A Carolina Girl Reads the New York Times

Last week, during the really rotten second half of the Carolina game against Wisconsin, I was on Pinterest searching for something to take my mind off my basketball nerves. I wore my Carolina t-shirt and my awesomely fantastic NC necklace (found it at Dang! in Wilmington – cutest store ever) to celebrate our win in the ACC, but it never occurred to me that I I love all NCshould wash that shirt and wear it again to combat the bad juju during March Madness.

Wins and losses aside, Pinterest was a great source of distraction. I pin the usual stuff: kitchen designs, appetizer recipes, Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” memes, pictures of cats doing dumb things. But one of my favorite boards is called “Carolina in My Mind” and it’s where I deposit everything about my state that fascinates me. (And there’s a lot that fascinates me, trust.)

It turns out that I’m not the only one fascinated by all things North Carolina. The New York Times came for a visit to Raleigh recently, which they detailed in their “36 Hours” travel series. They pointed out the importance of recognizing the distinctions between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, which for so long have been the triumvirate of Piedmont North Carolina. This may be true for outsiders, who still fly in and out of RDU and whose only knowledge of this area comes from Dick Vitale’s Tobacco Road Showdown banter, but for the rest of us, the Triangle is a collective of those three cities, and so very much more.

The News & Observer, in a column they published not long after the Times piece, noted the many restaurants that reporter Ingrid Williams skipped over. Columnist Josh Shaffer grumbled that upscale sweet potato puffs took center stage over all-you-can-eat collard green and barbecue buffets. Of course, that’s all debatable – I prefer my barbecue sandwiches made to order, with hot hush puppies that didn’t come off a line. What I wonder, though, is how long it will take for the young entrepreneurs taking Raleigh by storm to notice the small towns – with more affordable neighborhoods, close proximity to downtown, less traffic, and yes, worse grocery stores – that surround them. Will the hipsters make small-town living cool? Or will they continue to gentrify rundown neighborhoods near Raleigh’s center?

The reason I ask, of course, is because I live in one of these small towns, just 30 minutes or so from most of the shopping and eating Williams did while she was here. I adore this place; I’ve lived other places and I came back for a reason. I brought my husband here, I work here, my family is here. I wouldn’t trade living in eastern North Carolina for all the money in the world. I am fiercely protective of it and my friends chide me about my clear distaste for Yankees. (Yes, I use that word. Regularly. To describe anyone whose license plate comes from north of Richmond, west of Memphis, or south of Jacksonville.) It’s hard to pinpoint my feelings on urban sprawl; on one hand, come on down and bring your money with you – we’ve got houses to sell and small businesses to support! But on the other hand, I like not having a Starbucks or Target in town. I love going to the Christmas parade and seeing my students on the floats. Will an influx of folks from out of town change that? Probably not. Will anyone move to Raleigh based on a 36-hour recommendation from the NYT? God, I hope not.

I adore North Carolina. I strut my accent when I travel and I can hear someone smile on the other end of a telephone call when they hear me say “thank you so much!” in my slight drawl. But I guess I’m a wary of our corner of the world getting a little larger every day. The secret charm of our state isn’t a secret anymore but y’all, look at poor South Carolina. They have to contend with reality shows airing Thomas Ravenel’s dirty laundry in Charleston and trailer park antics in Myrtle Beach. Georgia’s got it even worse: they have Honey Boo Boo.

We’re not that famous…yet.

But allergic to what, exactly?

It smells like an indoor pool in here. There are giant plumes of crackly steam blowing furiously in bursts, smelling faintly of menthol but more like chlorine and…salt, maybe. There’s a generic carton of table salt sitting on top of the television, so yeah, it’s salt. An orange light, shaped like an elevator up button, glows behind the steam. On the dresser there are two bottles with spouts; one large and yellow, and the other small and unassuming. There is box clutter lying about, some still with pink pills in them, others with giant green gel capsules. Kindle, laptop, cell phone, real phone, and magazines take the other half of the bed. The crackling steam gets louder and angrier.

Jay Pritchett tells me I must be muddling through allergy season. Jay Pritchett is right, that smug bastard.

I’ve spent $50 in three days trying to unclog my head, get my nose to run, loosen the pressure in my ears, ease my cough, relieve this headache, and to stop sounding like Big Ang. (I heard she has a throat tumor the size of a lemon.) Meanwhile, it’s obvious that Big Pharma has it out for me. They want to woo me with their alluring packaging, promising sleep (yeah, right), a clear head (whatever), and other things I can’t pronounce. But really, I’m just pumping myself full of generic Tylenol, which – LIVER WARNING LIKE WHOA – apparently isn’t good for me, and some stuff I didn’t have to show my license to get.

Hot and sour soup – our go-to remedy for every ailment – isn’t working. The only thing bringing relief is some disgusting mist I spray up my nose, and the crackling Vapo Steam. It’s old, probably a little lined in mildew, and definitely spewing some spores into the atmosphere. But damn, I can breathe.

Spring can go fuck itself.

For Toney

This morning I told my class the story of how I met Toney. I told them about the day he took a chance on me and hired me for my first job in education. I told them about how he motivated me, pushed me, cared for me, mentored me, befriended me and loved me.

And then I told them that he died this week.

For the first time – and hopefully the last – I cried in front of my students. I asked them to tell me what a mentor was. What perseverance meant. What it means to push themselves to learn. We came up with a word cloud and it made us happy.

Toney was the first person to ever tell me that he recognized something in me I didn’t know I had. He was tough, stubborn as shit and was harder on me – personally and professionally – than anyone I’ve ever known.

TBHe was born in 1960 in rural North Carolina to a very poor, uneducated family. He was the baby and knew he would have to fight harder than his siblings if he wanted a better life for himself. He could fail out of high school (and almost did) or he could graduate and go into the Air Force where he knew he’d be taken care of. He graduated from the Community College of the Air Force, then got a bachelor’s degree and retired at 40.

Education found him nearly the same way it found me. He was retired military but had administrative experience which put him at an advantage for jobs his peers wouldn’t qualify for. Like me, Toney needed a job and found one that just happened to be in adult education. He had a wife, a stepdaughter and a son on the way, so he went back to school on the weekends and earned a master’s degree. He moved further and further up the ladder until he was in higher education administration.

That’s when he met me.

I came to his office prepared to just introduce myself but instead he had an interview committee lined up, and there I was in casual clothes with my car keys in my hand. He asked me a dozen or so questions and then wanted to know why I was interested in working for him. I told him I wanted the job – which, truthfully, I knew nothing about and wasn’t remotely qualified for. Toney knew it and hired me anyway.

We worked together for 8 years. I got engaged, got married, bought a house and started a graduate degree. He got divorced, raised his son alone and kept moving up the administrative ladder. We had long talks over cigarettes, or in our offices, or over lunch. We listened to the O’Jays in his car on the way to conferences. We made jokes about how we must look at the lunch table: he, the short black man in a suit, and me, the young white girl with wide eyes.

In 2008 he was hired as vice president at a nearby college. We emailed and phoned each other, and saw one another every couple of months. He loved Brian – who loved him back – and was always so keenly interested in Brian’s career. Did he like his job? Were they nice to him? How was his MBA coming? What advice could he give Brian? Fourteen years apart in age, Toney and Brian grew up in the same corner of the state just miles away from each other. They knew the same people, the same chicken joints, the same terrain.

He called in December to tell me that he had cancer. He’d been through chemo and radiation, and the prognosis, he said, was good.

Over the past few days I have come to discover that he wasn’t telling the truth. His cancer was terminal and he spent most of December calling his friends to catch up, and making us promise not tell anyone he was sick.

When I heard the news of his death I collapsed in my office chair and sobbed. I left work early and crawled into my bed, where I cried myself to a fitful sleep.

Saturday morning we’ll travel to his hometown for the funeral. A local minister we’ve all known for years will preach the eulogy. While we’re there we’ll visit Brian’s father’s grave and those of his grandparents. And on Saturday, when it’s forecasted to be cloudy and cold, I will remember my friend, who gave so much light and warmth to my life.

The dog ate my homework

Over the past 6 months or so I’ve been wrestling with a few issues, not the least of which is what to do with my blog. Since I started writing this almost 6 (!) years ago, I have changed. The blogosphere has changed. My world has moved and shifted and this blog has been along for the entirety.

But now? Now I don’t know what to do. You, my dear faithful – and, it must be said, few – readers have helped me through so much over these years. You’ve guided me and comforted me during the first steps of my treatment for panic disorder. You read along and sent me messages of encouragement. You laughed when I was funny, you raised your eyebrows when I was snarky and you approved when I did something positive for my mental health.

Since last I wrote, I’ve experienced lots of disappointment – I wish so much I could write about it here but I can’t – and some joy as well. I’ve grieved for friends and celebrated love. I have also experienced new rounds of panic and anxiety. I know from where it stems, but I have yet to get a handle on it, despite a strict adherence to medication. My attempts at therapy have been unsuccessful.

In times such as these, I now turn to prayer. I have a somewhat shaky faith that I try to work on daily, but I struggle to remain focused. My mind still tumbles and spins, particularly at night when I’m alone with it.

Over the weekend I made the decision to write my final post and close shop on Half Baked for good. But today – right this minute – I am re-thinking that decision. In this new frontier of Pinterest and $1,000 cameras with lenses that take rocket surgeons to decipher, I rely on my only waning skill: writing.

I have no idea what 2013 will be. I hate resolutions and didn’t make any. I tried over the holiday break to start a massive organization effort in our house – with the assistance of Pinterest and 72,000 different DIY/style/design blogs – and so far it’s a really good feeling to purge our house of old shit. It’s like a big glass of ice water with mint and lemon and lime: super refreshing and head-clearing. 

There are goals I need to make for myself but I’m still too frightened – scratch that – PETRIFIED to face those fears. More about that at another time because the thought y’all, THE THOUGHT, makes me want a Xanax.

So there’s all that. In a nutshell, I’m writing this post as an update, a sort of “I’m alive and kicking but forgot to tell you that” kind of post. I don’t plan – at this particularly moment – to make it my last. I want to be funny again! I want to work out my anxiety right here again because it’s been so cathartic and energizing in the past. But I will wrestle with this decision until the next post.

The pressure to be a blogger comes from the nagging feeling that you haven’t done your homework. The due date was a week ago and you’ve got nothing and frankly, you’re not sure you’re gonna have anything at all – much less BETTER! – when the next due date passes, because inevitably it will. And then the weeks and months pass by but the nagging feeling remains. Do you devote your time to writing something you don’t feel good about? Or that is productive? Or do you give up the whole damn thing and call it what it is: a washed-up effort to work out personal demons in a public forum for all to witness.

Oh how I wish I had an answer to this. I wish YOU had an answer to this. I wish my skin hadn’t fused with the couch cushions such that I am more concerned with how many episodes of Episodes I missed. (I’m lying. That show is marginally terrible. I just watch to see how gray Matt LeBlanc is getting and then I switch back to dumb shit like Million Dollar Decorators. Or Wheel of Fortune. I’d be so fucking good at that show.)

Have a nice day, Internet. Drink your afternoon pick-me-up, enjoy your cucumber sandwich and your spinning class. When you fall asleep tonight, all satisfied with achieving your goals yet unsatisfied with your cucumber sandwich, think of ways I can breathe new life into blogging. Or how I can bow out gracefully and yet WITTY AS HELL.

That’s the kind of girl I am.

To be adored

I hear the buzz of the dryer in the other room, impatiently reminding me that THE CLOTHES ARE CLEAN, LAZY WOMAN for the 35th time. I reach around for the magazine postcard that inevitably lands somewhere around my pillow and save my place, for it won’t be long until I come back to finish reading the piece on John Faircloth. Vanity Fair’s style issue is overflowing with good articles this month. I read about Peter and Harry Brant, “dandy” sons of Stephanie Seymour – who liken themselves to the cast of Gossip Girl except far more glamorous – and stare at pictures of Kate Middleton or, as the über-fabulous Tom & Lorenzo call her, Cathy Cambridge.

All weekend long I was lost in Facebook messages and updates about a friend’s child, who died of a rare form of cancer, who “saw angels” and reached for them. That news has put me in a fog while I’ve folded laundry and made cookies and turned up my nose at dinner suggestions. I’ve kicked off and put on my J.Crew flip flops 40 times and absently tugged at my tank top. I haven’t showered. I don’t mind.

On Saturday I wore a summer skirt and went to the movies. I admired the fabric on my mother-in-law’s recovered sofa and gushed over her mercury glass lamps, which I am secretly hoping to get for my birthday. I’m doing all of these things just like a normal girl. Granted, my life will never fill the middle pages of Vanity Fair or Town & Country (but oh, can’t a girl dream?) and that’s all fine and well. Like normal girls, I share shoes with my mom, try 50 kinds of tinted moisturizer and share book lists with my friends.

Unlike normal girls though – God, I hope this isn’t normal – I am dying a little on the inside. Kristen says people have “residual issues,” and I’m one of those. Recently three people in my professional life questioned my abilities and belittled my entire career. Or that’s how I took it, at least. In my mind it was one solid hour of insults, though in reality I’m probably being too sensitive. It happened three weeks ago. I am still – dramatically – haunted by it. I ask everyone who knows me: do you think I am a leader? Do you think that I have no potential? The memory of that encounter is clouding everything I do.

I read a great article in the New York Times Magazine last week about – among other things – the gray area of personal essays. In this day and time, of course, it’s about the blog posts but aren’t we all – those of us that write blogs – personal essayists? We are, aren’t we? Sarah Hepola talks about that blurry line people are afraid to cross, about knowing when to draw back a little so as not to hurt family or endanger jobs or embarrass ourselves. I want so badly to name names and specifics and times and places when I write things, particularly when they are bad things. I want to point fingers at someone who wronged me and say It’s her! She did it and you should grab her so she can be vilified all over the Internet! I won’t, obviously. Because even this little snippet on this tiny blog in this far corner of the Internet could, and very well may, do me in.

The question of whether or not we are good enough is normal. We are all normal girls like that. We are normally supportive of each other in times of tragedy – as with my friend’s child, in times of triumph and in times of self doubt. I don’t think we can ever get enough reassurance though, that we are not inconsequential, no matter what other people say. We need to be validated and praised. What’s so wrong with telling someone that they are good at what they do? Shouldn’t we all be told that we’re appreciated?

Perhaps I’m just dreaming of a different world somewhere far away, where shopkeepers close for siesta and wine stays on the table until 11 p.m. In that world there is no political scorekeeper, no bully to steal both your lunch money AND your dignity. In that world my picture is in Vanity Fair next to Valentino’s and we both j’adore your bag, darling.