Current status: Midwest travels edition

I am at a bar in a kind of huge strip mall in Des Moines, Iowa. There is a wall of giant, beautifully crisp, flat televisions behind the bar, all showing the same baseball game, and not a single eye is pointed toward them. People are yelling at each other, as you do in most situations when drink and loud music get involved. Boyz II Men’s “Thank You” just came on the loudpseaker and threw me uncomfortably back to my youth when I used to have that single on a cassette and would rewind and replay ad nauseum, only to swap it out with whatever Brandy single I was also obsessed with at the time.

There is a table of middle-aged men in business suits directly in front of me, and they are cackling like madmen and dropping F-bombs in the course of whatever story one of them is relaying.

I flew in this morning and did that ridiculous thing occasional airplane passengers do where I felt a kinship with my fellow stranger travelers. You know, you break through the clouds and suddenly spot the blue arc of the Earth’s boundary and you start to look at the backs of people’s heads — their tiny, stupid, insignificant heads — and they start to seem both stranger than ever (I am on a flying bus with people I’ve never met, and we are rocketing through space and time!!!) and more familiar than ever (someone on this plane near me will not stop farting oh god), once you consider that they are living the same weird life you are, but in a different way.

I had these idiotic thoughts before achieving full caffeination; forgive me.

This is my first extended stay in the Midwest, which is to say it is my first non-layover trip to the Midwest. It’s true — the people are nice and the grass is green. Right now in this little strip-mall bar, there’s a country song and then an R&B song. Country song, R&B song. And then a Mr. Big song (you know the one). And now the song that is about butts that masquerades as being about bass. Ah, the Midwest. The great melting pot of America.

Love that Louisville

I was lucky enough to get to go to the SND conference in Louisville last weekend. I’d never been to Louisville and never been to an SND conference. Twofer!

The city seems cool — we stayed right downtown in the beautiful Galt House and walked pretty much everywhere — and the conference was inspiring. I came back full of hope and ideas and hopefully the right amount of added chutzpah to be a better designer and a better manager of designers.

Louisville

Racing

Racing Phonethip and Heather

One of my favorite quotes from the conference was by David Wright, a designer for Twitter. He said — and put up on a big slide — “Great experiences thrive in environments where design is respected.” You would think something like that might be a no-brainer, but there are a lot of people who actually don’t fully embrace this concept.

Churchill Downs

Ali Museum Ali courtyard

Hollowed

Galt House Galt House decorations

The full set is here. I definitely aim to get to another SND conference in the future, and I am going to be back in Louisville too! It’s not that far away and there is a ton of stuff to do there.

A month later, vacation photos

Because if there’s one thing the internet HASN’T changed, it’s how much people LOOOVE looking at other people’s vacation photos!

And just like that, it’s over

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We’ve had a blast up here in the campiest little strip in the mountains. Tomorrow we will resume regular life.

My mom really went out of her way to make sure we had a great time, even though she knows I have no money to spend on fun stuff. She’s a keeper.

My kiddo — despite being bitten by the whiny bug while we were here — has been a trooper through sickness and schedule upheaval and my insistence that he ride amusement-park rides (which he contemplated stoically, for the most part).

We made lots of good memories and when we come back, we’ll be able to do even more fun stuff.

Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, you’re a weird little area that vacuums up our money but you consistently churn out good memories for us, so thanks.

Scurlock’s Donuts in Jackson, Miss.

I meant to write about this, uh, a month and a half ago.

I was down in Jackson, Miss., for a business trip at The Clarion-Ledger, when I went across the street to get coffee and donuts at Scurlock‘s. I didn’t have cash on me and I wanted a dozen donuts (to ply my new business partners, of course) and a cup of coffee. The proprietor’s card machine was down, but instead of turning me away, he began to load the dozen donuts into a box for me. I fished in my purse for loose change and told him I was from out of town and didn’t know when I’d be able to get the remaining money to him. He was not concerned. “That’s OK,” he told me. “You’ll be back.” And I walked out of there with a box of warm donuts I had barely paid for. Talk about paying it forward. So I have been meaning to write about that and mail a check for decidedly more than the $4 or so I owe Scurlock’s. Just to say thanks.

Because how often does that kind of thing happen these days?

So if you’re ever down in Jackson and you get the chance, stop by and say hi. There are good people in there.

Monday, 9 p.m.

I am in the hotel bar at the Marriott in downtown Jackson, Miss. There’s some sort of convention in town. I can tell because the bar and lobby is full of cackling middle-aged women and their severe hairdos. There’s a sweating bottle of white zinfandel on the bar and I can hear good-natured ribbing and knee-slapping and there is no way these people would ever be drunk together were they not here for work. They’d be at home cleaning up kitchens and packing lunches and possibly giving out obligatory blowjobs if their husbands were lucky.

I ordered the $9 sauvignon blanc. It’s unremarkable but the finish is potent and makes me think of cognac but that’s probably just the salted mixed nuts talking. I once read a wine book that said to never order the cheapest wine on the menu. Go a price point up, the book said. So I am throwing caution to the wind and ignoring the $8 pinot grigio. Now I can sit and await life’s dividends.

The barkeep is running around like a madman. He is bussing tables in the lobby and then leaping down the stairs and landing right in front of my table. Every time he flies past, I imagine him taking a tumble right in front of me and I’m trying to figure out how I would react. I’d probably lunge to cover my computer and phone from the fallout, which would be super rude of me. Would I laugh? Maybe get that horrified/amazed look on my face that is contributing to my wrinkles?

Here are some quotes as I hear them across the room:

“My grandmother was alllll into that geneaology crap.”

“I got ALL the money. It just ROLLS.”

“Baaaaaaaaaahhhahhhmaaaeeehhhmeeehhhhhmaaah! *clap clap*”

“Come aaaahhhhn, bartender, come aaaaahhhhn!”

[intermission]

Some guy sitting nearby is telling a story and it involves long overhead arm motions and his chair is squeaking with every movement. It’s starting to make me want to murder him.

I have been sitting in this bar now for a couple of hours and I am bored out of my fucking mind. I am nearing the bottom of my second glass and I don’t have that warm fuzzy feeling I was chasing. I feel lonely and melancholy and bored and I miss my baby and I think I am going to just go up to my room and go to sleep. There ain’t shit else to do.

The cackling ladies are leaving and guffawing on the way out. As annoying as they are, I’m happy they have gotten this one night to act a fool. They don’t seem like the sort to get that chance very often.

Looks like the barkeep knocked a couple of bucks off my tab, probably because there was a stretch of about 45 minutes where he didn’t even remember I was here. I just sat quietly and watched the tennis match on the TV nearby. I don’t even like tennis.

It’s 10:12 and my night has been over for hours.

Wanderlust

Up early this Saturday morning. Coffee and a spoonful of peanut butter while I wait on some biscuits to brown. I’ve got the sprinkler running out back, trying to soak the beds and save the flowers from scorching even further. I don’t know how to fight for them in this relentless bastard heat.

I am feeling content at the moment — a delicious concoction inspired by the quiet before the total chaos of what is to come. I can still sit quietly and soothe myself with the tap of a keyboard, and the showers I take occur at a pace that stops way short of frantic. Lately I’ve been thinking about the life I had just a few short years ago and how it seems so foreign now. I miss the frenetic, drunk adventures, but I don’t miss being a total directionless wreck of a person, two drinks always down the hatch and prone to waking up filled with shame. I carry a lot of guilt with me over what kind of person I have been and should be, and it’s fueled in part by my embarrassment over my delayed adolescence. I spent all of high school and college trying to act so grown up that I acted a lot like a reckless child in my mid-twenties once I sloughed off some constraints. I should have gotten that out of my system a long time ago, but I’m a late bloomer in a lot of ways, I guess.

Eh, I don’t know why I’m dwelling on this stuff. It’s more or less inconsequential and here we are with a new game board laid out in front of us and a deck of fresh cards in our hands.

This tiny part of me is balled up, so excited about where my little family is going to go in the coming years. I love Memphis for all its quirks but I’m longing to give it a long kiss goodbye and to take to the road for a new adventure. I came here, knew no one, hated it, and then grew to love it and the people I met once I dug in and opened myself up to it. It’s been six and a half years, which is longer than anywhere else I’ve lived other than my parents’ house growing up. But when I walk outside into the soup that passes for air around here, I have to remind myself that there are places on this Earth that do not spend several months out of the year trying to fry your flesh and obliterate your ability to breathe. There are places on this Earth where you can look up and see an honest-to-God mountain on the horizon, or a seemingly endless sea flanked by sandy beaches. There are sweet, small towns populated not with Klan members but with live-and-let-live folks who don’t spend every waking hour worrying about what the gays are doing. These places are real and we can go there and start new adventures, build new stories, take new photographs, learn new contours of life.

It’s a little ways off, but it’s there in the distance. I can feel it. I hope that’s what I’m feeling, anyway. We’ll never have an easy time of it, I know. We are far too middle class and in far too much debt to ever coast freely. But we’ve got the freedom of possibility and that gives me such hope for what’s to come.

Last night we inched closer to settling on Mister Man’s name. Never would I have imagined going even this long without having a clear idea of what I wanted to call my first son, but that shit is hard, y’all. Name being destiny and all.

Ass-kickin’ Asheville

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Asheville is the shit. Let’s just get that out of the way real quick. Because Asheville, for whatever reason, is one of those places that has flown completely under my radar. It wasn’t until I was trying to think of interesting places to visit on the last half of my pre-Christmas vacation that my pal Shane suggested it to me, since it’s so dang close to Gatlinburg (less than a two-hour drive). He said his parents make the trek every year to see the Biltmore, and that when he visited the city many moons ago, he had a good time. Asheville, huh?

So I set about doing a bit of research and enlisting more of my very savvy, very awesome, very well-traveled friends for their input and suggestions. Saraclark sent me this amazing list of places to eat and visit and I set about, Lesley-style, making a spreadsheet of sorts. Of course, when we actually got there and started walking around the neighborhood where our hotel was, the spreadsheet went more or less out the window but its spirit lived on.

We stayed in the Downtown Inn, which is this giant former Days Inn just barely notched into the cusp of an adorable and super walkable area of Downtown where — happily — much of what I had put on the spreadsheet resides. Downtown Inn, I can say without guilt, looks sort of sketchy and run down, even when you get into the lobby and elevator, the latter of which is lined in ancient pink Formica. When we arrived on Wednesday evening, we pulled into a parking lot so empty we wondered if the hotel was even open. I think that night we were the only people there (the clerk said that time of year, in the days leading up to Christmas, they are pretty dead). Based on some hotel reviews I’d read, I requested a room on a high floor facing the mountains and not the street. The hotel people were super accommodating, and you can see what our view was below, at left.

Despite the not-so-swanky nature of the hotel’s exterior and lobby, our room was clean and well-appointed, with a little coffee maker and a blowdryer and a mini-fridge and microwave — all the things you’d expect from a modern hotel. But the absolute selling point of the place is the location. We walked everywhere and just kept stumbling upon cool stuff to do and see.

gat74   gat70

Our first evening, we did a little exploring and ended up at the Thirsty Monk, which was just across the street from the hotel. This place was pretty cool, and they had a ton of interesting craft beers on tap that they kept track of with a wall of placards, each one bearing a beer’s name. Once that keg was tapped, the placard would come off the wall and you’d have to move on to the others. I settled down with a Sweetwater Festive, which was delicious. I can’t remember what the boyfriend had. Both of us were pretty buzzed off of one high-alcohol beer, though, and hungry. But the Monk menu just wasn’t doing it for us, so we set off on foot to see what else we could see. We stumbled upon a Mellow Mushroom, and both of us instantly wanted to share some of their pizza. Also it was cold and we wanted to get inside. We walked in and realized that trivia night was about to kick off, and in a grand spectacle of spontaneity, we decided we’d play, since there was cash money at stake. Ray went to the bathroom and I sat down with the quizmaster to get the details, and while he explained the answering/scoring procedure to me, I think I had a mild stroke. Because I could not fucking pick up what the man was putting down. He was not even speaking English anymore. It was just clicks and buzzes and beeps and farts. I don’t know. I nodded brightly and acted like I knew exactly what he meant by “TAP” (do you quizmeisters know this system?) and I went back to our table with an answer sheet and a stricken look on my face. You can imagine how it went down when Ray returned and I had to explain to him that, while I had just sat through a detailed explanation of the entire trivia procedure, I had no fucking clue what we were supposed to do. So he had to go back to the quizmaster and have a little man-to-man, during which many crises were solved, including the one of our team being fucked from the get-go.

Ahem.

So we snarfed down pizza and beer and kicked a lot of ass at the questions (I’m telling you, knowing the American presidents in order is the most useful thing I have ever learned). We were running tied for third out of 10 or 12 for a while (which was especially good, I thought, because at least two of those teams had eight people on them!) but we got a little cocky and wagered too many points on the final question, which we got wrong. So we dropped down out of the top three and left the place drunk and with less money than we’d had when we went in. But you know what? We felt like kings. Motherfucking Michelob Kings, which was our team name, for whatever reason.

The next day brought more exploration by foot. We checked out the Asheville Art Museum, which had a visiting exhibition of Sewell Sillman‘s line drawings, which are these super repetitive studies in spatial relationships and patterns. At first they seem sort of simple and pointless but if you give it some time and really trace those pencil markings with your eyes, and try to imagine not just planning a composition like that but executing it without having to erase and re-trace, well, the skill becomes quickly evident. Ray was bored by most of the sketches but I really was sort of taken with them. Maybe it’s a graphic designer thing, who knows.

We are giant museum nerds, so when we happened upon the Thomas Wolfe homestead and museum, we kind of had to check it out, even though neither of us had read anything by Wolfe. Getting a tour of the giant homestead was ridiculously cheap, like a $1 a head or so, and for some reason I didn’t take a single picture inside the house, even though we were the only two on the tour. That big yellow house is 29 rooms huge, and the story of Wolfe’s childhood as a little boy living in a big, swingin’ boarding house was fairly interesting, although — here is where my inner asshole is going to shine like a polished nickel — I don’t quite understand the pain and anguish that Wolfe apparently felt as a result of living in a boarding house. Yes, yes, he didn’t have his own room and his mother tended to him after the guests were taken care of, but as far as I can tell, he had it pretty good, all things considered. I mean, there was crazy shit going on in that house, but crazy shit happens so that people can write books about it, right? I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t pay very good attention on the tour. I was too busy trying to count all 29 rooms.

gat96   gat87

Anyway, there’s this cool little statue thing downtown showing the landscape and layout of Wolfe-era Asheville. It’s a neat visual trick.

Hm, what else did we do? We walked around the Pack Square area, which is pretty swanky, and we witnessed what looked like the aftermath of a horrible Santa tragedy.

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gat92   gat90   gat89

We had absolutely delicious meals at Tupelo Honey Café and Fioré’s.

gat80   gat109

There are some outstanding food options in Asheville. I’m sad that I lost my wallet one night and we ended up eating two-for-one chicken sandwiches at Burger King out of fear that we wouldn’t have enough cash to get back home if we ate anything fancier. That’s a whole meal lost to the gods of My Absentmindedness. (Happy ending! I found the wallet; the good people at Bruisin’ Ales hung onto it for me until I could come pick it up the next day.) The entire city seems to have a nicely developed palate. Between the surfeit of local breweries and all the chef-curated eateries, you could spend a lot of time and money tasting your way through Asheville. Which, if I continue to go with the family to Gatlinburg every year, sounds like the kind of thing I just might do.

We sampled several local beers (many of which we picked up at Bruisin’ Ales) and, on Friday night, walked down just south of our hotel to Craggie Brewing Co. and Green Man Brewery, both of which have little bars in them where you can get their brews on tap. Boyfriend tried Craggie’s Antebellum Ale and found it to be offensively sprucey on first sip, and then spent the remainder of the trip wistfully wishing he had more of the stuff, because it was the best beer ever in the history of the world. I had Craggie’s Herkulean IPA, which is a dark beer, and quite tasty. Over at Green Man, I had their porter, which ended up being my favorite of the trip, I think. (We had a lot of beer.) Green Man was hopping that night, and there were lots of middle-aged people dancing to Michael Jackson songs, which were the only tunes playing that night for whatever reason.

gat106   gat107

We had so much fun in our little pocket of downtown that we didn’t even bother driving out to the Biltmore. Even though I do want to see it some day, I just couldn’t justify the price vs. all the cool stuff we could do for much cheaper. Asheville’s a good time, and we barely even scratched the surface. I definitely want to go back and get to know it a little better.

Full Flickr set here.

Blocked

I have had the worst writer’s block lately. We’re back in town and I have plenty of stories from the trip eastward — many that are downright insane — except I have no patience to sit and write for any length of time. In fact, I am allowing myself a lot of unnecessary anxiety over how and when I am going to sit down and get the trip stories out of me. I want to get them out. But I don’t even know where to start. Or how. Or why.

Sometimes it’s hard to even try until the pictures are ready to post. Except … I took lousy photos, and not many of them.

The muse, she is not with me these days.

Eh.

Asheville

I like Asheville. A lot. We’re staying right downtown near a neat strip of bars and shops and a cute little park. Internet’s not working in the room, which is turning out to be kind of quite lovely. It’s nap time for me and the feller. Then maybe going out tonight. We’re keeping it low key.