it. And the phone before that one, too. Maddening; it still looks new.

Gentle reader, this is just wrong.

HCB takes pleasure in pointing out to me any chance he gets that his ancient flip phone—the one he’s had for ten years—works just fine and dandy. Apples to oranges (so to speak), I tell him. Still, I wish like heck I could get more than two years out of a phone, especially now that the land line is mainly a thing of the past.

Except in Vermont, where everybody has a land line, where people recite seven digits when you ask for a phone number (802 area code implicit), and where we get a new printed phone book each fall replete with comical errors: our Comcast number has somebody else’s name in front of it (it’s okay, we know them).

So how many Vermonters does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: Three—one to change it and two to talk about how much better the old one was.

By these standards I think I make a pretty dang good Vermonter.

Summer Reading: Some Promising Looking Fresh Hell

What fresh hell can this be?

Beach Reading 2
Accidental Literature

It is a line sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but Dorothy Parker said it. Dang Shakespeare. It’s one of those quips that sounds so civilized, so much better than any number of other crude things one might choose to say when a situation demands it (wtf comes to mind).

I found Dorothy Parker in my great-grandmother Gracie’s basement when I was twelve, in her house way up high on a hill above the main channel of the Tennessee River. It was a jaw-dropping piece of land where Granny Grace lived in her little whitewashed board-and-batten cottage, its beauty completely lost on my bored, twelve-year-old summer vacation self. At the time I could not have foreseen I would start my own family there.

Boredom spawns creativity, they say. It did not during those long hours that stretched between time trying to sit still while Granny Grace swilled black coffee and chain smoked and told the same stories over and over (still mercifully entertaining on the thousandth telling), and shopping excursions (five pounds of bacon at the highway grocery) and chores (one summer we painted her house), and family dinner much later. I stupidly longed to be back home in the heat of Memphis with my twelve-year-old co-conspirators.

But left to my own devices I explored what there was to explore: potted African violets covering every inch of a massive round wood table; oil portraits of beloved family members (even dogs); the curious tintypes in Granny Grace’s ancient photo albums; and on a slab of concrete foundation that served as an impromptu bookshelf in the basement, a collection of cast-off paperbacks and back issues of magazines (yes, even magazines devoted to curating African violets). A found collection of Dorothy Parker short stories was my salvation at a horrible point on the pre-adolescent continuum when the excitement of adult life has revealed itself, but only through a foggy lens, and still well beyond reach.

A high school Latin teacher once said, it does not matter how you’re exposed to art, or music, or literature—only that you’re exposed to it. So if Bugs Bunny serves as your entrée to the world of Wagner, she went on, so be it. I think I agree with this. A damp Knoxville basement is as good a place as any to fall in love with the writing of Dorothy Parker. I tore through that book scarcely taking a breath. That was also the moment when I discovered the great appeal of the short story as a form.

Many years later I found Cormac McCarthy at a time when I was living in the same neighborhood where McCarthy himself once lived. His seamy autobiographical novel Suttree transfixed me like that dog-eared copy of Dorothy Parker stories had years before, Suttree still more because of its Knoxville setting; I had a good fix on the landscape in that delicious story. So yesterday when I came across a bargain paperback copy of The Crossing in our über-pricey local book store I snatched it up; seems fitting for a late-summer beach trip a few weeks hence. I couldn’t leave the store without a collection of short stories: a used copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by one John Updike shouted at me from the stacks.

Only one hellish oversight, Mr. Updike, if a little stale now:  you left out the Dorothy Parker. (Wtf?)

Howdy, 2016. I already miss you, 2015.

New Year’s Eve 2015, a street corner in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Saratoga Intersection

My boy Bentley and his friend Billy have been with us for a week, headed back to their respective homes in Tennessee at an obscene hour tomorrow morning. We’ve had a great time together. I am always amazed how you can blink and it’s gone: eight days, just like that. I tried to arrange at least one Fun Thing for them each day they were here. Road warriors, those two: a thousand miles in two days to get here, and then run-outs near and far pretty much every day, to Londonderry, Manchester, and Bennington, and also Cambridge and Saratoga, NY. In short order they both figured out the singular truth about life in rural Vermont (Bentley already knew it): the correct answer to the question, Where is <fill in the blank>? is always, far, far away. Or maybe more appropriately: in a galaxy far, far away. Yep, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in one of the teeny local theatres a couple of days ago; the two of them have already hatched plans to see it in 3D when they return home.

Some things never change, to wit:

Lil Britain Holiday

At any given moment during the past week the two of them could be observed with one of several electronic devices that followed them here. It cracks me up to observe them sitting in such close proximity whilst texting each other. Or me. At first blush, it’s ridiculous. But the conversation most likely includes things people nearby (including the patrons at our favorite fish and chips joint in downtown Bennington) may not want to hear anyway.

Saratoga was about as far afield as we ventured during our week together. In the process of searching for parking in a very crowded downtown on New Year’s Eve I came across this for the first time:

Saratoga Springs

Hathorn Spring Historic Marker

It smelled strongly of sulphur and looked like something out of a Harry Potter tome, one of our favorites, the boy’s and mine. Not so sure about the purported “digestive curative” properties. We much preferred these, at the Boca Burger around the corner and down the street:

Boca Burger

I am still getting used to the idea that it is okay to buy my kid a cocktail—something decidedly more potent than butter beer. Yes, he looks fifteen. He is many years older and quite “legal,” although the waiter took some convincing. When he was finally satisfied the boy is more than 21 he quipped, Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it. (We’ll never tell.)

I’ve loved having my son glued to me for eight glorious days. Little boy smell was once replaced by middle school smell, thence adventure boarding school smell (requiring windows rolled down on trips home, even in winter), heavy smoker smell (an especially bad chapter for a much-too-young kid), and now a heavily perfumed smell <cough cough>, preferable to all the rest. He is downstairs snoozing, ready for the road tomorrow, a long haul home, part of which he’ll drive alone. I miss him and he is still here. I will be weepy when he is gone. And I will lament the things that are still not right, and I will worry about the future. I’ll probably chew my nails.

Sometimes it is hard to let go of the past, even when parts of it were truly terrible. There is still so much uncertainty and turmoil.

So, 2016, what’s it gonna be? Will you be pleasant and affable, or a royal pain in the ass? Will you cozy up and offer a warming glass of something nourishing, or a bitter drink that promised much but lost its fizz? Fair weather friend or a keeper of promises? Better be good.

So long, 2015: you played nice, mainly. And godspeed, dear Bentley. I love you more than you’ll ever know.~Mum

Christmas 2016

Homecoming Finale: In the Company of Artists

Jonesborough 4

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.

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 3

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).

Jonesborough 9

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.

Jonesborough 6

Jonesborough 5

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.

Jonesborough 25

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

Jonesborough 3

Jonesborough 4

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.

Jonesborough 8

Jonesborough 10

Jonesborough 11

Jonesborough 12

Jonesborough 13

Jonesborough 14

Jonesborough 15

Jonesborough 17

Jonesborough 18

Jonesborough 19

Jonesborough 20

Jonesborough 21

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.

Jonesborough 23

And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.

Jonesborough 24

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:

IMG_20150920_074649

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:

IMG_20151011_195211

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 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.

haircut 4

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:

2012-09-20_17-37-18_56

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.

haircut 1

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.

IMG_20150920_074502

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.)

Affiliate Exams 2011 Primary B

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

RR 11

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:

RR 2

RR 3

RR 4

RR 5

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:

RR 6

RR 7

RR 8

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

RR 9

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

RR 10

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:

RR 12

RR 13

RR 14

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:

RR 15

RR 17

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.

IMG_20150910_150150

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

IMG_20150910_150337

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:

IMG_20150910_150740

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

IMG_20150910_150923

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.

IMG_20150910_151112

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

Knoxville 3

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:

Knoxville 2

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:

Knoxville 4

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