Can’t Take It With You has returned! I talked with Jeff Staab, owner of Cremation Solutions, purveyor of urns and other ash receptacles beyond your wildest dreams. Like, for instance, 12-inch posable action figures with faces customizable in the likeness of the person whose ashes you can also get sealed inside the figure itself. “I actually just sold one yesterday—Superman. Someone was getting their dad as Superman,” he told me. “It’s the big heads I don’t sell very much of. They get written about a lot, but I hardly sell any. They’re really expensive and they creep people out. They’re too real-looking, really.” Read more. 

“There is a tacit agreement among children to wait until they are grown to start killing one another, and when this is violated we call it “the unimaginable.” We say, “I never thought this kind of thing could happen here.” But at some point in the past 20 years, it began to seem not just imaginable, but inevitable. I happened to be inside the bubble when it finally burst. By my count, between my first day of kindergarten, in August 1990, and my first day of middle school, in August 1996, 23 people — children and teachers and staff — were killed and 20 were wounded in 12 shootings done by students at primary and secondary schools across the United States. By the time I graduated from high school, in May 2003, those numbers had more than doubled: 24 shootings in six years, 110 wounded, 43 dead. In the 11 years since I graduated from high school, 42 have died and 92 have been wounded in 69 shootings committed by students. Since then, too, the less frequent but generally more deadly trend of outside shooters entering schools has spiked: In 16 incidents, 16 wounded and 46 dead — more than half of those at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. You can plot it all out on a chart and the red line goes up and up and it does not stop.”
Today I have an essay up at Matter about growing up in the 90s amid the increasingly unshakeable realities of school shootings. Before I started the piece I had a vague impression of what the numbers would look like when I got them all in one place like this—even still, this shocked me. I wish I had more to say about how we can stop these things from happening, but I don’t, at least not yet. Here’s hoping for a peaceful year.

Over at Matter, I have a little piece about how stupidly much I love my dog but how my dog is not my baby and definitely not my “furbaby.” The illustration by Tim Enthoven is fantastic (and, for the record, not an accurate portrayal of Joe, Charlie, or myself—though for some reason Joe is most interested in distancing himself from the Crocs, less from the mega-short-shorts).

“It’s a really personal thing. It feels really important. Not that I’m important, but it’s a real kindness to people and it’s something that’s easy for me to do and not easy for them to do, and I’m happy to be able to provide it. I almost feel guilty charging for it, and I have to get used to that. I’ve never been a business before, so that’s a hard one for me.”
— For the third installment of Can’t Take It With You I talked with Cecily Hintzen, a onetime high-school counselor turned pathology lab administrator who’s now pursuing memorial planning as a second-act career. I heard about Cecily through David Greenwald, who I’ve known online through music-writing circles for a while—she’s his mother-in-law! He read about CTIWY and thought she’d be good for me to talk with, and he was right. If you know someone whose work—or just general existence, really—intersects with death and money in some unexpected or underexplored way, I’d love to hear from you, too.
Dayton is one of thousands of small American towns besot by hyper-conservative goofery, but the residue of the Scopes trial seems to trap and magnify it, even all these years later. Over those two weeks in July 1925, journalists swarmed in from across the country, their baser tendencies prevailing on a new, massive scale—it wasn’t the first “trial of the century,” but it was the first broadcast live over the radio. Preachers and monkey-souvenir vendors peddled their wares on streets clogged with looky-loos. The defendant lent his name to the production, but the counsel starred: famously agnostic Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense, with populist statesman turned fundamentalist vanguard William Jennings Bryan a figurehead of the prosecution. Chief among the gawking scribes was H. L. Mencken, whose dispatches for the Baltimore Sun and The Nation bemoaned Dayton’s “forlorn mob” of “rustics” and “gaping primates.” Dayton was a “ninth-rate country town,” he sneered, a “dung pile” destined to be “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”

Growing up in Chattanooga, I always heard about the Scopes Trial Play & Festival they held up in Dayton every year, but I never went until last summer. Here’s my attempt to make sense of a town that’s still making sense of itself, from this spring’s issue of The Oxford American.

(photo via)


In 1999, just a few months after The Orchid Thief was published, Susan Orlean had another book come out—this one about dieting, co-written with fellow New Yorker writer Patricia Marx. She used a pen name, Susan Sistrom, which may be why you’ve never heard of The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won’t Tell You!).You may have also never heard of it because it was weirdly marketed, and indeed weirdly written; this is the sort of book in which a suggestion that you sprinkle bleach on food you don’t want to eat is made not entirely in jest.

I stumbled on The Skinny earlier this year during a late-night Google fugue—or rather, I stumbled on this also-wacky New York Times story from 1999 about Orlean and Marx’s “skinny lunch” group going to a beefity beefman steakhouse and nibbling on rolls. I had a lot of questions about the whole thing. Fortunately Orlean was down to answer them.

She was super gracious about the whole thing and less weirded out than I would have expected by my relative rando self popping out of nowhere and asking to ask her many questions about a poorly-received book she wrote nearly 20 years ago. We wound up having a really nice talk about social expectations and evolutionary impulses and the privileging of certain obsessions over others.

The way we rank obsessions is really interesting. On the one hand, you’ve got dudes going deep into a jungle to get a flower, and they’re these heroic adventurers. And then there’s someone being like, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” Maybe neither of them are that healthy, but one of them’s a hero and one of them’s a sad woman.

Right. That’s why I do feel that it’s sort of in its own way liberating to say to women, “You don’t need to feel guilty if you actually think about this stuff. It’s natural.” When does it ever end, that women aren’t made to feel bad about things that they think about and feel? I’d like to look great and make no effort. But then you feel guilty that you care about it, and then you feel bad that you care about feeling bad about it, and then you just think, “Wow, it never ends.”

I remain pretty baffled by the book but it was really great talking with her. You can read the rest of our conversation over at Slate.

Back in November, I spent a couple days on the job with Dr. Linda Ellington, the kind of veterinarian dogs love even more than their own humans—but even among the humans who love her, just say her name and their eyes turn into giant pulsing cartoon hearts. Cats don’t even completely hate her!

Shadowing her was fun and sad and really really smelly. After two days I had more than too much to include it all, so just one day made it into the story, which you can read now in the new (animal-themed!) issue of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine.

Andy Lee took the photos (which I wanted to happen even before I knew his Great Dane, Leon, loves Dr. Ellington almost more than anyone else on earth).

I’m really proud of the whole issue—illegal dorm pets! frat bros and their giant dogs! bees (not “animals” but I decided not to care)! And after nearly three years with the magazine, it’s my last. New adventures begin next week and I’m so excited.

Last year some pals of mine started a little magazine called Brother. Sometime after the first one came out Andy asked me if I wanted to write the second one and I did not even have to think for a second before saying YES. A couple months later we went to Charleston for a day or so and hung out with CLAMMER DAVE whose name is not officially spelled in all caps but, once you experience him, seems like it should be. I knew basically nothing about bivalves or aquaculture or any of this stuff before before but it’s a weird, delicate, gnarly business and Dave is one of the most, uh, “character”-iest people I’ve gotten to meet and write about in a while. Andy took the fantastic photos, Alvin made it look awesome; I just got my copies yesterday and can confirm that it feels real good to hold in your hands. You can get a copy here for $11 (or, if you’re in Atlanta, at either Octane location, plus some other places soon). If you are someone who needs John T. Edge’s approval before you commit to anything, here you go. Or, if you would like to see a photo of me standing on top of a rickety houseboat in Charleston Harbor, posing like a goober to conceal my fear of what at the time seemed like imminent death or tetanus contraction, you are also in luck.

What I Wrote, 2013


I reviewed albums by Laura Stevenson, Iron & Wine, Jessica Pratt, Lady Lamb The Beekeeper, Torres, Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Harmer, Frightened Rabbit and Laura MarlingI poked at the lonely pleasures of The Postal Service’s Give Up. I talked with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman about the debut of their very long-delayed musical. I explored the buddy-buddiness of weed and country music.

I burned out on “music writing.”

I took a road trip with my mom. I rode MARTA and wondered why

I interviewed and profiled and obituarized a bunch of staggeringly brilliant people and made four issues of what I think is a pretty fine looking alumni magazine.

I thought about an old neighbor and Girl Scout cookies. I thought about childhood and fear of death, my own at least. I thought about Christmas trees and the life-cycle of traditions

I came clean about my lady mustache. I told a room of strangers that I once believed my husband when he told me grizzly bear penises make a hissing sound when fully erect.

Also I met a clammer named Dave, spent some time in Dayton, Tenn., talked to a bunch of young country music people and thought about hunger, literal and figurative, but you’ll have to wait for 2014 for all that.

HIDDEN BONUS TRACK: What I Didn’t Write, 2013

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but late last year I decided that I would have written a book by the end of 2013. Or, a “manuscript” I guess is what you call it, a thing that wants to be a book but doesn’t yet exist in its intended form. The plan was to write one piece a month for twelve months and by the end of the next December a book would sit in place of what had once been nothing but vague rectangular yearning. As 2013 rolled in I was very pleased with myself for coming up with this. This undertaking I had dreamed my whole literate life of undertaking suddenly seemed so easy! Which should have been my first indication that things would not go as planned. 

In June, when I finally felt as if I had finished what-would-be-the-book’s first piece, the goal still seemed attainable, the timeline just… compressed? But not discouragingly so! Here now in December, I somehow don’t feel all that bad about what now has only a few hours to not be a complete failed promise. At first I thought the problem was that a year was not enough time to write a book, and then I wondered if a year was too much time to write a book—maybe I had allotted myself too many minutes to potentially be diverted into some other non-book-writing activity? Maybe if I’d had less time I would have used it more wisely? Maybe, or maybe the answer is that this thing needs to happen on its own timeline, which will only reveal itself to me once I’m at the far end of it.

Not that the plan was a complete bust. I did write some part of what might one day become something, or maybe it won’t, but mostly what happened this year was I learned a number of boring but, ugh, apparently much-needed lessons about patience, pacing, rejection, drafting, revising, breathing, edit-taking, expectation-management, jealousy-management, and most importantly the various means by which to adjust Word and Google Docs windows to just about but not entirely block out the entire rest of the connected world. (Bless you, Freedom.) I learned a lot, but apparently not enough to not carry the goal over into 2014. I figure I can squeeze at least a year or two more out of it before it ascends to the level of neutered perma-resolution, a la “floss more.” We’ll see!


To anyone who read anything I wrote this year, or anything I wrote any other year, I would like to say a big sloppily earnest and sincere thank you. When I stop and think about it too hard or too long it starts to seem very strange that I would expect anyone to give up any amount of their precious finite life to sit and move their eyes over words on a screen or a page that I in turn spent possibly too much of my own precious finite life arranging and rearranging, and rearranging and rearranging. Very often this strikes me as possibly insane behavior, even when things are going very well. It can be easier to imagine writing into a deep black void, because that at least is a bottomless receptacle with no to-do list, no partner or children or parents or friends to spend time with and tend to, no job to do or dogs to walk or self to feed and take care of. I am never going to waste that void’s time. The void has time to spare. But I am always in danger of wasting yours. And the goal is to not do that. The goal is to make that time better, or at least not worse. I hope I have. At the very least, I’m very grateful to have been given a chance.

Onwards! Onwards into the future!

Apparently I am a complete cheeseball of a human being and have written A Christmas Thing almost every year for the past few years. Here they are, on the off chance you are weary of wassailing and present-wrapping and navigating interfamilial micro-aggressions!

2009: On the best Christmas album ever (Hanson’s Snowed In, doy), for my old Paste column. (Oh, baby Rachael. Oh, dude commenting three years late to be like, “I’m not gonna argue with you, but lemme argue with you.” Oh oh oh.)

2010: On Christmas houses and the great weird raggedy old documentary Ten Thousand Points of Light, for the Paris Review Daily.

2011: On working in a candy store, and “Marshmallow World,” and snow, for the Paris Review Daily.

2012: On… oh, this actually has nothing to do with Christmas proper, but Slate ran it last Christmas Eve and I associate Les Mis with wintertime familystuff anyway, so I will count it.

And 2013: On Christmas trees real and fake, and dying traditions, over at The Billfold.

Something I have not written about but that I think about a lot is how one time Mr. T dressed as Santa Claus and met Nancy Regan and he gave her a Mr. T doll and she sat on his lap.

Happy Whatevermas, y’all weirdos. Hope it’s a good one.

Barry Manilow. Barry Manilow! When I told my mother-in-law that I was going to interview him, she shrieked. I am now considering making all career choices henceforth based on what will make my mother-in-law shriek. In the meantime, my story/Q&A—with Manilow and his long long longtime songwriting partner Bruce Sussman about the musical they wrote years ago, which is finally getting properly premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater next month—is in the September issue of Atlanta magazine and online right here. It’s very pink.

In the August issue of Atlanta, I’m all up in a Jamie Allen and Brooke Hatfield sandwich: We were each dispatched to go on a road trip to visit some Georgia small towns, north middle and south, and I got middle. I took my mom. We touched many antiques that we did not buy and ate pie that I sometimes still think about. You can read the story in the for real real print magazine or the 99¢ digital edition right here.


“How do I tell a story when I haven’t yet lived the end? When I may have lived the better part of the story already, or when I may not even be one-quarter through? And when, either way, whenever the end does come, it will render untellable everything that came before?”

Rachael Maddux on her childhood fear of death.

Very grateful and unexpectedly terrified to have this gnarly thing out in the world today. 

In the June issue of Atlanta, I’ve got an essay about the gross, harrowing, annoying, weirdly life-expanding and -affirming experience of riding MARTA, Atlanta’s beleaguered transit system. Kendrick Brinson took the photo; we had adventures! Also, I need to stand up straight, Jesus.