Ten of Cups

When Tracy walked up I was crying in a field again, not delicately crying behind my sunglasses but, like, all the way crying. Pancho and Lefty apparently does this to me every time. Tracy asked me if I was okay, but she didn’t look too alarmed, because she knows how I am about old-school honky tonk.

Those damn Federales,” was all I could say, sniffling, and the boys played on.

I was minding my own business in the shade, peacefully listening to the Townes Van Zandt tribute set at Red Wing Roots, and the Steel Wheels were playing, and it was nice. And then they said, “We’d like to bring out two special guests, Hayes Carll and JP Harris,” and I threw a few elbows and knocked over some chairs and ran to the middle of the field in the thousand degree sun, because HAYES CARLL and JP HARRIS. That would have been enough, right there, but then they did Pancho and Lefty, and I already told you the rest.

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It was a sweet, sweet Virginia weekend. Virginia rolling farmland, which looks about like this at sunset:

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and we were in this town which is just about off the map, Mt. Solon, and to get there you wind through miles of gorgeous country roads and places where the houses are so close together and so close to the road that you just know they were there when  the road was just a little horse trail. You could almost reach out and touch the front porches around the curves. And then suddenly you’re here:

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in the park with these stone chimneys, which were formed a million million years ago when all of this farmland was ocean.

We were here for Red Wing Roots, and the talent was kind of astounding. Trampled by Turtles and Yarn and Hayes Carll and Peter Rowan, and The Duhks and Devil Makes Three and the Hackensaw Boys and JP Harris and the Tough Choices, and that’s just off the top of my head. There was a whole tent devoted to local-ish roots music, and that’s where I saw some of my favorite acts: After Jack and the Judy Chops and Brian Elijah Smith and the Wild Hearts, and James Justin & Co. (For the record, Bailey’s banjo solo was the most beautiful two minutes of music all weekend.)

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By the end of it, I was hot and tired enough that I had a fleeting thought of leaving early enough to behave like an adult. I’m glad I didn’t. I would have missed all of these people onstage singing Townes Van Zandt songs, and of course I wouldn’t really have passed up a chance to hear Hayes Carll tell stories. Somehow I’ve never caught the line “sitting cross-legged in the heartache tree” before. That alone was worth the long, dark, late drive home, back down through Virginia.

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I appreciate Tracy and Gregg for so, so many reasons, but a big one is that they’re exactly the kind of people with whom you’d want to share a campsite at a three-day festival in the middle of nowhere. They share their beverages. They string party lights on the tent shelter. They know who the must-see bands are, and they are unflappably cheerful.  I say “share a campsite,” but I am the girl who actually stayed at the Super 8 Motel twenty-five miles down the road for reasons not even worth discussing, and just showed up with fried pies to hang out at the picnic tables. Best of all worlds, no?

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The week before the festival was rough. There was a lost phone, and a car battery which went from “dead” to “cracked and smoking in three places,” and a new battery which died the following day, and then a car so dead the mechanics couldn’t get the door open. I did what any self-respecting independent female would do and called my mother crying from a gas station in Pilot Mountain. Thanks Mom. There was a tow truck, another tow truck, a taxi, a rental car. There was a back situation, which meant I couldn’t really bend at any point during the week, and a cluster$*&# of work deadlines, and an abandoned study schedule because sometimes getting your dead car off of a mountain takes more time than you’d think. Even when the car was working, everything was painfully slow, as I have to obey the speed limit scrupulously after running afoul of the law again  two weeks ago. Everything was frustrating on all fronts.

So, you know, I went to the hippie tent at the music festival and bought some good fortune. Actually, the woman who was going to read my Tarot cards couldn’t find the deck. She had a frantic five minute search and I was pretty sure all of that was a terrible sign. A doubtful reading would be one thing. No cards whatsoever just seems ominous, right?

She suddenly found them and apologized profusely, and I assured her that things were proceeding exactly the way the rest of my week had. She said, “hold on, I can fix this,” and went to get some sage and smudge-bundled the whole situation. Fresh start! I like a fresh start.

The same card, the Ten of Cups, flipped out of the deck three different times while we were fumbling around with the shuffling. It came up again when she laid out the cards. The reader thought that was great. I can’t remember where everything was, but the overall situation was that, despite having had to withdraw for a bit to figure things out (hello, exams) that I have all the tools I need to get everything I’ve ever wanted, and soon. Forces are conspiring, she told me, good ones, and that things are lining up and falling into place, There may be some sniping and backbiting along the way, but the end result is happy, happy, happy.

Say what you will. That was a lot cheaper than therapy, a vacation, or even a new pair of shoes. I’ll take it. Promises of good things to come, whatever mischievous forces we’ve all been dealing with lately. It’s cruising into midsummer, and the weekends are long and the evenings are lovely.

After that it was back to the festival, and the supermoon rose over the stone chimneys and the bands played late, late into the night.

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We’ve got everything we need, people. Loved ones and music and fresh air and sunshine. Things are going to turn out fine. Our cups runneth over. Cheers, y’all.

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Kirby Derby 2014: Catch a Falling Star

Kirby Derby Day dawned hot and uncertain. Partly cloudy with a 90% chance of wheels falling off of cars built by rookie drivers who don’t know what they’re doing.

ImageTeam Shooting Star had planned to wrap up our last-minute preparations late Friday afternoon, then take the car over to Kirby for some test runs Friday night. We figured we had some time to make adjustments on Saturday before the actual race.

Things did not go according to plan.

The weather was uncooperative, and our pinwheel situation was a lot harder than we thought it would be, and we still hadn’t managed to take our car off the sawhorses, load it with drivers, and see if she would roll.  It was coming up on serious dusk when we set the Shooting Star down on the sidewalk. We went and got Favorite Neighbor Tate, our designated push-off person. Favorite Neighbor Tripp answered the door, asking no questions other than, “Is it happening?” and Tate and Tripp came to spot us while we did our test run.

She went about a foot before the back wheels collapsed and we scraped to a stop.

Favorite Neighbors were kind enough not to panic, at least not in front of us, though Tripp looked a little pale. We went to our Plan B,  an emergency run for better wheels and some additional hardware. We made it out of Home Depot 7 minutes before closing, came back to my back porch and frantically repaired the wheel situation and added some bracing. We clamped everything together and waited overnight for the glue to dry.

I didn’t sleep all that well.

Julia drove back over around 10:30 for our next test run, with our solid new back wheels. We went and got Tate again and she gave us a push. This time, we made it like 6 feet, but the back right wheel was still wonky. Tate diagnosed that maybe we should go ahead and screw the screws in all the way, which we hadn’t done yet. That solved the problem entirely. On the next run, we made it about 8 feet, and our left front wheel spun out. We scraped to a stop for the third time. This issue was a bit out of my wheelhouse, as it were. We’d taken our steering mechanism with the front wheels to friends of Julia’s, who had already aligned the wheels, applied threadlocker, and professionally tightened them. They’d been declared sound and roadworthy. We were stumped.

We finally realized that the left wheel wasn’t tightening because its bolt was threaded the opposite of every sane and reasonably designed threaded bolt everywhere. It was lefty-tighty, not righty-tighty. We applied some more threadlocker and tightened the hell out of it, and that was all we could do. Travis from Kirby came with his truck to pick it up and haul it to the racecourse for us. He helped us do a sidewalk run first. We made it about 15 feet, although the brake fell apart. But she rolled! She rolled.

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Travis and Mike, both Kirby neighborhood folks, helped us with our official test run on Kirby. Mike gave us all kinds of advice about how to handle jockeying for position in the curve with another driver, and about not being afraid to use the brake, heavily, going into Deadman’s Curve. My friends call me Safety Patrol. I was okay with that advice. There is a good reason that Julia was our driver and  I was our brake. Mike stopped traffic at the bottom of the hill, and Travis pushed us from the top. We weren’t fast. In fact, we sort of lumbered to a stop a couple of times and Travis gave us an extra push or ten. But going into the curve, we really picked up speed, and we had to use the brake I’d just put back together, and then the last straightaway was fast. It was fun.

Towing the car back up the hill was where things fell apart. The threadlocker we’d used started to fail, maybe because the bolts holding our front wheels on were super hot from the friction. The wheels kept spinning sideways and grinding us to a halt, and then we lost a cotter pin and the steering mechanism disassembled itself. Travis lifted the front up and examined it, while Mike combed the hill for our cotter pin, long gone. But at least we knew what our problems were (no cotter pin and front wheels which needed to be adjusted every five feet) and how to fix them (new cotter pin and industrial strength threadlocker, the nuclear kind with the red cap.) We made our eleventy fifth trip to Ace Hardware since yesterday.

Julia and I took turns freaking out for the next couple of hours. Only one of us was allowed to panic at once, so one of us would be all, “I JUST DON’T WANT TO LOSE A WHEEL IN DEADMAN’S CURVE IN FRONT OF A THOUSAND PEOPLE” and the other one would be all, “We got this! We know how to fix our very minor issues, and we will make it down the hill one way or the other, and people are nice, and I NEED TO FREAK OUT NOW YOU TAKE OVER” and so forth.

When we got back to Kirby, we found this waiting for us in the car: an assortment of cotter pins, bolts, and washers, and have I mentioned I Love Kirby Street and everybody on it? Because THAT is teamwork. THAT is community. THAT is looking out for the people who clearly need just a little more coaching than average to build a car and get it down a hill with a Deadman’s Curve.

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My only regret for the day is that I surrendered my phone for safety and I really have no pictures of the excellent assemblage of Derby cars, nor do I have any pictures of the actual racing. This year’s theme was Superstition, so there were black cats, and leprechauns, and voodoo dolls, and a magic 8-ball, and a step-on-a-crack car, and this beautiful ladder car which ended up being a bit more sculptural than mobile. But it looked cool.

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We were seriously nervous by the time we had to line up for the parade, but every last person we talked to was hugely supportive, and of course it’s all in good fun. Not that there aren’t some real contenders every year, in terms of speed and beautiful design. Check out Andy’s Knock on Wood car. It’s a marimba, and it actually plays when the car rolls. And it rolls fast.

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We made friends in the parade, and were relieved to find the crowd much smaller than we remembered, and we looped around a couple of times and waved and saluted and were happy we had made it that far. Then it was time to….race. Things were kind of tense on Team Shooting Star during that 30 minutes or so before we lined up. The skies were threatening, and we’d neglected to register properly, and rumor filtered back to us that, instead of racing one at a time for timed trials, we were going to go straight to competitive heats to try and beat the storm. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

GAAAAAAAAAA.

We were the last heat, and there was nothing to do, but do it. We shotgunned a beer, and our pit crew/Houston/Ground Control/cheerleading squad tried to keep us calm, and then they loaded us in and Tate pushed us off.

The crowd, which was modest during the parade, had expanded into a thousand thousand tightly packed people for the race. That was more than I’d bargained for. But it was fun. Really fun. Way more fun than I thought it would be. As feared, we were super slow on the first stretch of hill, which just isn’t steep enough to get a car of our level of expertise going. We came close to grinding to a complete stop three or four times at the beginning. Thank you, kind sir who was the first to run from the crowd and give us a nudge. Thank you, kind woman, who was shouting nice and encouraging things at us and when Julia looked at you and said THANK YOU! PUSH!!!!- you pushed. Thank you, Gregg, for our final boost, which put us over the hurdle and got us lumbering down the hill, and one of my favorite moments of the day is you jogging out of the crowd with a smile and a beer in your hand to give us a shove.  Every last person in the crowd was cheering, even when we were stalled.

Once we got going, we were pretty respectable. The brake handle splintered off, which is fine, because we didn’t need it, except maybe a little when we were heading into the curve at a comfortable, but not terrifying, speed. The commentary, the way we heard it later, was something like, “Aaaand here’s the shooting star. They don’t have a lot of motion, but they have a lot of style.” And that was exactly the way we wanted it. We had glitter, and shiny ribbons, and spinning pinwheels, and a shooting star you could make wishes on. Also, somebody at the top of the hill called us the Hot Astronauts car. Thank you for that. I will treasure that.

We got a video clip from my friend Joy. I love it. We’re moving along at a pretty good clip, at this point. More importantly, the wheels stayed on. Even better than finishing our run without crashing or wheels falling off, I finished with an actual scrape on my arm. It is badass. It is also tiny, and certainly does not require the band-aid I put on it as a badge of honor. I have a soap box car derby scrape. I have never felt tougher.

I’ve said this before, but Kirby Derby is a lot more than just an afternoon of tomfoolery and shenanigans. It it totally those things too, which is why we all come, but there’s a lot more at work here: community, and hard work, and a neighborhood throwing open its doors to welcome anyone who’s willing to ante up and race, or to bring their families and cheer for strangers and friends old and new. It’s about competitors turning into compadres, and potential disasters turning into great stories, and about teamwork, and overcoming your fears, and also making stuff and hoping it will work.

Voodoo Doll car won this year, and it was really great. The last race came down to Voodoo Doll and Knock on Wood, and Knock on Wood was behind coming out of Deadman’s Curve, and then caught up on the last straightaway. They were in a dead heat, and then they collided, locked together, skidded into the guardrail- and crossed the finish line with Voodoo Doll a foot ahead. Well done all. Best race I’ve seen yet.

And so: I am sending out huge thanks to each and every person who got us down that hill today. Every hardware store in the county who helped us find, fix, or cut something. Everyone who helped us jigsaw, assemble, threadlock, and tighten. Every kind word from the crowd; every single person who showed up to cheer us on; my coworkers who alternately showed up dressed as Ground Control and encouraged us to throw caution to the wind and abandon brakes altogether; my neighbors who carried stuff and pushed us off and worried about us; my writer friend who told me with gravitas after our slow and spectacular run, “there is no objective measure for excellence…but you won in every measure which is not objective.” The people who ran out from the crowd to push us when we got dangerously close to stopping altogether; the people all around us on the parade route; the guys who helped us do our test run and found us parts and gave us steering advice.

A very particular shout-out goes to one extremely worthy car, which in my book wins for concept, execution, and total crowd involvement. Travis’s Day of the Dead car, a giant white skull which the crowd took turns painting with all sorts of patterns and designs and colors.  It was gorgeous, and she would have been fast, too, but there was a brake situation. So close, so so so close- but time ran out, and the brake wasn’t ready, and the Day of the Dead car made it around the parade route but not down the hill at race time. Travis, the one who cheerfully spent an hour and a half of his Derby day schlepping our car from downtown and helping us do practice runs and troubleshoot, could have built three or four brakes in the time he spent making sure we were all set to participate. Don’t think for a second I don’t know that, people. That is a pretty big sacrifice in the name of Derby. And so: hats off to the Day of the Dead car, and Travis, and every single other person who got our Shooting Star down the hill. We owe you big, and it takes a village sometimes, and what a nice village this is. Racing a car in Kirby Derby was on my Life List, which meant I had to do it, and it was enough fun that it just might get me through this next long stretch of exams.

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(photo credit Danny Rosin)

Thanks, Kirby, as always. See y’all out there next year.

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Kirby Derby 2014: Wish I May, Wish I Might

Today is Kirby Derby.

Kirby Street: short stretch, steep hill, 90 degree turn, fun neighbors, annual soap box derby. Thousand-some odd spectators lining the streets and hanging from trees to take photos. You are now up to speed.

So, I’ve been threatening to race a car in Kirby Derby for the last three years. I wrote it on my Life List. But I am all talk, people. ALL TALK. I wasn’t really going to do it. I’m not that afraid of crashing. I’m just afraid of doing anything, anything at all, in front of a thousand people. And anyway, this year has been derailed by the Architecture Registration Exam, all seven parts. This year is low on fun. This year is high on expenses. This year has not even reached “middling” yet, in terms of adventure. This year is about Finishing What I Started When I Changed Careers, and Doing What Needs to Be Done, and Gritting My Teeth and White-Knuckling Through This Continued Professional Hazing. My reserves are low, physically, mentally, and financially.

Which is why we had to build a derby car.

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I took another exam at the end of May, one which was equal parts tedium and mean-spirited trickery. It was seven different kinds of engineering, 90 hours of studying, 20% information I’d never seen before, and a sleepless night with a poor queasy dog beforehand. I was sure I’d failed, and I vowed not to look at my score report until after my next couple of exams on the books in September. I knew it would just derail me and ruin my study-free month of June. I earmarked June for peace and quiet, laziness, trashy summer novels, and beers on sidewalks. Then I threw all of that under the bus for the insanity of building a soap box car on short notice with no power tools or previous knowledge. Which my friend and I would then race on a treacherous hill in front of a thousand of our closest friends.

Julia and I went in together on a kit which included only the wheels and steering mechanism. We purchased this kit not so much from its geographical location in the wilds of Canada, as from straight out of 1975. It came in a box that was about 2’ wide and 2” deep. We looked at it on Julia’s porch. It was approximately the weight of a standard pizza delivery.

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“Does that look like it could hold a derby car?” I asked her.

We agreed that it did not.

I attempted to assemble the steering mechanism at my kitchen table that night from the brightly colored vintage photos on the box, and the instructions which were written in French and English. I know enough French to understand that those two sets of instructions were in no way related. Julia and I began referring to the parts supplier as Helter Skelter. I’d stand the assembly up, and the kingpins would slide right out and the whole thing felt like a house of cards, and that was BEFORE we’d actually built anything.

We got a late start, and both our calendars were already packed with work travel and family weddings and meetings. It came down to two build days. TWO. I built a cardboard mock-up in my guest room, which Fletch kept trying to eat. I figured out how to lay the pieces out on a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood, and I had a one-hour window between work and leaving for a rehearsal dinner at the coast in which to purchase our supplies. The team at the lumber yard was nice, but I didn’t feel that they were entirely invested in our derby car. I left for the family wedding with a giant sheet of plywood cut just exactly enough to fit in my car with all of the seats down, and a little brown paper bag with jigsaw blades and wood screws. And some serious anxiety.

I returned from the family wedding at 1 a.m. on Saturday night so that I could make it to Build Day the following morning. Julia and I dragged all our supplies over to my friend Michael’s back yard, because he had tools and small children and was therefore up early on a Sunday morning. He didn’t bat an eye at our crazy. We did two or three hours of cutting, really Michael did while we watched and said encouraging things, and he was happy to use five different power tools, and we loaded our assorted pieces back into the car for assembly on my back porch.

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“You have sawhorses, and a drill, and all of that stuff?” Michael asked us.

“We have nothing but a dream, Michael,” I told him.

He was a good sport about that. He sent us away with sawhorses and a good drill.

Julia and I spent the rest of the day frantically assembling. Mostly it went well. We totally underdesigned our structure (stop looking at me like that, I had faith in the integrity of the plywood, and also I have not taken the structures exam yet) and then we had to make some big adjustments and ended up with an overdesigned structure. There were two or three trips to hardware stores that day, not to mention about a dozen after that. Whatever. It came together. It’s pretty solid.

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We finished build day 1 with… not that much to show for it. Our car looked sketchy and a little bit frail. We were hot, and hungry, and frazzled. I was prepared for the intermediate stages to be rough; I went to design school, and I know that what you do is, you take your worst-case scenario budget and build schedule, and you build in a contingency for delays and unforeseen expenses.

Then you multiply your worst-case scenario plus contingency by three. Which is about right.

I…I don’t remember all the details after that. There was a lot of carpenter’s glue and a whole bunch of metal fasteners, and continuous charging of the drill. I had a roll of marine plywood left over from the chair I built in graduate school, and it’s so pretty, and I had fun cutting that out and making a swoopy hood. Then on Build Day 2 we primed, and painted, and lettered, and glittered.

I love the Shooting Star.

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This is Kerby Derby # 13, so obviously the theme had to be “Superstition.” We went through a bunch of good ones, broken mirrors and throwing salt over your shoulder and four leaf clovers and all the rest, before we landed on Wishing upon Stars, and such the like. Plus “Shooting Star” kind of implies speed, and also encouraged the heavy use of pinwheels and glitter.

While we were painting and priming, Julia asked me if there were any superstitions I totally followed. My answer was the same one I usually give when discussing something mystical: whether it works because it’s real, or works because you want it to work, don’t some of these things feel like they work? Actual studies, sciency ones, have shown that people who believe in good luck experience lucky things, and people who believe in bad luck experience unlucky things. Self fulfilling prophecy? I think so. And, as I believe I mentioned, I think if you want something badly enough to spend a precious shooting-star wish on it, or your annual birthday candle wish, or your lucky penny in a wishing fountain wish- well, those wishing opportunities don’t come along just every day of the week, and if you have your wish dialed in when you have the opportunity? I’d wager you know what you want, and you’re looking for ways to make it happen already.

Maybe you’re waiting for some divine intervention, or something to fall into place, or for the object of your wish to do something about it so you don’t have to. But luck, in addition to whatever else it may or may not be, is that moment when preparation meets opportunity. So, today, what the hell. We wished for it, we talked about it, we said it couldn’t be done, then we did it anyway. We’re racing in Kerby Derby.

I sewed some horseshoes on to the back pocket of my astronaut costume. Just to be safe. Oh, and for those keeping track, I caved and looked at my last exam score report within six hours. I passed.

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Speeding into the back six months of the year, 2014 may still have some surprises and lucky charms and wishes-coming-true in store after all. See y’all up on Deadman’s Curve.

Wish us luck.

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Gone Fishin’

I’m on vacation, y’all.

Not vacation from work. I’ll be at my desk 40 hours a week, pretty much the whole summer, and straight through till Christmas, and that’s fine. I don’t need a vacation from work.  I’m on vacation from studying, thinking about studying, complaining about studying, and sacrificing fun for studying.  I am vacation from sitting long hours indoors, eating food standing up at my kitchen counter so that I can get back to sitting down and staring at engineering texts, making flash cards, grinding my teeth, and neglecting chores. I am on vacations from the words HVAC, mechanical systems, plumbing, acoustics, lighting, sprinkler risers, and electrical transformers. I am glad all of those things exist, and that someone knows how to use them. I will never ever ever be thinking of any of those things again.

Unless I have to re-take the awful exam I took Thursday in six months. I studied for 90 hours, and I was as ready as I could possibly get myself, and it was a wretched experience. Thirty hours more or thirty hours less of studying would not have changed anything. Said wretched experience was made worse by the fact that Fletch had doggie digestion issues the night before my exam. We were up a dozen times in the yard between 10 p.m. and 5:45 a.m. Two thirds of those times he was just frolicking in the yard. On one colorful outing, I was still dazed from being woken out of a sound sleep, and he bolted for a roaming cat across the street. I stopped him, but it was an unpleasant full-body experience, and I towed him back to a quieter corner of the yard and let out some unladylike and unwholesome language.

“Katherine?” I heard from the porch next door, where my bartender neighbor had just gotten off work.  “What…are you DOING?

I did not have a good answer for that.

He’s fine now. We put ourselves back together after the exam and the sleepless night, but it took tequila, a four hour nap, and a good cry. And the next day I got my hair done for the first time in three months, and drank some more tequila over in Durham with my friends, and we went to see Chatham County Line over at Carolina Theater, and that was mighty fine. The next morning Julia and I got up and pulled a Thelma and Louise, and we went to DC for 18 hours to see the Old 97s.

I’d bought the Old 97’s tickets months ago, the day I scheduled this last exam, because I knew it would be wretched, and I knew it would take being shaken apart and put back together by raucous mischievous alt country rock and roll to start feeling better. Their latest album is perhaps the worst behaved album I’ve heard in a decade. And so I love it. Right now I have a punk attitude, and although I am not personally behaving all that badly in the big picture, it sort of makes me feel better to think that others are. Even if it’s a little bit made up. Julia is one of the few people in my world who shares my deep wellspring of love for the Old 97’s. She gets it. So we went.

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And so did these two. I can’t say Fletch was, like, easygoing about his first big city trip, as he finds everything SO EXCITING, but he got the hang of it. They had a fantastic time. The city dogs wore them out at the dog park, and then Julia and I went to dinner at hipster central, then hit the 9:30 Club.

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Wanna feel just a tiny bit cooler than you really are? Have tickets for a sold out show at the 9:30 Club. It’s pretty badass in there. It’s my new favorite. I want to re-do the Lincoln Theater now so it’s the 9:30 Club. It could totally be the 9:30 Club.

And then, you know, Old 97’s.

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See the backdrop? The flaming cactus that was lit to look like the end of the world all through the night? And there were guitar pinwheels and stage jumps and honky tonk songs and he did that falling-back thing he does when he really MEANS what he’s singing. Which he always does- they all do. They leave it all on the stage, every single time, and that’s worth a trip to DC any time.

It was over way too fast.

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We took the back roads home today and found some oddities. There was a “variety mart” behind this chainsaw art display. I looked at the serial-killer signs and the disturbing carved vultures taunting a giant wooden bear and told Julia that yes, I had traveled solo around the world, and am not scared of all that much, and I was still unwilling to get any farther away from the car than required to take this photo. I was definitely not calling the number on the handwritten sign on the roof to let the proprietor know we were there so he could come up from the basement and greet us. Other than that, it was just road snacks and girl talk and farm towns and a complete absence of studying.

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So, this photo here is what we’re doing now, and what we’ll be doing for the next month. Fletch told me he’s on board with the vacation plan. When we’re not at work, we’ll be on the porch drinking fizzy water with frozen strawberries I picked from my front yard, and I might learn a song or two on the guitar, and tidy up the house and do some reading. I’m trying to finish The Goldfinch, and I love it, but I’m too darn worried about that kid to get very far. I’m switching to beach reads for the summer. We’ll do a lot of dog park time, and I might try to get back to my Zombies, Run! app and pick up where I left off before this last test derailed me. I plan to accomplish very little in June, other than an increase in music attendance and leisurely walks to work and maybe a little attention to finally staking the tomato plants in the garden.

The National Council of Architecture Review Boards can send me all the testing score reports they want to, but they can’t make me look at them. Hell, I have to take three more exams before October and I can’t see how it makes a difference whether I passed or failed this last one until I’d have to start studying for the re-take in November, anyway. Doesn’t change anything for the next, oh, five months, and it’s not going to ruin my lovely test-free, study-free, boring-and-tedious-arcane-textbook-free June. People are placing bets on how long it will take me to cave in and check my scores. I’m thinking that long about September I might take a peek. Until then, I’ll crank up the music, open the windows, stretch out on the couch with Dawg, and read some fashion magazines before I hit the books again in July.

May your June be likewise pleasantly raucous, and restful, and full of exactly what you need.

 

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Lie on the Earth

So I, like, really needed a vacation.

And I got one. A short one, but that’s plenty, if it’s the right short one.

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I feel beaten up by this late-winter-into-early-spring, and it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I don’t have to be taking architecture exams. I put them aside for a few weeks, because now my goal is not to finish in five months, or even, particularly, to finish. My goal is to finish and not be a crazy person. That means changing my plan. I’m at peace with that.

I went to Merlefest a day early, a day before any of my friends could come, because…well, originally there were all sorts of logistical reasons involving work travel and borrowed cars, but then in the end, I just wanted to. I made it up to North Wilkesboro a full twenty-four hours before any music started.  I got out of the car and was literally and warmly embraced by the veterans who run the campground where we go every year. I wrangled the Taj MaTent into submission, and it was comical in a stiff breeze on a bluff, as it is not as small tent, the Taj. And then I curled up in a camp chair, had Cheez-Its for dinner, and read a book I’d been trying to pick up for weeks. See if that line about the whales and the monks doesn’t make you swoon.

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And it got dark and cold, but the campground was full of both veterans and early Merlefest campers, and I had solar twinkly lights on the tent, and suddenly it was morning. There were pancakes. There were long drives out in the country. There was some poking around North Wilkesboro, which is adorable and friendly. I bought a pound cake off the counter of the DMV. And then I climbed up into the bus, and the veterans drove me to Merlefest. And, by sheer force of preparation and to-do lists and determination, by the time I got there, I was already relaxed. It was a Type A Merlefest Miracle.

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I should mention here that the first Merlefest Miracle was that my friend Joy won VIP tickets, and she totally deserved that. And then she couldn’t go- and gave them to me. I gave the second one to Julia, who’d confessed to not having purchased a ticket yet. BOOM. Like that. VIPs. “You should know that I am going to use my VIP wristband to throw myself at a musician,” Julia texted me.  “I’m going to use mine to climb onstage and kiss Merle Haggard on the face and beg him to sing me Lonesome Fugitive,” I told her. And then I amended my statement to tell her that, in fact, I called dibs on a particular musician, kind of a great one who does one of the biggest Merlefest sets every year, who looks like he stepped off the cover of a seventies album, and I mean that in the best possible way.  “He’s yours,” said Julia. “And you get all the rest,” I told her. (We didn’t actually have backstage passes. Universe knew better than that, I suppose.)

We kid. Half the fun of Merlefest is lying in fields under sun hats listening to music and catching up with each other, the four of us who go every year, and creating backstories for the people onstage. “That one spends Sundays out on his Momma’s farm, and you know he’s the kind that would bring you daisies,” Julia would say. “His favorite dessert is cobbler.” “Then I will roast him a chicken,” I’d announce. “That man deserves a roasted chicken.” It’s a fun game. That, and trying to stage a surreptitious photo with the Kilted Juggler guy who always stands next to the most crowded stages and does devil sticks or weird yo-yo things on strings to attract attention.

It went by so, so fast. Four days of spring sunshine and friends, and music all day and campfires at night. You get up and have breakfast made by the veterans’ wives, and head on over to the festival and drink a lot of coffee with whipped cream on top, because it’s vacation. You set your chairs up and all your extra layers of clothing in front of the big Watson Stage, and spend some time lying on the grass in front of the Americana stage, and then wander up to the Hillside and see who’s up there, or over to Creekside and catch a smaller show. You head inside for the workshops, where somebody will teach you about blues guitar, or maybe for a sit-down set with someone like Peter Rowan, who has the best hair of the festival and is just plain likeable in every respect. He made us chant along with a Tibetan singer, and wow, that was pretty fun. Sometimes there’s an act you want to see after dark, when the temperature takes a sudden nose dive from sun hat weather to three-four layers weather, and you huddle up and watch, or maybe there’s something fun in the dance tent. Mostly, though, we clear out just after dinner time, since we’ve already been there eight or ten hours and there are s’mores and bourbon and gingers and guitars back at the campfire.

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We made a bunch of new friends, and we talked for days like we haven’t been able to since last year, and we’re still not quite caught up but we’re closer. We heard a lot of bands I love, and did a little Tennessee two-step, and then we collapsed in a heap on the grass by the dance tent. We were fifteen minutes from catching the bus when I looked up at the bench a few feet away from us, next to the dance tent, just off the path coming down from the Hillside Stage. A lanky, devastatingly handsome, affable-looking rock star was sauntering down the down the hill, where he sat for a few minutes on the bench taking in the music from the dance tent and enjoying the sunshine. Just after the most popular set at Merlefest. It was….Seventies Album Cover Man. I didn’t get backstage access, but then the Universe walked him down the hill and sat him down on a bench next to us anyway.

I briefly collapsed from sheer happiness and delight.

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And in the end, Julia and I used the VIP passes to get up close to Merle Haggard, where he did sing me Lonesome Fugitive, and then out of left field I cried, like a lot, when he did Pancho and Lefty, because if anything unravels me out of left field for no apparent reason, it’s going to be old-school honky tonk, and suddenly I feel like a small child again in the back seat of the car with Dad driving, and we’re all wailing, “ALL THE FEDERALES SAY, they could have had him any day. They only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose,” and that feels pretty great. And bittersweet. And great.

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It’s been a high maintenance stretch. I’ve been trying to “Embrace Vulnerability” while “Acting As If,” and “Being Kind to my Future Self” and “Letting Go of Perfectionism” while recovering from my first round of architecture exams, and also working on “Do Not Play It Cool” and whatever new mantra the Universe throws at me this week until I Get It. I haven’t been doing it all gracefully. It’s fine.

It’s more fine, now. There’s no other time of the year when I spend that many days that firmly planted on the earth. I sleep on the earth, I sit on the earth, I listen to music and drink coffees with whipped cream and talk to my friends on the earth, I lie on the earth next to festival stages and feel the sunshine and breeze and music wash over me. Everything that feels tense and toxic seeps down and away, and I stand up, and it’s gone. Everything I need to repair the cracks and gather my strength and recharge filters in, through the soles of my feet and every other inch of me.

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And it feels good. Good enough to get me through to next year.

 

 

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Wild Yonder

I just got back from camp. Oh, what a difference a day makes.

So my friend Meredith, and her two friends Heather and Kaitlyn, were talking awhile back about summer camp, and how great it was, and how someone should start one for adults. And, because they are the kind of people who make things happen, they did.

This, friends, is not just any camp. It’s not “glamping,” but it’s totally a camp with all the really good stuff you can get your hands on. Like, I stepped on the Bridge Bus, which made its first stop in Raleigh, and Kaitlyn introduced me around and I had a beer in my hand before I made it to my seat. A Cack-a-lacky from Fullsteam. “Hm,” I said. “This is better than the camp I remember.”

It was a good long ride out to camp, and we stopped and picked up people in Durham and Carrboro, and then we drove on to a farm out in Pittsboro. On the way, there was the traditional Assigning of the Nicknames. We had to go around and answer a series of questions, and the nickname was determined by consensus. The questions were, “What’s the oddest job you’ve ever had?” (Sears Tower Skydeck). “What’s your hidden talent?” (Honky Tonk.) “What’s the last vacation you took?” (Driving Route 66.) “What’s the worst trouble you’ve ever been in?” (I got pulled five times last year.) “What survival experience made you feel like a badass?” (Camping solo in a Maine Nor’Easter.)  I got done answering my questions and someone yelled out, “Miss Awesome!” and that made me feel like I fit in just fine at camp, although they circled around Honky Tonk and then landed on Nor’Easter. Which is a pretty great nickname.  Another guy got to the last question and said, and he was not even making it up, “Well, I was on the rescue team that helped bring the Apollo space mission home,” and the crowd got really quiet, and someone said, “Dude. You WON that question.”  So his name was Badass Apollo for the day.

Let’s see, after we arrived there was a nature walk.

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It was on edible landscaping, and most of the stuff you can eat is really good for you.  Violets are heart healers; elderberry is antiviral; you can make pesto out of chickweed (which is great because it’s all over my yard); rosemary is good for memory; and you can make a relaxing tea from lemon balm.

I learned some things. And then we went inside and drank more beer while we did arts and crafts. This is fun, Sean from Fullsteam is an Eagle Scout. He wore his Boy Scout shirt and brought his plaque. And his derby cars. That is the Real Deal.

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Arts and crafts was campfire sticks for later. Yeah. I put glitter on mine.

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Then there was a  pretty fascinating session down in the kitchen, where we learned to make salves/balms/lotions from natural things, and seriously, you never smelled anything so good. That is, until you walked outside after that and they were making popcorn over the fire.

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You could stand around eating popcorn with compound butter while you learned how to make infusions out of Covington vodka. And then we make cocktails. I TOLD YOU grown up camp is great.

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There was a little free time, and then we made hobo packets for dinner. That’s Meredith, tending the fire. There was sausage from Rose’s Meat Market, with sauces made by the guys from Pie Pushers and Mateo.

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Our campfire sticks looked pretty sweet, all in a row.

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And night fell, and the mist rose.

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And, yeah. That’s Django Haskins leading the campfire songs. I’ve been to some good campfire singalongs before, but when he opened with “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” I knew we were in for something special. And it was.

ImageI could go on: the homemade marshmallows and graham crackers and Videri chocolate for s’mores, and the sparklers, and how people passed around flasks of the good bourbon while we sang, and the nice things people said around the camp fire, and the frogs off in the distance, and how the crowd was just overall effortlessly amiable and interesting and welcoming. Happy campers, all.

I booked this camp day a few weeks ago, having no idea at the time how badly I’d need a day away from everything. I tend to do this thing were I say, “I should step out of my comfort zone! I’ll totally step out of my comfort zone and try something new!” and then I recruit eight or ten friends to do it with me, and it’s fun, but at no point does anyone have to step more than six inches out of their comfort zones when insulted with a crowd of friends eight or ten deep. I’m making a conscious effort these days not to do that every time. I adore my friends, each and every one of them, and I also know that, as someone who is inherently very very very very shy, at least when I’m out of my comfort zone, I need to show up sometimes under my own steam, without bubble wrap, and spend my new experience meeting new people and learning new things. It worked out great.

And so. Beautiful day in the woods, what with the nature and the fresh air and the good people and the amazing food and soul-stirring music and the arts and crafts and healing herbs and rising mist and all.

I can’t wait to do it again.

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You Can’t Win ‘Em All, Even With A Killer To-Do List

It’s a mixed report here.

There has been studying. There has been testing. There has been basketball. There has been success. There has been failure.

The very worst part of the Architectural Registration Exam process is that it has turned me from (somewhat) normal Katherine, back into Grad School Katherine. Those are two very different people. Most of us have a default stress personality which is a flip-side, alter-ego, evil twin. My evil twin is prone to dangerous to-do lists, excessive scheduling, and powering through. My evil twin is driven and perfectionistic and scares the hell out of me, and it took me at least a couple of years after graduation in 2009 to calm her the hell down. In fact, I got a “Happy Anniversary” from WordPress the other day, for when I signed up to start a blog in early 2011. That, a year and a half after graduation, was an attempt to a) see whether I liked writing enough to do it consistently (I do) and b) hold myself accountable for getting out, exploring joyful and creative and interesting things which were not achievement-oriented, and having some fun again (I did.) I felt sort of normal and human again, pretty quickly after that.

But now I’m testing, and I can tell it’s making me crazy because my to-do list on the computer has gone from the basic weekly tasks, to a three-page word document including a million incremental steps for each task, which is attempting to control every moment of my time for the next month. I made myself stop at a month. That is at least some sign of humanity. I can also tell it’s making me crazy because I was in my office a week before my last test, and my throat suddenly hurt, and then I realized for about ten seconds I was not able to take a deep breath, and realized that although I’ve never had a panic attack, this is 100% how they start. So I stopped thinking about how I was going to fit 6 more exams in before June, and I got a cup of coffee, and I took two days off from studying.

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