Some Fun Was Had

So I passed my seventh, and final, architecture exam.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I got the news. I stopped at Trader Joe’s at lunch that day and bought a bunch of champagne and frozen pizzas, and had people over that night and the celebration hasn’t slowed down since.

It was a long haul. Not just ten months of expensive, miserable exam hazing, but also four years of interning before that, which followed three and a half years of architecture school. I did a couple of stretches of that on crutches; I did a lot of that through the crippling recession; I did a lot of that wondering what the hell I was thinking. Eight years, y’all- sleepless nights and decades of student debt and a less-than-ideal path through the early stages of this career. I have an uneasy alliance with the business side of architecture, anyway, and that’s a lot of sacrifices for an uneasy alliance.  I’m still not sure what I want out of this whole field, but I’m very, very grateful to have a unique job in the industry, working with very nice people, which gives me a lot of options.

I was 16 hours from completing my required 5,600 hours of interning a few weeks ago when the National Council of Architecture Review Boards sent out a notice to the whole world, stating that they felt like they’d been making the path to licensure too arduous for interns. Woo! they typed. Good news! We’re going to drop 1,800 hours out of the requirement for the next group. And downshift to 6 exams instead of 7. I cried at my desk when I read that, and then I finished the last of my 5,600 hours, and took the last of my exams. NCARB now just wants 400 more dollars to transfer my intern credits to my state licensing board.

This is the first cork I popped the night I passed:


And I dedicated this F. O. cork to NCARB, and I drank a lot of champagne with my friends.

I’ve been trying to figure this whole year out, and I haven’t done it yet. I should have seen it coming back in January, when my favorite girls all got together in Durham to talk about our life lists and hopes and dreams and goals for the year. I cried because I had a lot of things I wanted to do, but I knew I had to start my exams. I said I’d do it, and a January tornado came out of nowhere, in the middle of our discussion, and we all ended up huddled in a bathtub ducking and covering. I’ve been slaying dragons ever since.

To hit the highlights, it wasn’t just the exams. I took the first one with a four-inch surgery scar on my shoulder, and it hurt. Before exam 2 my car died, and died for good. Tow truck #1.  I failed exam 3 and it derailed me, as I am not a person who generally fails things, but I learned. I grew. I cried some more.  Fletch bolted from me and attacked another dog, and it was traumatic but fortunately nobody was hurt. Trainer #2. Just before exam 4, my borrowed car died, and almost caught on fire, twice in weekend. $400. Tow trucks #2 and #3. Fletch bit my goddaughter,  which was a whole new level of trauma, but fortunately it was no worse. Trainer #3. Police record for the dog and ten days of quarantine, the week before exam 5. Hot water heater died the day before exam 5, $400. The HVAC died two weeks later, the day before exam 6, $4100. Borrowed car was declared unsafe to drive the week before exam 6. Tow truck #4, engine mounts and bushings and a whole bunch of other things I don’t understand, $1500. By exam 7, I was totally numb, but just for fun I gashed a tire this week in an incident of terrible driving, so the day after Trainer #4 came, I got tow truck #5, and because I have an all-wheel drive, 4 new tires at once, $750.  It seemed to spin out of control in those last few weeks of testing, like the closer I got to being free, the more flaming balls of fire were being lobbed at me from all directions, faster and faster. All of the expense, and tears, and frustration, and constant stress came at a time when I just needed to buckle down and quietly study so that I could finish my exams and THEN tackle all my problems and repairs and unruly dog issues. Life is not structured like that. You mostly don’t get to choose when your problems will show up, and make sure you have tidily cleared the decks of any other chores or unpleasantness so you can solve your issues cheerfully. The deluge comes when it comes. I’ll be patching up the damage from this year for a long time, but mostly it was just “things” that fell apart, and that’s okay. Expensive, nonetheless.

Right now, though, it’s four days until Christmas,  everything is running smoothly for the moment, and Dawg is asleep on the couch while I type in front of the Christmas tree. It’s cold and rainy outside but warm in my house, and there is nothing left to study. There is nothing that has to be wrapped, baked, or shipped; absolutely nothing which must be accomplished, other than a stack of Christmas movies which are not going to watch themselves. It’s only my second weekend of freedom, after a year of struggling under the weight of seven difficult exams, and the giddy feeling of being done is not even close to dissipating. There has been much carousing and cheers-ing and celebrating, and it’s not over yet, but for now, I’m enjoying the quietude, this Saturday before Christmas.

And I’m thinking about 2015, and all of the things I can do with an extra 15 or 20 hours a week, and damn, there are some fun things going on that list. 2014 came with a long list of disasters, and it’s left some scars, but it wasn’t all bad.

In January, there was an accidental bathtub party,


and in February, I took myself on a writer’s retreat and started a novel.


In March, I watched a lot of basketball and went to camp at Wild Yonder.


In April, I took a train to Merlefest, and Merle Haggard sang Lonesome Fugitive.


In May, I saw my secret boyfriend at the 9:30 Club.


In June, Julia and I raced a car in Kirby Derby. We weren’t fast- we were, in fact, barely moving- but we had more fun than anyone else out there.


In July, I went to a music festival in the middle of nowhere, and it was flawless.


In August, there was a big wedding in Detroit, and this ferris wheel made of baseballs.


In September, there was Hopscotch, and the IBMA, and Raleigh was bumpin’.


In October, I made it to the State Fair, and even though it was only a couple of hours, it felt like fall for a few minutes there.


In November, I took a surprise trip to watch my buddies run races, and we checked out some monuments, and I pretended to study.


And then I finished, finished exams for real, and in December, there was peace, love, and joy.


For the first time in a long time, I am breathing easy, and making plans, and taking time to sit still and remember all of the things which make me happy, and feeling grateful for all of the people who are still speaking to me after a year in which I have not been my best self for one single minute.  I am feeling, for real, like there are easier days ahead. I feel lighter. I feel free.


Fletch joins me in wishing each of you fine people your Merriest, Most Serene Christmas yet. I am not actually sure that Fletch has not eaten Santa Claus, because as I may have mentioned his adolescence has been challenging, but for now let’s just assume a sleigh filled with good things is headed our way.

Peace to all, and cheers to 2015.

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Hopscotch. Easy Does It.

I have some rules about Hopscotch.

  • I think you have to see at least one band you don’t think you’ll like, and be pleasantly surprised.
  • I think you have to see some bands that everyone is talking about, just because.
  • I think you have to support the local guys, because I’d put the Triangle up against any other region in the country when it comes to musical talent.
  • I think you have to see a couple of bands you know you’ll love.
  • I think you have to put yourself in the middle of at least one crowd into which you do not blend.
  • I think you have to be prepared for a little magic. You can’t, like, feel entitled to it. You just have to be open to the possibility that it’s out there.


My Hopscotch 2014 was exactly what I needed it to be. Instead of trying to see All of the Bands Everywhere, I took a more surgical approach. In years past, I’ve had the luxury of taking off work early for a couple of days, attending day parties and events, maintaining an aggressive agenda, and seeing upwards of 40 bands in 4 days. It’s always great fun.

This year, I had to go low key. On Hopscotch Monday, I was doing last-minute cramming for an exam for which I’d been studying for two months. On Hopscotch Tuesday, I took the wretched five-hour exam, number four of seven, went to work for two hours, and then went to a structures seminar that evening to kick off another round of studying.  I was so shattered that I crawled into bed at 8:30 pm with the dog and my Flight of the Conchords DVD. On Hopscotch Wednesday, I was still crying about exam four and dreading exam five, and regretting most of my life choices, and then went to another structures seminar that night. By Hopscotch Proper, which started for me on Thursday night, I was upright, but fragile.

Thursday night, though, was Toon and the Real Laww, a hip hop band from Durham. I hate hip hop, and my only goal was not to make any faces during the show, and give it a real listen.  I LOVED THOSE GUYS. They were smart, and real, and totally engaging, and at one point I’m standing in the crowd doing the thing where I’m bouncing one arm in the air and going, “woop woop!” I turned to Chad and Hope in a moment of self-awareness and said, “Um, I have never felt whiter,” and Chad said, “Just roll with it.”  I did.

Friday I spent a lovely afternoon at Deep South for the Hopescotch Band Together party, and a bunch of lovely people were there, and some of the bands were brand spankin’ new, and wow, we have a lot to look forward to from them. Friday night I was back at the plaza for St. Vincent and Spoon, where I caught up with some of my favorite Raleigh people. St. Vincent is one of those bands everyone is talking about, and oh! I get it. They’re talking about her because she’s nutty. Also obviously a badass guitar player, but I wasn’t sold. Spoon was a little sterile but they cranked it up towards the end, and ‘most everyone in Raleigh was on the plaza, so it was great fun.

Then I checked off “local bands” and “bands you know you’ll love” with Cousins and Six String Drag at Kings. I climbed up to a window seat, where you can lean back and crowd watch and take it all in, and I was not disappointed.

Saturday I slept late, and drank a lot of coffee, and went to the Girls Rock party where my friend Meredith was serving excellent Bloody Marys with the Wild Yonder team. I stood in the shade and let the music wash over me, and it felt good. I had plans for an astoundingly low-key evening of sitting in one place, but I got waylaid and ended up listening to a good bit of Mastadon first. I’m not what you’d call a “metal” kinda girl, nor did I especially blend into the crowd of metal fans, but it’s Hopscotch. Doesn’t matter. Everyone is welcome everywhere.  (Except you, Sun Kill Moon. Don’t bother setting foot back in Raleigh again. Name calling is inexcusable. If you’ve been playing for 25 years and can’t handle drunk people talking in a bar on Saturday night, you should stick to the studio.)

I detoured for about four minutes of screamo punk music before sitting down at Fletcher for three sets. I climbed way up high, where I could sit still, put myself back together, and take it all in. The first set was strange but compelling, the second set was decidedly not my thing, and the third set was my Hopscotch Magic.

Phosphorescent took the stage, and it was just him and a guitar and a keyboard and a lot of pedals. It was slow and a little bit raw and wholly beautiful. He got to “Wolves,“and it was just him and a plaintive guitar. It was mesmerizing from the beginning, but when he got towards the end, he worked some wizardry with the pedals, and the plaintive guitar started on an endless loop, though he wasn’t playing anymore. Every time the loop repeated, he sang another layer into the microphone, and it was added to the last, and it built until there was a whole chorus of voices on stage, haunting and beautiful. I can’t even explain it, not that it matters; it’s just that, sitting there quietly in the dark, way up high above the stage and the rest of the audience, I could feel the music working its way into all the places where I felt shattered, and I felt more whole when I left than when I went in.  Phosphorescent wasn’t the only one who made me feel that way, but it was the purest musical moment I experienced this weekend, and I am sincerely grateful for that.

I have one last Hopscotch rule, and it’s about trying to hang onto the magic just a little bit longer: I try to leave on a high note, when I am close to being overwhelmed by something beautiful, even if it’s still happening. In this case, he did Song for Zula, just him and the guitar,


and I left him playing and slipped out into the September night.


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Detroit Hustles Harder

We took a road trip to Detroit.

I didn’t know how badly I needed a road trip. I wasn’t even sure I had the resources to survive a road trip. I’ve been running on empty for a while now, and it’s been showing in my snarky attitude, my tooth-grinding, and my general malaise. But now? I feel better.

JJ and Julia and I were the first wave of road trippers. (Well, second wave, counting the bride and groom who led the charge a few days earlier.) We pulled out of Raleigh after work, hoping to get a few hours up the road by nightfall. We landed at a log cabin restaurant in the middle of northern nowhere, Virginia. It was a labyrinth inside and kind of dark and spooky. We had some road beers and shared everything on the menu and declared it a success.


Day 2 was all classic car trip. We had some gas station snacks, and drove through some mountains, played some car games, and saw some scenery. And y’all, ‘Merica really is beautiful.


Our spirits flagged for a few minutes in the middle, but JJ found some old CDs in the console labeled only by Sharpie numbers. “I totally made those,” I said. “Like, a couple of years ago for a party. Let’s see what’s on them.” Turns out, I’m really good at road trip CD’s. We had an epic singalong. Here we are for Bohemian Rhaphsody. I am sparing you the video version. You’re welcome.


We were unilateral in our decision to detour an hour or two so we could stick our feet in a Great Lake. We found one. We took some selfies, and got back in the car wet, and we hit Detroit in the late summer evening.


Our group expanded. JJ’s lovely wife PPJ arrived from her work conference by air; the next day, we cruised through downtown to a Tigers game. Bride, groom, friends, and family were already there. I bought an expensive beer from the first guy I saw, because he was conducting all of his transactions as Detroit blues songs. “A shandy for the eye candy…” he sang to me. I tipped him big. And then I drank a beer in the summer sun and hoped for a grand slam on the field.

I love all baseball stadiums, everywhere, but this one was even better than usual because it had a gorgeous skyline and a crowd of people I love. Also a carousel made entirely of tigers.


I hiked around the stadium, and was determined not to settle for the wrong t-shirt, so it became an epic baseball shirt quest. Once you’ve made something like that into a metaphor about all of your life choices, you can’t back down. In the end, it cost me a few innings, but I got what I wanted.


And then we drank Motor City Ghetto Blaster beers and rode a ferris wheel made of baseballs.

At this point, I already loved Detroit.


It kept getting better. We left the stadium for a walking tour, and found the best ever vintage store in a neighborhood called Corktown. I bought a 70’s macramé poncho, which is as amazing as it sounds. Better still, it was COLD up there, and I actually needed that poncho as soon as I bought it.

Veronica and Jason got to town just in time for our first course, which was tater tot nachos and poutine fries, which we ate in a beer garden next to an abandoned train station. It was a whole big mess of happiness.


Then it was swank cocktails at a fancy bourbon bar, and Italian dinner & back to our sweet house with ducks in the back yard in a neighborhood that’s seen better days, but is on its way back.


The next day was a whirlwind of sightseeing and pre-wedding activity. We made a beeline for the Art Institute, which is a treasure, and the Diego Rivera frescoes are mesmerizing. We were all bordering on hangry, and also bordering on late, by midday, but we bought hats and earrings from an African market and made straight for Polish Village.

The neighborhood of Hamtramck, the bride’s father told me later, used to be the third largest concentration of Polish people in the world. As in, Warsaw, Chicago, Hamtramck. We ducked down the stairs of this unassuming spot,


And found every single person in Detroit, already seated and eating.

We lined up at the bar and ordered All of the Food. You never saw so many pirogues. There were potato pancakes, and kielbasa, and all kinds of other stuff. And Polish beer. “Pint or boomba?” our sever asked. “Boomba,” I said, because when someone asks you a question like that, you always go “boomba.” I had no idea what that meant, but as it turns out, it’s a goldfish-bowl sized beer.


We had a huge time, and then the bridesmaids peeled off and the wedding fun began. Whole other story.


And so: I did not know that I would love Detroit. If anything, it’s in much worse shape than I understood. I was prepared for boarded-up houses; I was not prepared for boarded-up neighborhoods. I expected blight; I did not expect huge public buildings to be crumbling in view of the interstate. We drove through miles of empty streets, and parts of the city felt like a ghost town.


And yet: every single person we met in Detroit was lovely, from shopkeepers to wait staff to the guy who sang me my beer at the baseball game. People on the street are friendly, and fun, and glad to be here. There are layers upon layers of history, and it shows in the architecture. There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of possibility.

Detroit’s been hit hard by changes, mostly beyond its control. The recession, sure, and the collapse of the auto industry for a while there, but also just changes in the fabric of America, and large-scale shifts in how and where things get made.


There are huge gaps to be filled in, but there are also pockets of revitalization and entrepreneurship and energy happening all over the place. It’ll take time for these nodes to grow, connect, and heal the empty urban spaces of the city- but my crowd of Southern friends all left rooting hard for Detroit.


Veronica and Jason saw a t-shirt that I’d have bought, if I hadn’t spent all my money on the metaphoric Tigers shirt. It says, “Detroit Hustles Harder.” What do YOU do, when the chips are down and you’re a long way from what you want, and the only way out is through? Hustle harder, people. That’s what we do. It’s my new mantra.

I left for Detroit on empty. A few days of road tripping, car singing, good food, bad jokes, traipsing around the beautiful and gritty streets, and spending time with people I really love-

and I’m full again, for now.

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With This Ring

I’m not telling the story of one of the sweetest weddings I’ve ever attended, because of course it’s the sweet couple’s story to tell. But I will tell you that it was all beautiful, and elegant, and touching, and real. And after the photos and the cocktail hour, when we all sat down to dinner, the bride and groom were introduced to cheers and a lot of love. They held hands, came in smiling, and kicked off the reception by cutting the cake. BAM! That’s the way you start a party. I would have expected no less of these two. Then there were toasts and stories and some throwdowns on the dance floor, and a lot of laughter.

The last song of the night, of course Journey singing “Just a city girl, born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT,” brought the house down. Everybody made a big circle on the dance floor, and the bride and groom did a running high-five with everybody there.

These two. I love these two. I have known these two since way before they knew each other. I knew these two separately, way before I knew they knew each other. Certainly way before they knew we all knew they, like, LIKED each other. I loved them separately, and I love them together even more.

It is a really special thing, y’all, to be asked to stand up next to someone when they make the vows that will bind them together for a lifetime, and don’t think I don’t know it. So we all stood in our fancy dresses in the Michigan late summer evening, and we promised to be a part of their support group from here ever after. (I already was, but now it’s in front of God and everybody.) And then the groom kissed the bride, and their families and friends danced late into the night. They’re off on their honeymoon now, starting the first chapter of happily ever after.


These two? These two will be. Cheers to new beginnings for the people we love.

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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.


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


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:


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.)


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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:


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.


(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.


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.


“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.


“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.


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.


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.



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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