Travel Advice from a Total Novice

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I didn't fly until I was 22, and I didn't have a passport until more than ten years later. Suffice it to say I was late to the travel game. Having just returned from my third international jaunt - I know, I know, total globetrotter - I've learned a few things I think are worth sharing about planning trips abroad. Although you legitimate travelistas may be like, "It took you three trips to figure this out?"

Shoulder Seasons
Most popular destinations have peak travel times - often connected to when the weather is optimal for visitors. Hotels rates follow that trend, escalating during high-volume seasons. To maximize your enjoyment and your dollar, travel in the immediate shoulder season. For example, Ireland's peak season is summer, starting June 1. By going the last week of May, we benefitted from the tail-end of off-season prices and beginning of more temperate weather. A win-win. Beware of trying to save money by going too far out of season. When we did that in Saint Maarten, we nearly roasted to death from the equatorial heat - and learned that "low season" did not mean "low temperatures."

Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
I remember clearly the illustrations from the book we had growing up depicting this Aesop fable. It came to mind when we were traveling around Ireland and found ourselves much happier in the countryside than in the city. Knowing this now, we'll plan future trips differently, likely limiting our time in major metropolitan areas in favor of the roads less traveled. Not that there's anything wrong with liking the city! But you can maximize your time in your preferred destination, choosing a short stint in the travel hub or using it as a home base for a few key day trips.

Go with the Guides with a Grain of Salt
For the first two international trips we took, I poured over the Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet guides for our destinations. In both cases, I found that a lot of the recommended destinations were the obvious ones - the kind you find on the first page of Google. Finding the more out-of-the-way places and hidden gems takes a little more digging. I think this is especially true for food. The guides will give you the obvious, notable establishments, but the newer places or local dives may require a little elbow grease to find.

Don't Take TripAdvisor's Word for It
TripAdvisor is a great resource for vetting travel destinations. I've used it to find recent reviews on hotels I'm considering and find what travelers think are the must-see attractions for a given area. However, it's sort of  a self-fulfilling prophecy. The top destinations beget more visitors and reviews and stay at the top. So while, it's good for getting a sense of what recent travelers think, don't let it be the end-all, be-all of setting your agenda.

Use Social Sources
Since I ditched the guidebooks and took a tempered view of TripAdvisor for our recent trip to Ireland, I developed a more unorthodox approach to setting our itinerary. Obviously, if you know people who have been where you're going, solicit their advice. Also, use social media. I found twitter handles focused on tourist information and locals information for our destinations. I searched Pinterest for sample itineraries and "best of" lists as well as beautiful photography of Irish landmarks to help me map out a travel route. Speaking of photography, some of my best ideas came from Instagram. I found a local photographer who curates lesser known destinations across Ireland, and that profile led me to one of our most marvelous days in Ireland at Birr Castle.

Ask the Locals
Jason is so much better at this than I am, but ask the locals. We've had great luck getting recommendations from the concierge at hotels where we're staying. Know, though, that they may be getting a kickback for recommendations to certain restaurants and attractions. But Jason does a great job of remembering to ask any local with whom we strike up a conversation. His conversation with the proprietor of a chocolate shop in Kinsale resulted in our favorite pub experience in the seaside town.

Health Insurance
I learned this the hard way. Know how your health insurance covers you when travelling. Though I knew my own insurance covered me abroad, I had no idea what Jason's policy covered. So when he got violent food poisoning our first night in Dublin, I found myself madly Googling the repercussions of seeking foreign medical attention. Luckily, he was able to get back on track without a trip to the hospital, but I promise I won't leave the country again without understanding what happens if we have a medical emergency while abroad.

A Tip on Tips
Different countries have different tipping protocols. It helps to know what's expected from you with porters, wait staff, taxi drivers and other service people. We wished we'd had more small bills/Euro coins in Ireland because you couldn't put a tip on your card in a restaurant. Just a tip to Google tipping in your destination city or country so you don't get caught wondering if you stiffed someone unknowingly.

Get a Jackery
All credit to Jason for discovering this little device. It's an external charger for your cellphone. Or, as we discovered in what could've been a desperate situation, for the GPS when the charger Hertz gave us was faulty. You'll probably use your phone more than you think for taking photos, Instagramming, maps or the general searching for necessary information (e.g. what stores in Dublin sell Gatorade?). The Jackery will save you from a dead battery in a crucial moment.

Be Adaptable
We knew we needed an adapter to work with the voltage difference. But we're also two relatively intelligent people who are totally stupid when it comes to figuring out mechanical problems. Credit goes to Jason on this one as well. He read up and found out that the devices we'd need to plug in (our iPhones and my camera charger) could accept 220V. That left us needing only a less expensive plug adapter. Ladies, note that most of your hair-styling implements are not built this way, so I opted to use the hotel hairdryers and forgo my straightener. So I was frizzy but less fussy. And totally fine with that.

My globetrotting is just starting. And there's more to learn, so if you've got awesome advice, please share!
Crossing the Trinity College Library off my bucket list.

I am the face of mental illness

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The first days of 5th grade included all the expected trappings - a brand new bookbag, arsenal of multicolored Bic mechanical pencils, wide-ruled three-hole-punch paper and a corresponding three-ring notebook that had Garfield diving into a pool of chocolate on the front. Then there were the unexpected trappings - nausea every day before school, throwing up routinely before class for more than two months and the endless stream of doctors, tests, ineffective medications and dead-end diagnoses.

Hidden Anxiety by Jordan Hourie
Those were my first panic attacks. At age 11. I was never diagnosed at that time with an anxiety disorder. Instead, I learned to cope, and those around me coped with it, too. My parents and older brother and sister grew incredibly familiar with the signs of anxiety and the ways to cushion the world around me, softening the blows against a fragile brain. It was like constantly reinforcing a nest around an egg being flung off a building and hoping for the best upon impact.

From 6th grade through 9th grade, I suffered through the first days of school with the same nausea and vomiting. My sophomore year of high school, I approached the first day of school carefully, meditatively, fearfully, swallowing hard against my 5-year tradition. Conquering that first day fear certainly wasn't the end of the road, but the rest of high school passed inside that constantly fluffed nest, sitting on the edge of a building but never quite falling all those stories down, down down. I wrote a lot of sad, weird poetry. I listened to a lot of Counting Crows and Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan and found myself in melodies and song lyrics that I wrote over and over again on the Bell's paper grocery bags covering my text books.

But college took me two hours from home and away from the nest-builders. And by my junior year, when I was taking 19 hours of class and working part-time and serving as props master for the Shakespearean tragedy The Winter's Tale, I fell out of the nest. And I cracked. 

It was spring in the North Georgia mountains, rainy and cool. I remember laying in bed in my dorm room and feeling the acute separation from reality. The Winter's Hell wrapped; I took midterms. I went home for spring break hollow and drawn. My parents worked furiously shoring me up and sent me back to school in adequate shape to finish the semester. And after a summer at home, you almost couldn't see the cracks anymore. Almost.

Depression, artist unknown
Then my senior year, faced with the beginning of the end, I fell to pieces all over again. After a screaming fight with my then-boyfriend in which I repeated at top volume, "I am not crazy," I realized I was indeed on the sidewalk at the bottom of that many-storied building with my years-old meticulously maintained nest splintered and the egg Humpty-Dumptied to the point that the king's horses and king's men need not be called upon.

I finally went to counseling. And I finally found out that I wasn't crazy. That in fact, I was sick. Mentally ill. Suffering from an anxiety disorder that tended to begat clinical depression. I learned to use my writing to help me process and sort the rational from the irrational. By graduation, I felt like a fairly well-adjusted human being.

Change is always a trigger for me, though, and when I moved back to Georgia after nearly six years in North Carolina, I was shoved right back off that building that in the intervening years had grown taller and further from the ground. Six months after I arrived home, I split from reality. This time felt different. I felt less able to white-knuckle through to the other side. The mental illness crept into all sorts of physical manifestations - uncontrollable crying, vomiting, shaking, weight loss. This time I bypassed the king's horses and king's men and went to the doctor. And I accepted that medication was a very necessary route to recovery.

I have been taking medication for my anxiety and depression for 8 years now. It doesn't keep me fully insulated all the time, but it gives me the clarity to know when my brain is most fragile. And it gives me the willpower to feather my own nest and build that cushion between me and the threat of falling off the edge.

When I talk to people about my mental illness, I find the most common responses include, "I can't tell" or "You don't seem like the type." And perhaps if mental illness always ran concurrent with an unhappy childhood or poor parenting or traumatic experience, then that would make sense. But it doesn't. Mental illness - like any other illness - can strike the most unlikely and seemingly healthy of people. It can creep into the minds of those who have wonderful parents, supporting family, beloved friends, education, a good job, a happy marriage, a perfectly charming life from the outside.

Most people who know me know that I have an anxiety disorder. I'm not shy to talk about it. I even generally have a good sense of humor about it because I'd much rather laugh than cry. But today, on World Mental Health Day, I want to be especially open about it in case someone out there, someone fragile like me, needs to know he or she is not alone. For those of you who have read this far, please know...

...that if it surprises you, know that it is happening to someone else you know - 1 in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness.

...that if you had an expectation of what mental illness looks like, I hope that reading this changed it for you in some measure.

...that if this sounds familiar, I send you a hug of solidarity. Don't be ashamed. It has nothing to do with who you are. It doesn't cast a shadow on your character or intellect or circumstances. 

...that if this sounds familiar because of someone you know, be gentle and patient.

...that if you or someone you love needs help, there are a lot of resources for you, and I've listed some links below. 

I have been incredibly blessed that those nearest and dearest to me have helped me cope for many years and accepted my illness without the barest hint of shame or stigma. I'll never be normal. But I'm not sure that has anything to do with my mental illness. 

Be kind and love each other. 

Coping with a Loved One's Mental Illness (American Psychology Association)

Why the Reality of Those in Need Should Stop You Cold

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

With the arrival of the polar vortex, everyone is talking about the cold. Everywhere I went today, at least one person mentioned the weather - how winter came early; how they aren't prepared for below-freezing temperatures in mid-November; how they wanted to be under a warm blanket or have a hot cup of soup. None of the conversations I had were about not knowing where they were going to sleep tonight or facing having their heat shut off due to an inability to pay the bills. But that is a reality for many in our communities. Just yesterday, a report revealed that 1 in 30 children in America experienced homelessness last year.

Last Sunday, I watched American Winter at CinĂ© as part of launching Taste of Athens and helping attendees to understand what Community Connection, Taste of Athens' beneficiary, does in the community. The film follows eight families in the Portland, Ore., area who called into 211 - the same information and referral service run by Community Connection here in Athens. I urge you at the very least to watch the film's trailer. (UPDATE: American Winter is now available on Amazon Instant video.)

American Winter will hollow you out with the stark reality these families face - unexpected and mounting medical bills; lost jobs and lost homes; sudden widowhood. They face hunger and cold and homelessness. They lose power and water and dignity. They are families of two and four and five; they are parents and children. They are your neighbors. 

At one point, a woman faces her first trip to a food bank, where a compassionate volunteer attempts to soothe her sobs of shame and hopelessness. Another woman realizes her son will go hungry when she can't afford dinner. A man faces unemployment at 50-something; over-age and overqualified, his unemployment stretches out for months while he tries to care for his son with Downs Syndrome.

Even though I have served on the board for Community Connection for four years and know we take 20,000 calls a year like these people made - for food, shelter, rent assistance, utility payments - I was gobsmacked by the heart-wrenching dilemmas unfolding before me. How the unceasing uncertainty of these families weighed in the pit of my stomach. How their children's burdens haunted me.

The film includes a number of staggering statistics about the precariousness of the middle class and the inability for many families to make ends meet. And there's a political discussion to be had about the social and economic policies that make that true.

But that's not the discussion I want to have. I want to appeal not to your politics, but to your humanity. If you're reading this from the comfort of home or at your desk where you go to work every day, I ask you to think about those for whom those things are a distant luxury. If you are a Christian, I ask you to see those in need as "the least of these" that Christ spoke of - spoke of in regards to how we should meet their needs; not judge their circumstances. If you are a parent, I ask you to empathize with the terrifying prospect these parents face of not being able to provide basic needs for their children. If you are a person with heart, I ask you to look inside it and consider what you have to give.

If you are inspired to make a financial contribution, I urge you to look into the organizations that help connect people to social services (like Community Connection) or organizations that meet the most common needs - financial assistance with utility bills (in Georgia, you can donate to H.E.A.T.), rent/housing assistance and meal assistance (in Athens, that's the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, ACTS (and yes, that is me stocking shelves during Jackson Spalding's annual Thanksgiving outreach - we'll be there this Friday), Our Daily Bread at First Baptist Church in Athens or a myriad of local churches that maintain food pantries). There's also Action Ministries, which has a range of poverty-assistance programs. For some, I recognize that monetary contributions aren't viable, but please consider giving of your time to help these organizations better serve those in need.

If you're warm tonight - and I hope you are - I pray that you won't leave your fellow man out in the cold. That during this American winter, this season of thankfulness and giving, you will consider what you can do to warm someone else's life.

2013: Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"You're off to great places! You're off and away!" - Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go
For the first two-thirds of my life, I stayed close to home and on the ground. The furthest afield I'd been by age 25 was an 8th grade car trip to Washington, D.C. for National History Day. Because I'm cool like that. But somewhere along the way, I got on board with the friendly skies and found myself dropping pins in the map well beyond the Georgia borders. Last year - yes! It's last year now! - was no exception.

Honolulu, Hawaii
"It's opener there in the wide open air." - Dr. Seuss
Every map of the U.S. you've ever contemplated has misled you - Hawaii is way out in the Pacific Ocean. Way, way, way out there on a 10-hour non-stop flight across four time zones. Good thing the Pacific is a beautiful clear blue expanse and there are acres of leafy forest worthy of Jurassic Park to wander through in search of waterfalls and hibiscus and giant ferns to ease the jet lag. And there, tuna really is the chicken of the sea - it's the only thing that's not outrageously expensive in paradise, so I ate my weight in it. I had cocktail hour in a hotel suite featured on Lost, drank my first mai tai (not my jam), and stiffed a cab driver for the first time in my life. And I fell. More on that later.

Absolutely nowhere fast
"Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you." - Dr. Seuss
Footsies can befall terrible fates in paradise. I took a tumble my first full day in Honolulu. Not deterred by this little sprain, I limped a half a mile to a pharmacy to purchase an ace bandage and proceeded to tour myself on foot through the island's botanical gardens, hike up the side of its volcanic crater Diamond Head, and traveled clear across its length to stand on the North Shore and watch the surfers tackle the waves at the birthplace of American surf culture. But I spent all of February off my feet and on crutches to boot when, upon my stateside return, I learned that  my pesky sprain was actually a broken ankle.

"You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chance are, then, that you'll be in a slump." - Dr. Seuss
Somewhere in early March, I was freed from my boot and set back on both feet and told to resume my wanderings as I pleased. It was a short slump in my wide world of travelings, but I stayed mostly grounded and close to home. I did make the journey to the wilds of Marietta and then on to another world entirely where sparkling fairies ran free and a very special one got a pink unicorn for her 4th birthday.

Durham, North Carolina
"You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go." - Dr. Seuss
In tobacco country, I reunited with my best friend Nikki - a fellow strange bird -  for a long weekend in the Triangle. We connected points in downtown Durham, Duke's fantastic Gothic architecture and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens where we were able to picnic with the Longerbeams and their new puppy - because the more strange birds, the merrier. And while Nikki and me planned to recreate some of the epic moments from our 5K training, we drank beer and photographed graffiti instead.

New York, New York
"You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."
While my traipsing has led me to the west, the mountains, the Midwest and furthered my adventures in the southeast, New England remained elusive. And while it's a little hard to believe, May brought my first bite of the Big Apple. A day in Manhattan doesn't afford much time for seeing the city that never sleeps, and neither, for that matter, did getting caught in an 18-block torrential downpour without an umbrella until 12 blocks in when I doled out $5 to a street vendor. But rolling soggily solo (and with a little help from Google maps), I made it to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, and most importantly, the New York Public Library where even the water fountains are beautiful and bookish. Oh, and I saw Naked Cowboy. Mark that one off the bucket list.

San Diego, California
"With banner flip-flapping, once more you'll ride high. Ready for anything under the sky." -Dr. Seuss
Mid-year, it was back west for a whole week on the California coast. Things were a bit wild there - a trip to the famed San Diego zoo and up the coast to La Jolla to bark with the seals. But best of all was the chalice of sangria at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town. It was so good, we went there twice. And in between visits, we hit the deck of the Midway and found our way into a narrow speakeasy with walls covered in golden skulls and a ceiling that  bore eerie vintage portraits whose eyes seemed to watch the revelers below. And before I left, I managed to squeeze in a look at the bar boasting to have hosted the sleazy bar scene from Top Gun. It would seem they've lost that loving feeling.

Athens Regional Urgent Care Clinic
"I'm sorry to say so but, sadly it's true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you." - Dr. Seuss
First there was my birthday and the Hang-up of the Plumbing Apocalypse. But after that, there was a Bang-up of a more physical nature. My nickname isn't Smash for nothing, and  my right foot fell victim to my smashing in late July. In what could only be described as a freak accident, I caught my toenail on the  back of Mom's shoe in a parking lot in Atlanta and divorced it from the nail bed. And from there, I was sped back home with my foot propped on the dashboard wrapped in mounds of snowy white gauze to the urgent care where my toenail was surgically removed. And then sewed back on. Let me repeat that. My toenail was totally removed from my foot. And then SEWN BACK ON. Hello, Frankentoe. And may I say, this trip is one I hope never to repeat.

[Picture omitted to spare the faint of heart. Those with a stomach for the grotesque inquire within.]

Nashville, Tennessee
"You'll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing." - Dr. Seuss
As you may recall, I've been to Music City before, but I mostly cavorted with the historic and the six-feet-under. This time around, I hit the honky tonks, including Legends Corner. And I can neither confirm or deny that I did my best impression of clogging to a cover of Alabama's "Dixieland Delight." A woman thankful to have both feet in working order should follow the impulse to dance when it comes.

Indianapolis, Indiana
Oddly, I've flown to Indianapolis before, but it was to rent a car and head directly to Kokomo, Indiana. No, really. Kokomo, Indiana. It's not what The Beach Boys promised.

This time, I spent a couple of days in the home of the Colts and found it to be utterly Midwestern. Like, it's just so. very. Midwestern. In fact, the restaurant we ate at was Midwestern nouveau cuisine. I mean, I can't make this stuff up. So essentially, Indiana is the state that's home to things so utterly true, they cannot be fabricated. Like this dessert. It's called a barn-raising. Cross my heart.

Richmond, Alexandria & Charlottesville, Virginia
"You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes." - Dr. Seuss
Outside Monticello
Mom, Dad and I took a week in October to drive the Ford King Ranch up to the state that's for lovers and dead presidents and nerdy folks like us. From Richmond to Alexandria to Charlottesville, we saw two historic houses, four presidential residences - and a bonus presidential grave to bring our grand total to five (six if you count Jefferson Davis and his temporary presidency over the Confederate States) - one ancestral resting place, an old train station and the state's botanical gardens because I need more pictures of orchids. For the record, the founding fathers are fascinating and flawed and knew how to pick properties with killer views of the Potomac and the Blue Ridge. And also, to the Kroger in Charlottesville, I am really sorry about breaking the quart of chocolate milk all over the deli floor. And, if you want the whole 66-page photo essay novella, check out Spare-Time Shooter.

Lookout Mountain, Georgia & Tennessee
"On and on you will hike and I know you'll hike far." - Dr. Seuss
Lover's Leap
Continuing travels back into the past, I cajoled my dad into driving us to Lookout Mountain where he grew up and spinning a few old family yarns for cataloging. Aside from setting eyes on the famed Kendrick's Switch where moonshining ancestors had a shootout with local deputies and seeing the grave of great uncle Nepolean (apparently the Southern spelling), we also visited Dad's childhood home and the Lookout Mountain Golf Club where Dad caddied back when it was Fairyland and you could hit a long drive clear off the mountain if you weren't careful. We saw Seven States and the innards of Rock City, and points of personal interest like the curve where Charles Bracewell thought he could beat the cops to The Tubes but took the curve on Bailey too hard and broke both axles on the shiny Corvette he drove. Bet your tour guide didn't show you that.

Grand Rapids, Michigan
"Waiting for...the rain to go...or the snow to snow." - Dr. Seuss
I started the month waiting through jury selection and subsequent trial. But when it came time for the holidays, I hitched a plane to Cleveland and the on to Grand Rapids for a yuletide celebration with Jason's family. We arrived to freezing rain falling in biting sheets, and we combated the cold the best way we knew how - with delicious food and bourbon. All that icy rain froze solid when the temperature plummeted, and we woke Sunday to a powerless winter wonderland. Pro tip: this is not the time to wash your hair if your hairdryer (like most) requires electricity. Good spirits could not be deterred, and we powered through with a well-built fire and Cuddle Duds, a fleecy winter hat, a very warm scarf and Thinsulate-lined gloves (thanks to Jason's mom for the #winterswag). It was the most snow I'd ever seen, and the most fun electricity-less day I've ever had. I suspect the very charming company had something to do with that.

I went some wonderful places in 2013, and a few places where I was "all hung up in a prickle-ly perch." Beyond all those points on the actual map, I charted a few important places on my personal map, leaving some places that were low and lonely and finding new ones that made my heart sing. I suspect Dr. Seuss would advise me in 2014, "You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!" And I am on my way, already looking at 2014 as an amazing adventure waiting to be had. Onward!

And the verdict is...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Friday before Thanksgiving, I received two government-issued summons: one was to pay fines for crossing the double white lines in the Peach Pass lane (for the record, those cameras do work); the second was the dreaded summons to appear for jury duty.

That's how I began the Monday after my holiday weekend - crammed into the largest courtroom available with more than 130 other poor souls who beheld an equally ominous light blue envelope in hand. Looking at the crowded courtroom, I attempted to mentally calculate my odds of getting picked. One in ten? I'd probably be excused before lunch.

But then...well, then, the stay-at-home caretakers were excused. And the peace officers. And the students in the midst of exams. And the over-70s wishing to tender their service to Judge Judy from the comfort of their own living room. The hard wooden benches looked much more sparse, but still, my chances of dismissal were still greater than the chances of selection, right? Until the clerk informed us that three trials required 12-person juries this week. And suddenly, I found myself in a group whittled to just 36 persons, and my percentages of getting picked rocketing upward.

I arrived at the courthouse at 8:15 a.m. and shuffled from room to room as an anonymous summons number for the better part of the day, finally being questioned by the attorneys around 1:30, and then herded into the grand jury room to wait. So by 4:45 when my name was called as the third juror in the criminal case at hand, the tediousness of the day had me wanting to object.

Instead, I reported as instructed the next morning for service with 12 perfect strangers. Having had to cancel a business trip and turn a project I very much wanted to work on over to someone else due to my selection, I felt petulant and irritable. But sometimes when everything seems to be going wrong, life will surprise you with something unexpected.

One case, three days, more than half a dozen witnesses, 20-something pieces of evidence, two closing arguments and almost three hours of deliberation, I learned a few statutes that I thought worth sharing.

1. Challenge your assumptions.Think actively about the ways you fill in the blanks of all kinds of narratives without real knowledge or understanding and recognize that those assumptions can be wrong, misguiding and close-minded.

2. Common bonds are easier to find than you might think. I sat down Tuesday with 12 strangers. The group was a multi-ethnic, multiracial, multi-generational mix of men and women from all different walks of life. Common ground was not immediately apparent, but it was there, waiting to be uncovered.

3. Turn off your phone and pay attention to the people around you. Every morning, we relinquished our cell phones to the bailiff at the courtroom door. Once sequestered in the jury room, we had no choice to but to talk to each other. And since we couldn't talk about the case until instructed to do so, we talked about ourselves and our lives and found those common places that would never have been found if we'd all been playing Bejeweled Blitz (which I am so guilty of doing).

4. Restore your faith in humanity. While I was assigned jury duty in the wake of an alleged crime, which might lessen my opinion of my fellow man, I served with a group of really good and lovely people who shared one bathroom, very little elbow room in the jury room, zero leg room in the jury box and a not insignificant deliberation with genuine human kindness.

5. People may surprise you with their earnestness. I realize that my experience is a millisecond in the grand scheme of the justice system. I'm no judicial expert and have no wish to comment on the reality of fair and just procedures on the macro level. What I can tell you is that 12 people sat in a room today and very seriously and thoughtfully considered testimony, evidence and the applicable law (which was no small task) and did so with a commitment to render a verdict we unanimously felt was indicative of the charges laid before us. Everyone spoke. Everyone cared. Everyone took to heart that we collectively determined the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

6. Say thank you. Every time we left the jury box and filed into the jury room, a bailiff held the door for us. And when we left the jury room through the courtroom, another bailiff escorted us to the elevator where a court officer waited until we were all packed tight for the ride down. I was heartened by how many of my fellow jurors thanked the bailiffs and the court officers. And one of our bailiffs told us as we left today that not every jury is a "sweet" as us. Let no small kindness go unnoticed.

7. Police-escorted lunches can be cool. While I have no desire to ride in a prisoner transport van under most circumstances, I had occasion to be shuttled to lunch today with my fellow jurors in one such vehicle. And since it was under lawful circumstances, I will say that arriving with a two-officer escort gets you good service.

And lastly, I must share that I left today with a piece of paper in my pocket. On it is written 11 names and 11 phone numbers. Because beyond rendering a verdict, we managed to render something else - real, human connections. Connections with people who don't look like us - who are older or younger or were born in a different country, who do different jobs and live different lives. But who are people - real people - who we hugged as we departed and called out promises to have dinner soon to wish each other happy holidays. And so the verdict is, people are people - good people - until proven otherwise.

Court is adjourned.

this is 34

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

July 4, two days before my birthday
I wake up knowing that there is no coffee in the house and very little in the way of anything that might come close to constituting breakfast for me and my beloved BFF Nikki. Instead of showering or combing my hair or putting in my contacts or really trying in any way to look like a reasonable human being, I pull on loose sweat pants, a tshirt from staffing AthFest four years ago and flip-flops, grab my glasses and twist my hair up into a bed-head ponytail combination at best. Yesterday's mascara may or may not be speckled across my cheeks. And that's how I go to Kroger to grocery shop. Classy.

July 5, one day before my birthday
When I take a shower, the water backs up into the shower. After valiantly plunging and pulling out a gross conglomeration of human and cat hair and forcing the shower to belch up black sediment, I do what any single woman in my position does. I called Dad.

He plunged the shower with far more skill and vigor, and it in turn regurgitated more sooty black sediment onto the tile. And when we go to investigate the plumbing in the basement, we discover about a 1/2 inch of water spreading across the concrete floor from the wall to the staircase.

I depart and drive across town to pay my ad valorem tax (with one day to spare!), return in a torrential downpour and find that my toilet is now in my shower. Because it's leaking into the basement and the seal is broken. And Dad is in said basement, wailing on the outflow pipe cap, which is all tarnished and warped in its cast iron setting. He finally wrenches it out and water pours from the pipe into the floor.

While he threads the pipe in search of the problem, I go to Home Depot and Lowe's only to discover that the 2 1/2" brass cap isn't standard size any more. And that's how I end up with a Diet Mountain Dew bottle forced into the pipe's end and duct taped within an inch of its life.

July 6, my birthday
Dad goes out early to Luke Hardware where they have a single 2 1/2" brass cap in a box of old junk. Literally. In a box. Of junk. Dad installs the brass fitting, and despite his best efforts and threading tape, there's a slow drip out of the bottom end. We google for how to seal a brass cap in a cast iron pipe. And Mom and Dad take off for another trip to the hardware store to find some mysterious epoxy. While they're gone, Nikki and I use a push broom and a shovel to remove water from the basement. Later, the epoxy applied, the slow drip persists, but nothing a little bucket can't handle.

Nikki and I both shower. And I'm annoyed that the water is still backing up in the shower. And I hear a strange burbling coming from the toilet. And when she gets out of the shower, she says that the drain clogged in the guest bath, too. And then when we go to turn the light on to admire ourselves in the full-length mirror in the hall and the bulb blows and I tell her I'll go to the basement and get the step stool so we can change the bulb...well...that was 34. Thirty-four full on in my adult face and raining down in my basement from every pipe and joint I can see and dripping down the window and wetting the baseboards with insidious water from God-only-knows-where. So I swore roundly and yelled up the stairs for Nikki to bring the trash cans -all of them! - and like the poor man's bucket brigade, we positioned every can and bowl and pot I had to strategically capture a small percentage of the water bursting into my basement.

We finished getting ready and arrived at my birthday dinner nearly an hour late and sat outside before being chased inside by the never-ending series of cloudbursts that have marked the past few weeks. And then we walked in the rain to the bar to meet others for drinks. And all the while, I thought of the rain in my basement. And before we went home that night, we went to the bathroom at my office.


Today, the plumber came. Hours of threading the pipes and $300 later, the clog has been dislodged and the plumbing set to rights. And I put in a call to a guy to clean my gutters because if I don't they're going to fall off the house. And my dad mentioned that one of my basement windows might be rotting. And when I got home tonight, there was a snake in the carport. And so far, 34 is making me feel very much like perhaps I should go to bed and pull the covers up over my head. But that would likely be inviting a leak in the ceiling...

Here's What I Think, Old Sport

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When I was in high school, I bought a copy of The Great Gatsby from Jackson Street Books in downtown Athens. I imagined that it was a collector's edition, but the truth is, it was merely a 1953 Scribner reprint missing the dust jacket. Nonetheless, it's held a place of honor on all my bookshelves since then, and the thick blue pages preceding the title page are scribbled with my favorite passages from the book and other Fitzgeraldisms.

Since the Baz Luhrmann adaptation of my beloved Gatsby was announced some 18 months ago, I have been cautiously optimistic about it. I've been making and breaking plans to see the film since it hit theaters May 4. I finally accomplished it last night. As a known Gatsby-phile, several people have asked what I think, After they read this, they may be sorry they asked.

If Tim Gunn had the opportunity to review the pre-final cut of the film, I like to think he would've put one finger over his lips, quirked one eyebrow delicately above his glasses and said, "Baz, I want you to edit thoughtfully." There's no doubt Luhrmann captures the bold, brazen color of the 1920s. His recreations of Jazz Era New York are nothing short of stunning. In a scene where Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jordan Becker (Elizabeth  Debicki)  are jostled through a Times Square crowd, it's almost difficult to pay attention to their conversation given the impeccably rendered city scene. In other moments he gives way to his signature high-style tactics with fast-motion turns through rooms and swoops through skylines. Although I chose not to see it in 3D, I could discern in moments that his choices were based on giving the 3D version life and not on supporting the story in anyway. In those moments, I felt Luhrmann sitting next to me saying, "Hey, hey, hey - watch this part!" Yeah, yeah. I see what you did there, Baz. It made me want to punch you in throat. And incidentally, it made me a little queasy.

I try never to go into movie adapted from a book without reminding myself that something, some little detail at the very least, will be changed. But when The Great Gatsby opened on a snowy New England sanatorium, I was downright confused. It seems that Fitzgerald's subtler motivations for Carraway's retelling of the story didn't suit Hollywood, so they turned him into an alcoholic and installed him in therapy. Well, that's distressing. But it gave him a reason to write the book and give Luhrmann use of another really annoying maneuver of showing Carraway writing and putting the words on the screen. The first time this happened, I couldn't stop myself from an audible, "Oh! I don't like that." I was disappointed to see the failed relationship between Nick and Jordan stripped from this adaptation as well; I thought Luhrmann underutilized Debicki who put in a cool, controlled and aloof performance as Jordan.

Since the teaser trailer debuted with "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West thumping in the background, much has been made about the soundtrack, which features a lot of non-Jazz Era music compiled by Jay-Z. Much like Luhrmann's sweeping landscape shots, when it works, it buoys the film; and when it fails, it's a miserable distraction. Jack White wailing "Love is Blindness" in the climactic scene was raw and desperate, and Lana Del Ray's "Young and Beautiful" is woven dreamily into the post-party scene and hauntingly spanned interaction between Gatsby and Daisy. On the other hand, a jazzy cover of "Crazy in Love"and's "Bang Bang" belonged nowhere in this film. This is probably how Shakespeare fans felt when The Cardigans' "Lovefool" bounced through Romeo + Juliet.

But lest you think I'm all down on this latest Gatsby adaptation (for the record, the fifth to date if you count A&E's tragic made-for-TV effort), this one is by far my favorite. Leonardo DiCaprio puts forth a dynamic performance, capturing both Gatsby's disarming charm and his nervous vulnerability. His confidence is convincing, and yet, you can sense that he's constructed a very delicate house of cards that threatens to tumble at any given moment. Even in moments when he's portraying the immense persona of Gatsby, he's carrying that threat just below the surface. Likewise, Carey Mulligan imbued Daisy with both charm and fragility without sinking into the insipid. She managed to emanate light and vivacity without being cloying, drawing both Gatsby and the audience to her every word and gesture. And an in an unexpectedly solid performance, Jason Clarke delivered a pitiable, brutal George Wilson. On the contrary, Isla Fisher's Myrtle is a one-dimensional woman on the side.

Though Luhrmann's styling sometimes pushes the characters into caricatures, he does capture the charisma and the chemistry while lacing it with the tenuous atmosphere of a grinding, sweaty, disruptive world on the precipice of disaster. Even though Fitzgerald couldn't have known what was coming, Luhrmann tinges this Gatsby with the unsustainable, voracious appetite of the 1920s that led into The Great Depression. His rendering of some of the key elements of the novel - Owl Eyes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the Valley of Ashes - were spot on. Plus, the contributions of Luhrmann's costume designer wife Catherine Martin cannot be understated in their impact on the film's visual interest.

Perhaps a fully realized screen adaption is as impossible as a happy ending in West Egg. Perhaps we who love Gatsby so deeply for his hope and his hopelessness have fallen into his ways. We look to the silver screen like he looked at the green light for the reflection of what we felt when we first met him in possession of "one of those rare smiles with a quality of reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in your life." And maybe Baz Luhrmann is guilty of producing a film of Gatsby-esque proportions, attempting to bring Gatsby to life with so much intensity that his production values were as overstuffed as Nick's parlor with hothouse flowers.

In the end, I loved and hated it, much as one loves and hates the whole lot of careless characters. I stand by the old "the book is better" philosophy, but there was a lot this film brought to life that has me wanting to pour some champagne and party with it all over again. After all, who wouldn't want to go to one of Gatsby's epic parties?