“That was the thing about all this: it was a brain thing, and I loved my brain and the way it had been going about its business so gamely for more than half a century. Let’s say you have something wrong with your liver or heart. Terrible news. But if you’re lucky, if you get another one and take the right medication you’ll be back to your old self again. But with the brain, the one you were born with either works or it goes wrong and you start sliding away from yourself. Even if a better, cleverer brain – a brainier brain – had been available for transplant I wouldn’t have traded in the addled one I had. And although the problem, we’d quickly discovered, wasn’t in my eyes, that’s where it had manifested itself, and I loved my eyes too, especially here in southern California where half the reason for living, possibly all of it, was to see and be seen.”


Our special issue The American South is out!

Whether you’re partial to images or prose, attempt to capture the American South and you will soon find yourself deep in a thicket of contradiction. And there, not least among your struggles will be the very challenge of defining where exactly it is that you’ve wound up. When we talk about the South, are we referring to a stretch of states below the Mason-Dixon, a frame of mind, a variant of culture, or a region sill reeling from having once ardently defended Jim Crow and the “peculiar institution”? Writing in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Patrick Gerster includes among the stereotypical characters we might encounter: Bible-thumping preachers haunted by God, nubile cheerleaders, demagogic politicians, corrupt sheriffs, football All-Americans with three names, and neurotic vixens with affinities for the demon rum. Add to this roster a host of poets, painters, farmers, freedom fighters, and citizens—scattered north and south—coping with the uncertainties of post-industrial America, and we may just begin to grasp this entity that remains in equal parts a place on the map and a place in the mind.

In this special issue of Guernica, the first of four made possible through your generous support to our Kickstarter campaign, we offer fresh takes on a familiar landscape, where the American South is at once a geographical distinction and a bright spot in the imagination, where burden vies with birthright, and where ignorance and renaissance exist side by side.

Jazzed to be among all this great company. The Guernica folks did some really good work here. Jamie Quatro and Rebecca Gayle Howell’s pieces especially thwapped me upside the head—oh, Kiese Laymon’s interview with his mother!—although probably you can just click on whatever and it will be a good choice.

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.

On Sunday I bought a desk and put it together and now I have a desk. It’s in the room that is technically our dining room, although most of our at-home eating is lately done on the couch in front of the TV, which I am blaming on it being winter but will soon blame on it being whatever other season. In the corner where the desk is now there used to be an old chair, vaguely mid-centuryish, one of those things of which is generously said, “Well, it has good bones.” Except it actually had terrible bones—some underpart of it broke while we still lived in our old apartment, and then re-broke sometime last year or the year before, and has been basically nonfuctioning as a chair for more than half the time it has been in my possession. But it was a birthday gift from my mom after I saw it at an antiques store we were browing together, and it seemed ungrateful to chuck out an asked-for gift, so I kept it. The whole time we’ve lived in our current place it has been occupying a corner I lamely designated as a “reading nook” although exactly zero reading has ever happened there; meanwhile, I’ve doing all my writing and other desky work from the couch, or the bed, maybe once or twice from the kitchen table but not often, for some reason, even though mostly it is occupied with junk mail and various groceries that never made it into the cabinets. But lately this all started to seem ridiculous and I decided it was time to have a desk. So, goodbye chair. Now I have a desk.

I haven’t used the desk for much writing yet; I haven’t been writing much lately at all. There have been a few biggish work-related things occupying a good bit of my cognitive resources and I haven’t pressingly needed to be working on anything, so I’ve put it all on mute for a bit. It has been more easy than I would have expected or wished. After last fall when I put the brakes on music writing, I began to wonder what else might be expendable, and then working on this (I guess this is where I plug Scratch and tell you to subscribe if you want to read the whole thing?!) shook something loose, too. I wrote that in November and it’s been a burr in my brain ever since—how much do I need, how much do I want, what part of this is making me happy, what am I doing out of vaguely-defined fear and what am I doing out of real desire and what fear might be lurking behind that desire? Manjula is a generous editor and let me sit with my ambivalence and I appreciate that. And I’m still sitting.

Sitting now, as it happens, at a desk. I don’t like being superstitious about my workspaces, don’t like to give them too much power over me. I value my flexibility in this regard, am actively proud or maybe smug that I do not much more than relative quiet and an electrical outlet every few hours. I don’t need a sunny window or a particular brand of tea or note paper or white-noise frequency or a certain temperature or special hat or a moving train under me. I am not going to let some absent environmental element keep me from writing. I have considered the possibility that I put off buying a desk for two years in order to prove to myself that I could work without a workspace, and this seems likely to be true, though I do think I was also hung up on that old dumb chair and bad at throwing things out in general. I’ve also considered the possibility that I bought the desk to trick myself into writing again, to snap myself out of these slumpy weeks of cleaning and shredding and schlubbing and not-writing. Maybe I did, and maybe it’s working, and anyway would that be so bad, writing to justify the purchase and assembly and ownership of a desk? Would that really be dumber than anything else that’s ever motivated me before?

Either way, it’s a nice little desk if you’re also in the market. It took me about forty seconds shy of Purple Rain to put it together. I was left with a handful of spare parts but so far there are no signs of their structural necessity. There’s one big drawer and I’m putting all my secrets in it.

“"The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. This is what we know. The rest is gravy." I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times. The only thing I could swear to is that the writing here leaves something to be desired. "What’s going on here?" is one of the author’s refrains. "The creator loves pizzazz," she answers herself.”
New York Times | Eudora Welty reviews Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) // Underrated: critics flatly admitting their utter bemusement.
“Your writing is not more important than someone’s life. It is only writing.”
“To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.”
“If I belong anywhere, it probably isn’t in publishing. But, then, I keep forgetting that this sense of dissatisfaction explains why work is called “work.” Like the teenager I was and in some ways still am, I grouse about and make fun of what I have to do and the people who tell me I have to do it, even when those people are me.”

This essay by Sarah Marshall in the new issue of The Believer—about Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, the bizarre attack by a hit-man hired by Harding’s ex-husband against Kerrigan at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships, the subsequent media frenzy and its peak, or deflation, at the 1994 Olympics—is so excellent.

Watching the Olympics that night, viewers witnessed not just the end of Tonya’s career but the extinction of a whole era of ladies’ figure skating. If Tonya was a T. Rex, lumbering out of her enclosure and bringing chaos to the night’s well-ordered spectacle of heavily regulated female strength, then Nancy was a velociraptor, hissing with stifled aggression as her turf was overrun by tiny, quick-blooded mammals. As Nancy warmed up with the final group, she found herself surrounded by teenagers: Tonya may have famously trained in a mall, but Nancy had to compete against girls who looked like they would have been more at home shopping in one. Nancy delivered a beautiful routine that night, elegant, nervy, and technically flawless. But it was also the skating of a grown woman, and she narrowly lost both the gold medal and the crowd’s favor to Oksana Baiul, the bubbly, crowd-pleasing sixteen-year-old orphan in pink marabou. However much the public had tried to situate Tonya and Nancy as enemies, they remained united, if only in their representation of the sport’s old guard, and of the last gasp of a period during which skaters could just possibly be seen as women and not as girls.

There are things you read and appreciate because they made you care about a thing you thought you wouldn’t care about, but then there are things you read about things you already care about that make you realize you had absolutely no idea about that thing you thought you cared about in the first place, and for me this is the latter.

I was nine when the Harding/Kerrigan stuff happened and a minor figure-skating nut, and it was sort of Baby’s First Media Scandal for me. So many of the images and the narrative elements are familiar, but blurrily so, and it’s weird to see it all flayed out in such detail—and galling, because the coverage was so deeply, viciously warped against Harding, in ways I couldn’t have sensed as a kid but that seem far too familiar now.

What also hit me was Marshall’s point that the 1994 Lillehammer games—which I watched, in complete rapt awe, as much of as my early EST bedtime allowed—were such a turning point for women’s figure skating, a pivot away from “women” and towards “girls.” I remember Harding and Kerrigan (and Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi, and Surya Bonaly who gets no mention here but, uh, BACKFLIPPING BLACK FRENCH LADY? HELLO? BEST?) all seemed like such grown-ups to me. Even Oksana Baiul—who was sixteen, and who Marshall positions as a harbinger of all the waifs to flood the rink in years to come—seemed very grown-up to me. When I thought about this years later I figured that was because they were teenagers and I was a kid and everyone over the age of 12 seemed to me like some kind of unfathomable adult being.

But as it turns out, they kind of were adults! Harding and Kerrigan were in their 20s, at least. Marshall’s dinosaur references above are perfect, an extension of the detail that Harding did her free skate to the theme from Jurassic Park, which I had somehow forgotten, though I remember so many other things about the games: I have not forgotten about the torch-bearing skiier or the fact that Dodge was a sponsor for NBC’s coverage and ads for the Neon were shown at every commercial break. I was quite set on a teal and purple one by the end of the games. Teal and purple—are there any more 1994-y colors? I don’t believe so. I remember watching the games with my best friend Alison, who was about to move with her family to Virginia; we made worry dolls from instructions we found in American Girl magazine, and probably ate pretzels and Sprite because that was Our Snack. I’m sure we had feelings about Nancy and Tonya and though I don’t remember them now, either, they were probably the same as everyone else’s.

Anyway, it’s a great essay, recommended even if you don’t give a lick about mid-90s competitive figure skating. (If you think you don’t care, I dare you to watch Oksana Baiul’s “Swan Lake” short program and not at least entertain the possibility of weeping.)

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.

“When life gave Ephron lemons, in other words, she made a giant vat of really good vodka-spiked lemonade and invited all of her friends and her friends’ friends over to share it, and gossip, and play charades. Whereas when life gave Joan Didion lemons, she stared at them for several months, and then crafted a haunting bit of prose about the lemon and orange groves that were razed and paved over to make Hollywood, in all of its sooty wretchedness—which is precisely what this mixed-up world does to everything that’s fresh and young and full of promise.”
“This anxious double consciousness—it’s not me/it will be me—may be part of the price we pay for living with, and around, machines. Whenever we enter a moving vehicle, for example, or a plane, haven’t we always, already, in our minds, crashed and become corpses? Even before receiving our salty pretzels we see ourselves screaming and praying, falling through the sky, incinerated. And if we’re in that Warholian moment, everything else is false advertising. That’s another ongoing attraction of Warhol: whenever it’s strongly implied that we are going to live forever (almost every ad, TV show, and magazine—in-flight or otherwise—does this) we can think of Andy (who used the commercial language of these mediums) and know, deep in our naked selves, that it isn’t true.”
“The year I was a freshman cheerleader I was reading 1984. I was fourteen years old then and failing algebra and the fact that I was failing it worried me as I would worry now if the Mafia were after me, or if I had shot somebody and the police were coming to get me. But I did not have an awful lot of time to brood about this. It was basketball season then, and there was a game nearly every night. In Mississippi the schools are far apart, and sometimes we would have to drive two hundred miles to get to Panola Academy, Sharkey-Issaquena, funny how those old names come back to me; we’d leave sometimes before school was out, not get home till twelve or one in the morning. I was not an energetic teenager, and this was hard on me. Too much exposure to the high-decibel world of teen sports—shrieking buzzers, roaring stomping mob, thunderous feet of players charging up the court—kept me in a kind of perpetual stunned condition; the tin-roof echo of rural gymnasiums rang through all my silences, and frequently at night I woke in a panic because I thought a player was crashing through my bedroom window or a basketball was flying at me, about to knock my teeth out.”