May 27, 2015
I’ve been thinking lately how in the last decade, the first of my adult life, I’ve gone to some amazing places and experienced the great blessings and horrible woes of international travel. And I also thought how rarely I go back to look at any of my photos, besides a few I post to Facebook or if I happened to do a series on this blog or elsewhere on the internet. We don’t really print things anymore, and the travel photos I do print are the ones that I end up remembering my trip by, when the far more interesting ones are the outtakes, or the moments I captured not because they were particularly artistic or beautiful in an aesthetic sense, but because they were real, because I was capturing a moment or specific experience of that place, in that time.
So, in a little online travel series, I’m going to take a look at some of my meaningful outtakes. Ten years ago this October was my first plane ride across an ocean, my first use of that esteemed little passport of mine. Last year I renewed it; I remember being seventeen and thinking how impossibly far into the future 2015 felt.
I was headed to France in 2005, mere weeks after my eighteenth birthday, and I wrote long entries in my journal about the thrill of being on a sidewalk in a foreign city entirely alone, barely able to speak the language; open windows with no screens in my hosts’ charming village cottage; French children. Yes, it never occurred to me all the little children that were running around speaking other languages. Just like it didn’t occur to me until I was in China two years later that history depends on who’s telling it; that wound up being the entirely basis for earning a bachelor’s in history when I returned home to America and peanut butter.
I’ll start with one of the best things I’ve visited, and one of the only photo series I didn’t take myself. As life would have it. I spent 16 days traversing the island of Cuba in 2011, just after some of the education restrictions were slightly loosened, with a group of two dozen grad students and faculty from Georgia State. Being in developing countries has several very specific characteristics for the tourist, and paying extra for permission to bring your camera to historic sites you’re already paying entry to is one of them. I was fatigued from all the touring and all the paying extra to take photos, and the extra charge for the Hemingway house was $5 Cuban Convertible Pesos, or exactly $5. That’s the price of five Cuba libres or four mojitos, and I was in grad school, so I declined to pay the extra. Fortunately, the director of our program (for whom I was the graduate assistant) had the same camera as me and had paid the fee…
Because I absolutely loved the Hemingway house.
I’ve since also visited the one in Key West, Florida. It’s very charming, but it doesn’t hold a candle. I literally want to live in this house, all white-washed walls and tile floors and dark, wooden furniture, dear friend Picasso’s personal gift to me hanging on the wall and the fares of so many hunts hanging delightedly on the walls, my quiet companions. Tired Cuban women stand at all the doors because you can’t actually go inside; it’s kept perfectly preserved as if he stepped out for an afternoon on a terrace in Havana and will be back before dusk. I don’t even want to think about the sustainability of all this, since all of those items are exposed to the full humidity, moisture, and weather that is indicative of open air, island homes, so instead I’ll just ponder these images again (courtesy of Richard Laub, thanks Richard!).
View from the front door
Bottles selected, what the real bar would have contained
Swoon. My favorite room and image from this trek to see Hemingway’s digs
Dinner at his place?
Bathroom, where he obsessively logged his weight daily
A smaller space to write, just off the bedroom
February 10, 2015
The writing room inside the tower his wife had built for him, for writing
I read about crime and murder and mystery, and the intersection of life and death on the line in all these. It’s part of my ongoing education, and it rarely gets under my skin, and I don’t know why that is. Well, I have an idea:
I think there’s a deep and truthful humanity in these eternal subjects of interest. Gruesome, sure. But we can’t look away. Even so, my dad and I have long conversations about things many people might find unpleasant. And it’s not that we find them pleasant, but that they are real, and they happened, and continue to happen, will always.
I started reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. He floats around in the same kind of murky waters, with unpleasant things that we all pretend maybe don’t happen, especially not to our military men fighting the wars we send them to, but they do happen, and they are uncomfortable.
Maybe that’s it: the discomfort. There is real power in telling a story from the uncomfortable place. Going where it makes your mother nervous to go, and not coming back up for air just yet. One of my most favorite concepts is the Grey Area.
Everything is Grey Area to me. What REALLY happened, and what’s not true?
You’re looking at it all wrong. That’s not the point, that’s not the important part of the story.
So imagine my delight when Tim O’Brien, in his defining novel on Vietnam, spends an entire chapter weaving a True War Story where what’s truth is not obvious, for the same reason I’ve just said. That’s not the point. It’s OK if you’re uncomfortable in the Grey Area. Maybe you spend all your time in the mathematical certainties of life. Alive, dead, no in between. Good, bad, no in between. We are both and we are neither, every day and every minute, and this passage says that for me in a way few things I’ve read has quite accomplished.
I’m going to skip around, because if you want the entire True War Story, there are several million dog-eared copies of the book in any school library. They read it a lot in high schools, I think, though this has been my first read. Anyway, you can find a copy for the whole bloody Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon tale.
In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed.
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credulity. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old–it’s too much for him–so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.
You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back.”
How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth, war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. … Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of moral indifference–a powerful, implacable beauty–and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another word for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil–everything.
Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.
- Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.
February 5, 2015
I could tell by the very demeanor of my 2:00 appointment that he was disgruntled and anxious.
About what? The subject of our meeting, of most of my meetings: The Future. What will he do with his English degree once he graduates next year?
“I was a history major, but I didn’t want to teach, so people gave me the blank stares you’re probably familiar with.” *
YES, he says. You understand exactly.
Yes I do, I’ve been you.
He was very quiet starting out, so I asked him what he might be interested in doing for an internship.
I don’t know, I’ll do anything. Something in a cubicle, technical writing?
It couldn’t be clearer how unexciting a career in technical writing will be to him.
I’m a realist, he says.
You like to write. We discuss some of the other skills he has gained from his English degree. He lights up a little bit at ‘marketing.’
That’s what my associate’s degree is in, he says. He tells me also how he found American authors and literature, their impact on him, that he’s a child of foster care, social services and ‘the system,’ and has a particular bend towards working with children.
Do you see what’s happening here? When I first asked the question, he was completely closed off, feeling dejected about his choice of a degree in something that “doesn’t translate,” and now here he is mentioning all of these areas that he could pursue. I count at least a dozen avenues for work in my head.
Much of my work is pulling this stuff out of students who come in looking for the answers from me. I have the tools and resources, but he had everything inside him already to find something he can feel inspired to do in his life.
I turned his whole day around, he said. He said that to me. You’re saying so many things I’ve maybe suspected about the validity of my skills, but no one had given me permission to believe.
* I can’t believe how often I say this, and how deeply it resonates with students in the humanities.
April 4, 2014
I want to tell you about my job.
My job is work, like any other person’s, and there are days when I am entirely wiped out by the intensity it requires. It is entirely worth this. I help students search for internships, sometimes full-time and part-time work when it’s fitting, and craft and improve their resumes, cover letters, and other letters of interest. I do this as part of the Career Services Center at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, a bedroom community north of Atlanta.
Earlier this week, in the same day, I met with these three students, among other meetings and one or two other students:
An Anthropology student graduating this semester and heading to library science school in the fall, who is applying to two summer internships with affiliates of the Smithsonian on archival projects on historic books. She’s back at school now after over fifteen years working for and managing Borders and, more recently, an independent bookstore. On a trip to Scotland, she realized that Europeans have an altogether different relationship with their past than Americans do, and she was struck by this very intriguing component of human existence. I helped her craft a cover letter, using a rough initial draft, that would effectively introduce herself and her qualifications, and the question to which they sought an answer: why are you interested. She’s also earned her minor in history.
A Modern Language and Culture student, whose emphasis was Business and German Studies, who studied in Germany for one year while in high school, then applied and received several fellowships that had her back in Germany to finish her Bachelor’s work, including a stint at a university where she worked with international students to make sure they’d worked out all the logistics, like housing and visas and language acquisition. She can bust out some German like nobody’s business, and actually had to work to translate some terms on her resume back into English. She also speaks Spanish, though not quite as fluently as she does German. She’s applying to a job at Georgia Tech now to do the same kind of thing, help international students when they arrive to study in Atlanta. Did I mention she got a 99 in high school AP calculus? She’ll have no trouble speaking their math language either.
A Political Science student who is frustrated by the fact that her diploma and resume will say Bachelor of Science in Political Science (because of the double “sciences”) with a background in the moving industry, but now seeking a part- or full-time job in a law firm as she’s soon to graduate and wants to take some time to learn in a real-world environment before starting law school. She needed help with cover letter and resume, and she needed a lot of help, because was having a hard time translating the skills she’s earned in assisting to manage a couple moving companies to the world of a law firm.
In case you’re having a hard time too, there are quite a few of them, and my colleague and I who work with liberal arts students call them “transferrable skills.” It’s what those students with the English and History and Sociology degree are acquiring during their years in school, and they are not to be dismissed, not by recruiters and especially not by their colleagues and friends. Leading teams, analyzing complex situations, communicating effectively and coordinating events, projects, and people—liberal arts students excel at these. I won’t say all of them do, because there are less talented people in every program, even business schools and computer science colleges.
So let’s not pretend.
She told me all about her role in the moving companies, how she’s had to call old men in wheelchairs after their lives have been reduced to a small apartment after their wives have died to collect the bills the moving company is due. She’s gone into the homes of doctors and lawyers when their marriages were ending, packing up things in very intentional segments of time and with very peculiar instructions due to who would be home and what each was keeping. She was so inspired by the amount of crap people just move around with them from place to place she decided to start her own consulting business, where she helps people referred to her to simplify and organize their personal homes and spaces. Yet she was having a hard time explaining her worth, her absolute and enormous value, to this law firm in the space of two cover letter paragraphs and one page of a resume. We fixed that. That girl’s obviously got some serious skills to bring to any law firm. Did I mention she manages the files and records for a moving company that has thousands of clients a year and is second-in-command for a company that specifically helps old people who are downsizing?
I do feel like when students leave my office, I’ve empowered them, and many of them leave excited about what they now feel will be a strong resume that represents them well, illustrates their worth, instead of feeling overwhelmed and intimidated, or worst, like they should apologize for the liberal arts degree they’ve spent four (or more) years earning. “Oh, I’m an English major,” in that disheartened tone. And the response, “What are you going to do with that—teach?” This exchange makes me angry, and it’s ignorant.
This was Tuesday.
Today, my last appointment was a difficult one, and I’ve met with him several times. He’s an older student with some obvious learning or social disabilities, and he has a very hard time seeing. He speaks too loud and is often barging into spaces with little awareness that he is making people bristle. I am patient and we work through his problem. He is stressed and overwhelmed by his schoolwork in a way that I probably will never understand, but we go over slowly the assignment he has to do for class, until we understand each other. He has to find a job posting he’s interested in, find someone working in that industry and ask he or she some questions, and present on why his qualifications and education make him a good fit for this job and what the person he interviewed had to say. The instructions are written in two or three sentences on his syllabus, but he had completely misunderstood them. He thought he had to apply to a job and get an interview in time to present on this by the end of the semester (4 weeks). I clarified the assignment for him, we found a posting he could use as a starting point, in environmentalism, and brainstormed some questions he could ask someone he already knows at Georgia Adopt a Stream. I made sure he wrote down that he needs to contact this person tonight in order to ensure he has time to finish his assignment by deadline. I don’t know what will happen. Based on the records we keep digitally on students who visit Career Services, he’s been to meet one-on-one with my predecessor at least three times, and my current colleague twice, and I’ve met with him at least once myself already. Every time he was advised and talked through writing a resume and what format would be best for him. Today he remarked that he needs to write a resume (!!!!) and has been too busy with school to do so before now. He said he’s devoting the summer to it. His first resume meeting was in January 2011, over three years ago now.
I tell you his story as well because it’s not all successes and amazing students who I know will change the world. There are leaders and followers and successes and failures and students with drive and students who have no idea what they want to do, and sometimes they just need to talk with somebody who will listen to figure out a path for Right Now. The other day a girl left my office with the name of a company she’d never heard before she walked in, but when I told her what they do, her face lit up. After that, I couldn’t get her interested in a single other idea. It’s a nonprofit that works with adolescent girls on everything from body image to creativity to “the drama years.” She is a psychology student who is near graduation and doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do. We talked it out. It might not be her path. But you have to at least try a path before you know which one is yours.
This work, with these students who are sometimes given a bad reputation for being dreamers and idealists, blows me away. I would say some days it does this, but no, it’s most days. I’m very real with them, I don’t put on airs and I definitely don’t put much space between myself and the student on the other side of my desk. Let’s face it—there’s not much. A few weeks ago I advised a student who’s 71 years old. Her work history began in 1958. Did you hear me? Nineteen fifty-eight. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I’m very forthcoming and honest about my own trials and tribulations job-seeking, and times when I’ve done this or that on my own resume. When students come to me and say they applied to forty internships last summer and didn’t get one callback, or they applied to this-or-that before and were interviewed but didn’t get it, I’m totally honest. We brush it off. It’s good for you, I tell them. (I really do tell them this. It’s the most true thing I could say. It might be the most useful and important thing I say in the entire hour.)
I don’t talk in theory, at least as much as I can. It’s real talk in my office. I ask them what they’ve done, where their interests lie, what they do when they’re not earning money or a grade for it. We talk about volunteer experiences and activism and passions, and pull these things to the forefront. I tell them: A resume needs to show me not just where you’ve been, but where you want to go. If you don’t make that connection for the employer, no one else is going to do it for you. I can’t believe how many students sit across from me and start telling me about papers they’ve written and work they’ve done pro bono or with organizations or classes that relate so enormously to where they want to end up after school, that are nowhere to be seen on their resume. We talk it out. We reorganize, we make a game plan.
I had a student, political science, who wrote one tiny line tucked in to her Education section, on how she writes for the campus newspaper. I remarked that it needed to be given a little more room on the resume, while could remove her lengthy description of her retail management job. She tells me she’s actually been heavily involved in an investigative report that was the front page story weeks ago, on a website that facilitates “sugar daddy” scholarships for girls who want to attend college and so enter into relationships with men who will pay the tuition in exchange for sex. She tells me that now she’s met with legislators in the state in very intimate meetings, working to shut down the website. “Should I put that on my resume?” she asked innocently. She is applying to an internship with Amnesty International. Ahem, yes. Yes it should. I was flabbergasted.
Resumes are not a history of the boring crap you’ve done at your jobs. They are your accomplishments! It matters far less where you’ve done any of it, but that you’ve done it. This is what I hope they leave with.
Crucially, my students leave me inspired by their accomplishments. It’s like I get to be all these things by seeing them succeed. It’s like having a thousand children. About a third of them might always let me down, that’s true. And they do. Sometimes they leave and they just don’t get it, and they might never get it. But there are plenty of adults with jobs who don’t get it. We all know some of them, and we work with them, and someone hired them.
But the other two-thirds come in with all this potential and it is unleashed on the desk in between us, as we work out how we’re going to make sure they shine, how they can talk about the things that make them great. I am sure that only a small portion of these students will change the world, but holy crap, I helped them, in this small way, get that interview that will open their worlds wide, and unchain that immense capacity that is just waiting to burst free. They’re my bundles of joy and pain and success and failure, set loose into the world. And helping them towards all those things gives purpose to my days.
February 13, 2014
At this point, we’re five episodes into the fourth season of the Showtime series Shameless. Before this season began, I had always viewed this show as an excellent form of entertainment that blended chaos and bad decisions with stories of poverty and rough neighborhoods and the people borne of them. It was sometimes poignant, approaching serious topics with a bit of humor, and always ridiculous. Trying to explain the plot to someone who doesn’t watch it only comes out sounding insane, like life couldn’t possibly be that f***ed up. Before this season I viewed this show as an excellent study for a writer because it delves so seriously into the lives of the people on the bottom rung, and all their unsavory acquaintances and all the ways they cheat and lie to make it by in the Southside of Chicago, where they are cut no breaks by the system or anyone higher up on the food chain.
When season 3 ended, it actually looked like the series itself could have come to an end. We saw Fiona (Emmy Rossum) finally excelling in a sales job that gave her a steady paycheck and health insurance, she’s finally got custody of her siblings, and Frank (William H. Macy), her father and the father of the five younger siblings she’s adopted, is dying of liver failure, after a lifetime of substance abuse and terrible decisions. Lip is heading off to college, after several teenage romances have forever altered his perspective, and Sheila is looking for meaning and a place to pour her OCD and manic energies after her nearly-brain-dead daughter heads off into the sunset with her husband to “heal” somewhere out West. I honestly didn’t know where the show would go from there, after we had spent three seasons watching Frank at his constant antics to find more money, booze, and ways to cheat the system out of every opportunity for both of those. It was time for all of these characters to face realities.
Season four has blown me away. It has taken these characters to places I never thought I’d see. Fiona has spent three seasons showing us that if only it weren’t for Frank, they would all be fine, because she’s the responsible adult holding up the household. Certainly, Frank has never done that and we’ve seen Fiona do an awful lot more than the average twenty-something has to. But here’s the thing — Fiona can no longer blame anyone but herself for the mistakes she’s been making now, and the mistakes she been making are huge. Life-changing things, like exposing her three-year-old brother to cocaine after an unstable fling leaves it at her house and landing him in the E.R. in critical condition and landing her in handcuffs in the back of a police car. That’s on you, big girl. She didn’t wind up in a terrible situation once again because of your drunken father or because the bills are due and the money’s dried up. She was industrious in all those years she had to scrape the bottom of the barrel and do what it took to survive, working a a grocery store where the manager took blow jobs from all the female associates in shifts and in a HAZMAT suit cleaning shit out of the city sewage pipes, covered in maggots and back slime. We’ve seen her survive things we could not imagine. As soon as the regularity of a 9-to-5 and health insurance got her feeling normal, and dare we say it, bored, we start to notice all the faults of this entirely human character. And when she does make a few bad decisions–sleeping with her boss/boyfriend’s brother and then using the cocaine he leaves behind at her house later–right in a row, she definitely, most certainly, will not get a break. Fiona, have you learned nothing about how the world works? That there are never any breaks in your world?
It’s the best place this show could have taken her. The same goes with Frank. Facing death, even entirely of his own volition, is giving us some deep insight on this detestable man who we’ve seen treat all his children like absolute scum throughout the entire series. We’re finally seeing his son Carl figure out that all this time, the scheming and the illegal activities countless, it hasn’t been bonding time; it has been his father using him, in every single case. Frank told Carl that Carl had cancer, was dying, in order to try and get some money or prizes from one of those Make-a-wish companies. Carl honestly thought he was dying. And Frank wound up getting nothing out of it, as usually happens. Now, we’re finally seeing him understand, and this season the stakes have been much higher. We’ve watched Carl spend the amount of time usually involved in a full-time job trying to find a replacement liver or any other means to help his father live, scoffing at Fiona and Li, his older siblings, for their lack of sympathy for their dying father. There is no way to feel any sympathy for Frank Gallagher, but do we ever feel bad for Carl, especially as he catches on now.
I like Shameless because the entire premise of the show–it’s the name of the dang the show–is to have these characters make the wrong decision, or at least a bad one, in every single situation they are faced with. Usually it’s been as a means to survive. When Kevin and Veronica inherit the local bar, The Alibi Room (which is the most perfect name for a seedy bar ever, can I say) and learn it’s a money pit that they definitely can’t afford to have drag them down while they have triplets on the way, the agree to let Mickey the angry closeted thug start up a Russian “massage” parlor in the upstairs apartment. Because, of course that’s how they would rent out the upstairs space. That’s what I mean. So far it’s been funny, insane, and entertaining, while often serious too, but it’s seemed wholly unsustainable. You can’t have that many characters doing these things season after season without an audience beginning to wonder how it continues to work out, and honestly, getting bored.
I’m less bored now than I ever have been. I try to imagine the writer’s room for a show like this. It has got to be epic the kinds of things they cook up.
This season, with Sheila (Joan Cusack) hanging out with her online dating find Roger Runningtree and making oodles of succotash since she’s 1/32 Menominee Indian, it might be the most “normal” I’ve seen her yet, considering she spent a season sleeping with her teenage daughter’s 40-year-old husband and turning him back into a kinky sex addict after he’d worked so hard to recover. (If you don’t watch Shameless, perhaps you’re beginning to understand what I mean by insanely ridiculous.) (And also, check out that fabulous log cabin quilt gracing the Gallagher couch now. Perfectly improvised, like them.)
All Sheila’s weird brand of normalness is helping to balance out the new extremes we see in Frank and Fiona. It’s been a fabulous introspection for these two main characters, especially as we watch Fiona begin to understand her own addictions, and how they’ve continually been plaguing her and ruining the otherwise happy home she’s been working towards for so long. It’s not just Frank who’s been wrecking their home. And with other problems fading into the background, like money flow and bad parents and people who want to kill various members of her family, fresh and clear light is shown on her own weaknesses. It’s not that we all can’t have our weaknesses either. It’s just that Fiona has spent the entire series ensuring us that she’s got it all together, if only the Gallagher household could catch a break for once.
But the writers have definitely not given her a break, even when they’re finally “moving up the food chain” as she puts it to Lip. And it’s bringing her to fabulous new “shameless” places, and shameful lows. I’m excited to see where Lip shows his true colors now, with Fiona potentially facing very serious criminal charges for hard drugs and potentially manslaughter of her own sibling. You know, one of the ones she’s worked so frickin’ hard to take care of.
Good, good television. Writers, be jealous of these writers. It’s seriously fun stuff to send a character down the path of a bad decision and see how they fail or succeed. It’s what I’m trying to do better every day with my own fiction.
January 30, 2014
By now, my story is not only one in a huge anthology of the Epic Snow Disaster of Atlanta 2014 (my title), it is actually seeming quite mild compared to the ones of people camping out in drug stores and Home Depots, sleeping in their cars, running out of gas, and giving birth on the side of the perimeter highway I-285. While my experience might pale in comparison to other dangerous horror stories coming out, it was by no means less traumatic or valid an experience, and it must be documented. In case you’re wondering, after five hours in your car and only a couple miles’ into a 22-mile commute, you are feeling all the same emotions as the guy next to you. Whether your journey takes 5 or 10 or 15 or even 25 hours at that point makes no difference.
I’m calling mine a “mental metamorphosis,” because that is the only way I can describe the course of my day, me and my automobile, alone together for that many hours, watching everyone go crazy around me, spinning out and spinning around across sheets of raw, treacherous, menacing ice. Just after my eighth hour in the car, still miles from home, I realized the progression, and noted the various phases of my mental state during disaster. It went like this.
Cool, there’s snow outside my office window! *Walks outside, takes pictures of dusting. Returns to office and drinks cup of hot chocolate.*
Annoyed. 12:30 – 2:00. This started everything off, as I was feeling excited to have a surprise half-day, which turned quickly into a surprise insane commute day (thanks to Shellie Haskins for perfectly phrasing the initial reaction). Ugh, I get this half day, and I’m not even going to be able to take advantage of it. It took me ninety minutes to get to the I-75 southbound ramp from KSU’s campus, which is literally right next to the ramp. I cannot even describe or fathom how this is ACTUALLY possible, except to say that I spent the whole time idled on Frey Road. I most certainly could have walked at least three times this speed. It’s now been beaten to a pulp, but everyone evacuating at the same time was a terrible, truly catastrophic event that created the larger event in store for all of us. There were two cars in one of the two lanes of Frey Road facing the wrong direction, both abandoned. Perhaps that had something to do with it. No police, except the ones directing traffic. It was not a day to call 911. (I’m not faulting the police, just saying that people can’t resolve the scene of an accident by themselves, so the scenes remain, are abandoned, cause more havoc. That’s the progression of things.)
Scared. 2:00 – 2:30. After I got to I-75 southbound, I started to actually get scared that I might not have enough gas, as I had 3/8 of a tank, but spent an hour just trying to get one exit down on the interstate. So I got off and navigated through the parking lot that was Barrett Parkway (more than it normally is!) and filled up my tank. I was actually surprised to find an open pump and find that it still had gas. But quickly feared leaving the place, as the parking lot was madness and cars were sliding down and up and back down the hill with the entrance. This is bad, I’m nowhere near home. I walked inside to pee and get snacks, afraid to leave my car in that madhouse parking lot, but sure as hell not going to try to move it away from the pump just to park and walk inside. But panic struck again when I saw how long the line was to the bathroom. Quickly resorted my priorities, knowing I had two slices of wheat bread in the car, I would only have time to use the restroom and would have to hightail it out of there before it got any crazier. There was a definite end-of-days desperation and chaos going around in everyone’s conversations, people stranded here or there, walking to their cousin’s or to somewhere they had managed to get a hotel room. Hotels were already booked solid, and this is when I first heard that students in Cherokee County Schools would be staying overnight at the school, unless parents could get to them (doubtful if you looked out the window), because the buses wouldn’t be able to traverse the roads. Honestly, that is the safest decision they could have made in the situation. But the Hispanic mother in front of me was panicked. Keep in mind that this was hours before the State Of Emergency was declared, and our city and state leaders would, the next day, claim that things only began to get really bad after 5:00 or 6:00 PM. We would hear plenty of tales of students who had gotten on buses and were stranded out on the roads with the rest of us into the night.
Thankful. I made it out of the gas station lot, onto the Barrett artery, and onto I-75. By now, I was no longer annoyed at losing my day, and just thankful that I had a full tank of gas and as long as traffic was slow or stopped, I wouldn’t be in much danger or wrecks, by my doing or another’s. Slow and steady. That quickly turned into stopped and stalled. The lanes were entirely masked now, so people began forming lanes where they thought they might be, including on the two shoulders. This annoyed me to no end, because if an emergency vehicle did have to get by to aid what was clearly a billion accidents ahead that had us all stopped, there would be no way to do it. Has everyone lost it? Obviously. I ate my two slices of bread in a quick frenzy, realizing it was long past lunchtime, thankful I had grabbed them. My original thought had been that I would stop lazily by the grocery store for egg salad to accompany said bread, back in the normalcy of my office. What a stupid, stupid notion. There was no time for grocery stores anyway now, and certainly they had all shut down too, and sent their employees out here to join me. I wonder if any of them have egg salad?
Complacent. I listened to my audiobook, the fittingly apocalyptic 1000-page epic The Stand, which is a 47-hour audiobook. And sat in my car in traffic on the interstate, waiting for something to give.
Content. Around 3:30, after I was over the character’s woes in The Stand, I propped my iPhone up against the edge of the dashboard and watched the full hour-long episode of True Detective that aired Sunday. I enjoyed it even more the second time through. I was stuck behind a truck that hadn’t moved in half an hour.
[There are no lanes!!!!]
Angry. 5:30 or so. Expletives and banging the steering wheel phase. I realized that the truck I was behind, blocking any chance for a larger perspective of what was going on, wasn’t moving either because he was stuck, or he was stuck because he was too near behind two other semi trucks that were stuck. I yelled and screamed and roared. I only ever roar when I am alone in my car and angry, because it is a pathetic thing probably. I bang my hands on the steering wheel. This is what I did as I pulled out from behind the truck. Lanes were long gone by this point, and we all just drove around the interstate like tiny players in video games, speeding past obstacles in the road. More accurately though, we crawled past obstacles. This was literally like I was in a video game. It required driving skill against the ice while we also snaked through, one singular car at a time, around the jackknifed trucks that seemed to stall in clusters. Throughout the day there would be three spots where we were bottlenecked by jackknifed trucks blocking multiple lanes, and they were always in pairs or trios.
Then it also got dark. Oh, shit. Excuse me. But that’s all I could think.
Below is a picture I shot of the second set of jackknifed trucks blocking all the lanes. Cars on the right, you can see, are turned off and have been abandoned, blocking the shoulder or rightmost lanes for passage as well. So we drove, single file, through the slot in between the big rigs.
Terrified. What I wasn’t expecting each time we got through these tiny passages was the absolute solitude of road afterward. You and couple other cars, spaced well apart, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Because now you can go as fast as you want. There are no lanes and no cars and certainly no law enforcement. But there’s also no one to help you if you flip, careen, spin yourself into a rut, injure yourself or your car at all. Proceed at your own risk. Every muscle in my body was tensed, my left foot pressing as hard as it could into the floor to calm the rest of myself as I drove, concentrating hard on my slow, even acceleration and braking.
(No lanes. True video game style. That’s just a sheet of slick, thick, totally untreated ice. This picture is INTERSTATE 75. All six-odd lanes. Insane to me.)
Confident. When I navigated the inclines and declines like a total pro, it was exhilarating. This phase was a short-lived one in between and immediately following each terrified phase.
Terrified. Yep, back to that. Just keep driving, steady steady. It was around this point that I watched a car fifty yards in front of me do an entire 360 turn after losing traction. They came to a stop in their fancy Infinity ahead of me, then slowly pulled over to the left shoulder/lane/part-of-road-no-longer-distinguishable. I was getting very comfortable with the terrifying situation of witnessing cars lose their traction and spin furiously. I yelled vehemently at them inside my car. THAT IS NOT HOW YOU FIX THIS HAVEN’T YOU EVER DRIVEN ON ICE EVER ONCE IN YOUR LIFE OR HASN’T SOMEONE EVER TOLD YOU HOW IT WORKS? SLOWSLOWSLOWSLOW. Easy on the gas, easy on the brakes. The downhills, they are still filling me with terror. But I do every single one like a pro.
Tired. I joked to myself that at least if I was still in my car tonight NPR would be airing the State of the Union Address. (By the time it actually did air, I was certainly still in my car but far too delirious and strung out and exhausted to care what the president said.) I’d seen one of those electronic signs that said that ALL LANES were BLOCKED at West Paces Ferry, so I got off, thinking I would take 41/Northside just for a mile or so and bypass it. An hour and a half later, after watching half a dozen cars struggle, fail, and slide back down the small hill I hadn’t even recalled on Northside, I turned around too and was back at the exact same exit I had gotten off at before. There were a number of phases included in this smaller highway period, which was probably between 6:00 and 8:00 or so.
Excited. I’m going to go around this! Oh wait, definitely not. A random guy heading the other way that helped a girl turn her car back around after it was clear she wasn’t making it up the hill rolled his window down at my expression and said “It’s really bad that way. Don’t go if you have any other option.” Cars were parked by the dozens all along the sides, too. Pretty much at every phase in this story, that is a fact, a sideline decoration.
Resentful. Starting to fume at those who failed us. This is when I start to blame. If they had closed the university a mere two hours before they did (they notified staff and faculty around 10 AM) that the university would be closing, I would have just stayed at home to begin with. Never would have left, or would have at least turned straight back around again. I hadn’t yet seen one salt truck or sand truck, even though weeks before, just for some extra cold, I had seen sand laid on the surface streets of my city. Where was all this preparedness we supposedly had after the last time we had a “Snowpocolypse” in 2011?!!?#$)(#$%*(@#)&*&*($*&()$%(#*%& That was this phase. Resentful to everything that had landed me right here in this logjam on the side of the interstate, seven hours after i’d begun my journey home.
[Below: Hmm, I haven’t seen the Icy Mix yet but I’ll keep my eye out…]
The Irish Music Phase. Giving in. Perhaps, delirious. The highlight of being stranded on Highway 41, by this point deciding I would turn around again and head back toward the scary interstate I’d just left, began my Irish music phase. I am most thankful for iTunes Radio, which has a killer Celtic channel. It was just the mood booster I needed, to get me out of the actual mood I was in, the I Want To Take A Nap Here On The Side Of The Road phase. Actually, the next day, I saw photos of people sleeping in the aisles of the CVS right by there, West Paces Ferry and I-75. In fact, whole reason I had gotten off the interstate was because right at that point in the highway, there was another cluster of stalled, jackknifed, or otherwise traffic-blocking vehicles and trucks. So at least, by getting back on the interstate on the on-ramp there avoided me going through that. It did cost me almost two hours of my life though…
Defeated. Yes, by this point it was getting pretty hard to feel encouraged or keep up the energy. Hunger sets in deep. At least if you don’t drink anything, you also don’t have to relieve yourself on the side of highway. In the real apocalypse people might stop caring about decency. But see, we’re all going to have to face each other next week when it’s 60 degrees out. Do not be fooled by this state of chaos. Do not leave your car on the side of the road, Jessie. Commandment to self. By now, stories are all over my Facebook of people just abandoning them and walking the last miles to their houses. All I can think of is, how is anyone going to be able to fix the roads later if we’re all littering our cars on them? Also, WHO is going to DRIVE me back a few days later? I won’t send Ben out in this because I gave up. I will not be defeated…
Exhaustion. When you stick with it past the defeated phase, it’s just exhaustion. I guess by this time the president was talking but I could not concern myself with matters of governance when the ones protecting me and fellow Georgians were failing so grandly right before my eyes. All the previous emotions are still in there somewhere, especially resent. The most basic purpose of government is to keep citizens safe, right? I have now been endangered going on nine or ten hours — who even knows now? — along with thousands of others. My car and body are healthy, but what if they weren’t? You do see how fragile it all is. No one could help anyway. In The Stand, hours earlier, I listened while a small group tried to perform emergency surgery on one of their own, who survived the Superflu that ended civilization but then had an appendix attack in the weeks after. He dies in the middle of surgery. But, as they point out to each other, he was certainly going to die anyway. They tried. I thought again how I might have stopped and bought some beer or liquor, because not a damn soul would have been there to tsk-tsk me for drinking in my car in the middle of this mess. My friend Katie said via text that reports were saying 911 was useless, they wouldn’t answer even if you called. So just don’t call. This reminds me of a very particular part in The Stand, as the survivors who have not yet gotten sick realize the responders they depend on are stuck in the same thing. EMTs and police officers and firefighters get the Superflu too. Those same responders are stuck in the same gridlock as me. We’re on our own, citizens.
Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. This is the Rite Of Passage Certain Failure Ice Hill of Interstate 75-Southbound at North Avenue. Turns out the reason I have been idling under the 17th Street bridge for over an hour isn’t because of all the GDOT trucks salting the road or freeing stuck trucks. It’s just because we’re all faced with this particular little stretch of the interstate where you slide and spin and slide and collide until you make it through the patch, or you block everyone while you fail. There is nowhere to go and no one to help, so you may as well just keep on turning your wheel, accelerating slowly, inching up. This is where, for the first time all night, I lose my traction and start spinning. But it is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen, where pickup trucks and school buses and semi trucks and trucks pulling open trailers full of stacked up, ramshackle rocking chairs (yes, there were two of them, traveling together) all slid around on the ice together, just trying to surmount this one single little patch of road. I was less than a mile from my exit. And less than two miles from home. It was after 10:30. I’m in L gear (which I assume is 1 on my little Scion) and I’m trying, trying, trying. People are honking, people are angry, people are pushing one another up the stretch. I think well over 1000 accidents were reported. But I’m telling you, if I had hit anything, I would have said, “screw it.” There was no way I would have waited for the police or anything. I would have just kept driving. Like everyone else.
I took this picture of one helping another up at the very peak of the bad patch, when I was spinning myself. The only thing to do was keep trying, because the alternative was creating even more of a blockade to those behind us. Nowhere to go but forward, slowly, in mayhem.
20 MPH! I make it up, I regain my traction, I haven’t collided with anyone! It’s all downhill now, towards the North Avenue exit and finally, to my exit, Williams Street/Georgia Dome/Downtown. I take it at my fastest speed all day, about 20 mph, and even the hilly Ivan Allen Boulevard doesn’t phase me, because as long as I can maintain my speed without disabled cars ahead of me, I got this. I drive the mile to our building with ease, and slide into my designated parking spot inside the lot.
Relief. Joy. Overwhelming tears. I stand up for the first time since 2:30 when I was in line for the restroom at the gas station. My legs feel the fire of blood again, of motion. It feels otherworldly. I am instantly crying. By the time I’m in the elevator I’m sobbing. I fall into Ben in the kitchen, he hugs me there. I open a beer. We eat taquitos, scrapping the scheduled red curry that would involve exertion beyond pressing a button on the microwave. He was sweet and waited in solidarity for me to get home before eating dinner. Four taquitos each. I was home almost exactly at 11:00, 10.5 hours after I’d begun the 22-mile drive.
[Below: Atlanta Tuesday Jan. 28 compared to the iconic Walking Dead image of the city after the zombie apocalypse. Image via Reddit.]
That was Tuesday, January 28, 2014. Since then, I have not inched anywhere near my car for 36 hours now. It is now Thursday morning, and hundreds of stories have been shared. Truck drivers who’ve spent decades traversing the country who say they’d never experienced anything like this, not in any state or storm, not ever. If I have any say, I won’t be going anywhere today either. KSU (my employer) has been closed yesterday and today, thankfully, because I most certainly would have taken yesterday as a sick day, to recover from the mental and emotional and physical trauma, and I’m thankful for today too. Yesterday it was all national news coverage about this, and there were many stories more severe and desperate than mine. But this one still matters. It was awful. It was failure. It was not organized. It was pure chaos.
So I’m interested to see what it’s like when I do go back out. Not because I’m concerned about road conditions, I expect those are shaping up to be ok by now. No, it’s because my relationship with these roads has changed. There is no way you can spend an hour under the 17th Street bridge waiting to approach the Rite Of Passage Certain Failure Ice Hill of Interstate 75-Southbound at North Avenue and then get to it, having never lost your traction yet that day, spin out at least 40 times as you accelerate slowly, shifting your wheels and your steering wheel, sliding backward, sliding right and left towards other cars as they try to pass you too, and finally, pass through it, without significantly altering your perception of that road forever. Was it even an incline? I’d never considered it before. Once you’ve seen the Howell Mill Road exit littered with abandoned cars, several facing exactly backward towards you, each an additional barrier to your passage, you can never unsee this. It was as I imagine an apocalyptic event. But one in which actually we’re all going to have to get our cars back after, false alarm guys, so it’s really not the same kind of reckless abandon people might feel in an actual end-of-world event. Oh, you mean I can’t just ram my car into everything and then leave it to die there, as I set out to find a small community with which I can start afresh? Damn…
I am so thankful I was able to get my car home with me that night, and that it incurred no damage. There were many times I considered all the cars flailing around on the road, times the sheer number of miles I had to travel, and thought there was absolutely no way I would get through this without some collision. It seemed inevitable. I am quite proud of my slow accelerating and deceleration, something I’ve shied from many times visiting my hard-ass brethren up in Northern Michigan. It’s the downhill that scares me the most. I let the sheer panic stay in my tense limbs, but drove to success better than I expected of myself.
But I cannot unsee the roads the way I saw them. Absolutely lawless. Why not make two new lanes on the two shoulders? This isn’t an emergency type situation where a medic or firetruck or police car might have to get through, right? You know, the reason that shoulder lanes exist? No, surely not, we’ll just use those for our sliding bumper cars, thanks. If I’d have been drinking, there would have been absolutely no consequence. There wasn’t enough manpower to aid in all the actual emergencies, let alone enough to badger some emotional basketcase with a beer in her hand. Alas, I was running dry.
As in any good survival story, I have a few thanks to issue. I would like to thank the good people in line with me at the BP station on Barrett Parkway in Kennesaw, for sharing our early fears and stories in solidarity while we all waited impatiently to urinate and scrunched our noses when someone had to go Number 2. Hey, it’s all out there now, guys, we’re seeing the world fall apart together. I would like to thank the people who sent me text messages (phone calls weren’t going through after 2 pm) sending their love, prayers, well wishes: normally I wouldn’t thank you for texting me while driving, but my actual driving was limited this day. And don’t worry, I wasn’t thinking of you guys when I was petrified-on-ice-driving anyway. I would like to thank my new Midas tires, purchased a mere two months before, for your blessed, blessed traction. I would like to thank my Michigan roots. Somewhere inside me, you knew what to do… even if I was outwardly panicked. I would like to thank the two slices from the loaf of bread in my office that I happened to grab, on a last-minute whim, as I walked out the door. It was the only food I had. Thank you, Wheat Bread. I would also like to thank Audible, HBO Go, and iTunes Radio for their major support in this saga. How ironic that my current audiobook is the epic saga of the end of the world, The Stand. So thanks, also, Stephen King.
This was not about Atlanta and her citizens freaking out over 2 inches of snow. This is about a confluence of events that created a perfect storm of chaos that no one “saw coming” that led to immense failure and breakdown of the system. We were endangered, left stranded, and it was a terrible failure of officials and their preparedness in the face of disaster. I hope that the memory stays fresh enough for all of us, taken in and helped by strangers, walking miles and seeing insane things on the highways, that it can lead to a very real discussion about how this happened and what we can learn from it. All I’ve wanted is an apology from leaders. We messed up, it wasn’t great, we’re working to ensure we learn from this. It’s been all exhausting blame game, which is frustrating. It’s many things, that fault lies a dozen places.
My story is a single episode in an epic saga that has played out on national news and within the small lives and communities throughout the metro area. It was a day of mental and emotional range I have not ever experienced. It belongs in the compendium of this event.
[Below: Atlanta from the bridge above Freedom Parkway, the same vantage point of the famous Walking Dead image, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Image via WABE News.]
October 10, 2013
Some details for our guests…
I figured since we don’t have a website (we don’t have nearly enough to say to merit that), I’d post a few items to note here so that everyone knows what to expect and where to go on October 26.
Rooftop reception begins at 8 pm on Saturday, October 26. Invite only, please. It will be held on the communal rooftop terrace at our apartment building, and there will be either a person or some kind of decoration to let you know you’re in the right spot.
Parking is along Marietta Street, on the same side as the building itself. I have counted more than 20 cars easily on the street at others’ rooftop events, but even so, carpooling with at least one other person will help cut down on the number of cars taking up space. (I assume many of you are carpooling anyway, at least with your date.)
The desserts and drinks will be plentiful! Cakes, doughnuts, pops, and plenty of other delicious treats. A menu and fully-stocked bar. This is an after-dinner event – I don’t want any of you going into a sugar coma from the drinks and desserts because you came on an empty stomach! You’ve been warned. (We will be bringing in reinforcements for party-goers who stay past the half-way mark of the night.)
I would call this semi-formal. No tuxes in sight, but come wearing your most fun, fancy frocks! And a note, in the fall evenings, up on the roof, it can get a bit breezy, so a lovely little coat, shawl, scarf, or other coverup for the ladies will be a wise decision.
Please bring your smartphones or cameras (or both, heck!) and snap lots of pictures for us! We want everything candid, nothing lame like us standing in front of a brick wall. So we’re counting on you to take some really fun pics. We’ll have a few cameras on-hand as well. Maybe some props, if I can scrounge some up here somewhere… But I can definitely say that the backdrop will be gorgeous and you’ll want to take at least a few.
Sorry if we made it tough on any of you by not registering for gifts. We are blessed with many things already and didn’t want to ask for more stuff while also inviting you to a reception-only event where we don’t even feed you fancy chicken. But the good news is, if we’ve invited you, you’re part of a small group of people most special to us, and so it’s safe to assume you know us well enough to have an idea what we might like. All that said, though, we really just want to see your face! Please don’t stress about this part.
If you’ve got any other questions at all, please reach out to me! You should have either my phone number or email address, Twitter or Instagram handle, any way that works for you. I am more than happy to answer anything – hotels, shoe advice, whatever you need. Can’t wait to see you!