Notes-ish: Knoxville, Tennessee and Dollywood

I didn’t realize I had any expectations for Knoxville until I got there and realized it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Knoxville is spread out but small. One-note but diverse. Naturally beautiful but mechanically ugly.

Our second show on the road was at a small pizza shop in a strip mall just outside Knoxville. Great food, fun people, etc.

The next day, a friend recommended Lunch House for breakfast.

Lunch House is cash only and still has signs up stating that shoes and shirts are required for an exchange of food and money. This implies that enough barefooted and/or shirtless people show up frequently enough to warrant a sign about the whole awkward thing.

Roller-rink-yellow and liquid-ketchup-red walls and tables loudly accent humble art of idyllic country settings in Salvation Army frames. The food was outstanding, with not one but two biscuits and gravy served as a side to my ham and cheese omelet.

In the Midwest that biscuits with the business would have been its own stupid $7 meal. So obviously the south has its upsides.

After breakfast we drove about an hour to Pigeon Forge. This drive allowed for ample viewing of the mountains and the foliage hanging peacefully between life and death.

The billboards about heaven and hell and eternal damnation sprinkled in between took the life and death contemplation from thoughtful reverie to disconcerting reality.

But alas, when one is in creationist country one must chalk all that talk up to local culture if one is not to get increasingly annoyed by its unfortunate timing and mountain-view ruining. I think they’ve just got their guns out hard—literally and figuratively—because it’s election season.

There was certainly a tension in the air, which may have been in my head because the closest I get to believing in a sacred heart is when I feel my own liberal bleeding one.

Regardless, I physically tightened everytime I saw the name TRUMP, because it wasn’t just a a sign or two cutely placed in someone’s front yard. It was, like, a giant handmade road sign the size of a tent. Shirts “playfully” threatening violence against our other potential future president for sale underneath (shirts shipped from China I’m sure).

Those sublime mountains can start to feel domineering and claustrophobic after a while if you don’t feel totally comfortable below, trapped in a red state that has no foreseeable future of turning blue unless you choke it.

Traveling during the 2016 election, I guess much like the 2016 election, has a very unique set of pain points.


We are heading to Pigeon Forge to see the Queen. Not Mother Mary or Beyonce but close. The one and only Ms. Dolly Parton.

And we did see her. Literally everywhere. Even the gas station miles away had a framed photo of her from her spiky hair years (inspired by Cher I’m guessing) near its cash register.

The town in which Dollywood is located is everything you think it is and it is perfect. Cartoonish in its colors and outrageousness, it features not one but two Christmas supply stores—nay, warehouses—as well as a car lot called Big Boys Toys, a restaurant called Rebel Dish, and an As Seen on TV outlet.

My favorite retail option was a massive building called Sexy Stuf. So sexy they’ve already slipped out of the extra f for you. Its giant sign included an illustration of Cupid in a big heart. From the outside, Sexy Stuf was a cheesy light-hearted display of sexuality that seemed to avoid fully addressing the mystery and complexity of it. A nod to the fact that it happens but we don’t really need to talk about it, y’all. Which reminded me, fittingly, of what makes Dolly Parton so appealing to me and a larger portion of the American population.

Also, I’m really regretting not hitting up the As Seen on TV store. Could have really used a Wonder Wallet and Woof Washer.

Lunch House. If you go and the front’s packed, don’t worry. There’s more room in the back.
The Lunch House.
Yes, please.
All you need.
‘Till next time.
Required listening for driving into the Dollywood parking lot before you catch a trolley to the entrance.
omgomgomg. Not pictured: My dumb smiling face.
Was referencing “bust” at a theme park for Dolly Parton, who has one of the most famous bust lines north AND south of the Mason Dixon line, part of the joke or an innocent happenstance? This happened a lot to me here. I couldn’t tell if I should be laughing or not.
As expected, Dolly’s image was everywhere here. It’s so fun. Right beside this theater front is Dolly’s tour bus that you can go into.
The wannabe designer in me had to show you these color combinations. So many pinks and purples! Color crush for real.

You guys. This was the video that played before a really cool live show about rare and majestic birds. This video could very well be a spoof of American values from SNL. I have counted zero people of color in the whole thing and I love that it’s about the freedom of the birds… birds that we could then go gawk at in their tiny cages afterward. The strangest part about the experience of watching this in public was that no else thought it was remotely cheesy enough to clap for our sort of laugh about afterward. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in the Midwest anymore. This was normal viewing down here. It was so surreal. America deserves some new propaganda.

Dolly’s body and hair are Pamela Anderson-esque in their fakeness and potential for body issue/ beauty standards conversations. I usually scoff at this obscene level of beauty manipulation, but on Dolly it’s charming. Girl wears her male gaze so well! Maybe because it seems so clearly to be her decision and joy to look that way and be an object of obsession. She doesn’t come off as desperate. Ever. Maybe that’s because that body type seems kind of old school? It’s a little ridiculous now, categorized as a 10 out of 10 with Doctor’s Help edition. It’s not just part of the show, it’s the show itself. That body is just a branding tool. An identification marker. Which doesn’t make it seem dangerous, either to the most sex-shaming conservative nor the most sexy-shaming progressive. Or maybe it’s not a big deal to me because she’s older. She’s sweet and cute and safe and not one more thing my own body has to live up to. Her shape is so unattainable, it’s OK to not attain it. I don’t know. I haven’t figured this one out yet.
If you go to Dollywood, you would be a fool out $65 if you did not go see the Dolly museum. It’s a veritable shrine to Ms. Parton.
See? Shrine of stuff.
My love for Dolly is about much more than her music or upbeat attitude. It’s personal. I too was born countryside with a strong case of wanderlust. I think anyone born different in a place where survival matters most can identify with her journey.
Dolly’s super quippy. There’s so much wit on her she’s constantly dusting her shoulders off. She’s smart but she uses that Southern humility trick to get you underestimating her at first. Busty waters run deep. But she’s also full of shit sometimes, which I love. Maybe she doesn’t know she’s full of it, but anytime you speak in Pinterest quotes for a living you’re kind of full of it right? Dolly seems mostly genuine though and that’s what makes her so appealing. She’s Christian but loves the gay community that loves her right back. She’s country mouse who can hang with city mouse without seeming like she does’t respect herself. She works her tail off but knows how to have fun too. She talks in bullshit but also with brilliant and comforting insight. She’s special.



It was interesting how masculinity was addressed in such a feminized theme park. One of the roller coaster rides we went on was all about being a volunteer fire fighter and how being a fire fighter was such an honor. No doubt, but it was an odd choice for a roller coaster ride theme… unless you consider that that’s a huge value down here–committing yourself toward your community’s idea of the greater good and being an unquestioned hero for it. Also, it was cool to see giant manly men in Dollywood shirts with butterflies.
It’s fun to get little peeks into the movie industry. The writer in me liked seeing the old scripts for movies she’s been in.
As much as I adored this experience of Dollywood and will go back the next time I’m in the south, it’s so funny to have been to a whole amusement park based on a real person–a person who is still alive no less. I don’t know… do you think that could happen today? Could there be a Kanye park? It just seems so unnecessary and dated now. Because we can just Google all this. And, beyond celebrity, we all have our own mini shrines to ourselves on Facebook or social media now. Fame is not what it used to be, which is part of why this museum is so fascinating. Seeing old TV clips of her performing and photos of her with every celebrity from the sixties, seventies, and eighties seems like such a piece of American history. A type of history that will never happen again. Fame is fractured now and all of us get a tiny piece of it. Before, people like Dolly were how you consumed it. The fourth wall for fame hadn’t been shattered yet. The public looked on, didn’t participate. Dolly was grandfathered into this level of velvet painting stardom. That social underpinning alone makes this amusement park worth seeing.
Bottom line though. Dolly seems cool as fuck. True to herself. Open-minded and kind… That’s all this country girl wants too.

Interview: 10 questions for entrepreneur Michele Mehl



Michele Mehl is “by no means a fitness guru.”

“I’m more of a weekend warrior,” says the Seattle-based entrepreneur, “who wants to cycle, snowmobile, ride mountain bikes, and hit the trails with my family.”

An active lifestyle has always been in Mehl’s wheelhouse—she was even a two-sport Division 1 athlete in college.

But as her busy life as a mom and business owner (and eventually a broken leg!) began to impede on her time to workout, Mehl and business partner Mike Rector began to design something that could make working out from home more accessible.

The result was Excy, short for Exercise Cycling.

Excy is a total body-cross training system in the form of an exercise cycle. It comes in at 10 pounds dripping wet and is compact, so it’s easy to carry around if needed.

The Excy combines cardio fitness, strength training (up to 30 pounds of resistance!) and interactive mobile health technology. Users can log into the website to watch online video workouts, from beginner on up.

In this interview Michele talks about how her design helps people get those healthy choices in, whether they’re looking for something average or athletic. She’s got some great advice for burgeoning, already-busy business owners, too.


Why start Excy?

The statistics are staggering for how few people get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week (only 20 percent of Americans), even though research shows that small amounts of physical activity trigger dozens of beneficial changes in the body. We crafted Excy to make quality exercise more convenient, fun, and social anywhere and at any time to generate healthier outcomes worldwide and eliminate the obstacles of time and space. For me, this Excy journey is all about believing that quality exercise is medicine for a higher quality of life and to help reduce the risk of injury and preventable diseases.

How would you describe Excy’s approach to health?

It really comes down to giving people more freedom to balance being healthy and busy by connecting quality cardio and strength training to everyday life at home, work, or on the go. Excy weighs just 10 pounds, but folds for easy transport and storage. Our patent-pending approach offers over 100 different workouts with zero to 30 pounds of resistance and easily adapts to users of all levels, making it the perfect tool for physical therapy, home fitness, burning calories, and group training.

Tell me about being a working mother with a broken leg! You sound like wonder woman. 

Ha! Not wonder woman, just surrounded by amazing friends and family. As painful and inconvenient as the injury was for me, I think it was even worse for my family and friends who volunteered to do a lot of stepping and fetching while I was laid up on the couch. I’m very independent, so it was hard to rely on people so much, but I also realized that the people who love me the most didn’t mind at all. I did learn something about myself as a mom during this period of time: I was helping my son too much in his everyday life. Picking up his toys, throwing away wrappers left behind, clearing dishes that didn’t get put away, etc. I couldn’t do any of those things with a broken leg and in fact, my son had to help me quite a bit. I hold him to much higher standards now for picking up after himself and having household chores.

What do you hope your customers get out of using Excy?

The ability to integrate exercise into their everyday life. Our hope is that one parent using Excy in the home cascades to the rest of the family realizing the importance of exercise for a higher quality of life and to prevent disease. We want the whole family using Excy.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced when starting Excy and how did you overcome it?

I co-founded and started my first company, the Seattle public relations firm Buzz Builders, when I was pregnant with my son who is now 11. He came into the world with a mom who worked full-time. I often carried a certain level of guilt for having him spend his days with a nanny and, then later, in daycare. So, when I decided to start Excy and transition from servicing startups to running one, I was 110 percent committed to getting my son’s permission and letting him have a say this time. I sat him down for a good talk that included a list of challenges that I would face that would impact him. That included missing sporting events, traveling more frequently, working more hours, working on vacation and being distracted.

But we also talked about other items specific to me that might impact him: People might say mean things about his mom that he’d have to brush off (i.e. not in shape enough, too skinny, too old, selfish to do something that takes me away from our family, etc.). I didn’t know this at the time, but getting the permission and complete buy-in from Jack (and my husband) has ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made to date in bringing Excy to market. Not only have all the warnings become a reality that he was prepared for, but it also gave him a sense of ownership of being part of the journey.

Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs/ small business owners?

If an idea is keeping you awake at night and you can’t let it go in an almost obsessive way, go for it and don’t be afraid to push yourself outside your comfort zone.

How do you balance working out and maintaining a healthy lifestyle with being a business owner, partner and mother?

Staying healthy and balancing a heavy load is not easy to do. Between work, commuting, family commitments and trying to have a social life, I am often hard-pressed for time. When life gets chaotic, the last thing I want to do is spend hours working out, so that’s why I focus on high intensity interval training and short intense bursts or mini workouts. I use our mobile coaching application to do 30-45 seconds of all-out bursts on Excy, where I go as hard as I can, followed by 30-second brief recoveries. These short workouts are highly effective and allow me to quickly get back to being mom/business owner/wife/friend. I personally want to spend as little time working out as possible, so I focus on making my workouts highly efficient and effective. I see these mini workouts as a time saver and time is everything when trying to balance it all.

What has been inspiring you lately?

When we started this Excy journey, we knew in our hearts we could make exercise more accessible to help people who face unique challenges with getting exercise, but the thought never crossed my mind that the size, durability, and versatility of Excy would have so many applications for such a wide variety of people. The journey began because I never felt like there was time to workout and I wanted a better solution to get more active. In my mind, Excy was awesome. I lost almost 20 pounds in the first three months and felt more in charge of my genetic pathway that includes heart disease. We knew Excy could make a big difference in people’s health and I was excited.

Then, I broke my leg and was exposed to months of living with pain and the dreadful process of going through physical therapy. My eyes were open to the possibilities of how Excy could help with rehab, assist in increasing range of motion, and help people stay active with injuries, disabilities, and disease. It’s these scenarios that inspire me the most on a daily basis.

I’m very independent, so it was hard to rely on people so much, but I also realized that the people who love me the most didn’t mind at all.

Why is taking care of your body important to you? What motivates you to work out?

The health benefits of exercising goes on and on, from more energy, to a better night’s sleep, to being more productive, to a healthier lifestyle, and to fight preventable disease. I exercise for those reasons, but also because I think it makes me a better mom and I want to be one feisty, active person my whole life.

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

Margaret Thatcher—amazing leader, tremendous grit, and it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on women in business and technology today. Thomas Jefferson—we always hear that our founding fathers would turn over in their grave if they experienced today’s modern political culture. Imagine being able to get his perspective and advice. Jesus—because he’s Jesus. Then, I’d bring my son to tag along so he could hear the conversation.

Notes-ish: Louisville, Kentucky

The worst part about traveling for an extended period of time — at least in terms of physical discomfort — is not not getting to sleep in your own bed. Anything is a bed if you’re tired enough.

It’s not eating fast food 24/7. You can life hack your way to some fresh veggies from Subway and sprinkle some extra onions on your Wendy’s chili.

No, the worst part is the shower.

Every shower is different. Think of your own shower and imagine trying to tell someone how to turn it on. Here’s how my written note to a guest would go:

“OK, so the tub is really long so that’s why there are two shower curtains here. You could just open them from the middle where the shower curtains meet, but it’s better to open the curtain from the end closest to the water knobs. Because from that angle you can reach the water knobs in a way where you won’t get shot with water when you turn the shower on. OK, then, start with the hot water knob. It’s the one on the left. Turn it just a centimeter. The water pressure is low but that’s good because it’ll be crazy, like burn your arm, hot in about five seconds, which is why you need to then quickly go to the cold water knob, the knob on the right. Turn it hard and fast to the left but not all the way to the left or there’s no turning back. Why not turn on the cold water first? Well then the hot water never seems to have a chance to catch up and you’re screwed taking a cold shower. Again, no turning back. If you want to adjust the water pressure during the shower do not touch the hot water knob. I repeat, DO NOT TOUCH THE HOT WATER KNOB. Just kind of jiggle the cold water knob a little and you’ll get there. OK, so when you’re done, just turn them both to the right again and then take the dry washcloth on the sink and use it to turn them even harder to the right so they turn completely off… ENJOY! THANKS FOR STAYING!”


How many times have you prayed that you don’t have to ask the home owner to turn on your shower for you like a big baby?

Further adding to the awkward panic is the fact that you’re also naked at this point. You hadn’t thought about how you would turn on the water, just that you needed to get under its running stream.

Luckily my Airbnb shower in Louisville, our first stop on a 3-state Lo-Class tour, was one of those ones that required just a turn of the knob and an adjustment or two for perfectly kosher water temps.

But if my time in Louisville was any indication (and maybe it wasn’t; I was only there for a night) it wouldn’t have been a problem if the shower was temperamental. Because everyone was so nice.

They’d probably help no matter what. Even if you were half naked in their strange home sheepishly nodding toward the shower like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Gallery K & Coffeehouse
Gallery K & Coffeehouse in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood.
My coffeehouse work companion.
My coffeehouse work companion.
Gallery K's DJ delivering the hits.
Gallery K’s DJ delivering nothing but the hits… and hits of nostalgia.
Cool art and couch.
Cool art. Cool couch. Hot coffee.
I liked the back of the sign better than the front.
I liked the back of the sign better than the front.
My heart may still be in Old Louisville.
My heart may still be in Old Louisville.
They're serious about their nostalgia here. The first show on the tour was at this awesome little '80-themed sandwich place called Slice. Lots of reading materials for visitors, like the VHS jacket for Valley Girls that beckoned proudly, "Introducing Nicolas Cage."
They’re serious about their nostalgia here. The first show on the tour was at this awesome little ’80-themed sandwich place called Slice. Lots of reading materials for visitors, like the VHS jacket for Valley Girl that beckoned shamelessly, “Introducing Nicolas Cage.”
The Eggy Pop. (Did I mention it's '80s themed.) Deviled egg salad, tomato and spring greens.
The Eggy Pop. (Did I mention it’s ’80s themed.) Deviled egg salad, tomato and spring greens on wheatberry.
Hey, boys.
Heeeeeey, boys.
Gotta put this on my "to Google search" list.
Gotta put this on my “to Google search” list.
Are we not men?!
Are we not men?!
My girl made the cut.
My girl made the cut.
"My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met." That's all for now, folks.
“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.”
That’s all for now, folks.

Announcement-ish: Lo-Class, Mildly Depressed, and A Feminist And A Comedian Walk Into A Bar

I told you big news was coming!

Drumroll please.

Today, 10/10 (yes that was on purpose), marks the launch of three super exciting things I’ve been working on all summer:

1) lo-class

This is a new multimedia production studio that makes entertainment for those who are not trashy, just not classy. Check out the website to read about who we are, what we create and why.

We’ve got a lo-class tour through the southern U.S. coming up this week and next too, with a pit stop in Dollywood. I’m sure I’ll be telling you all about going to the plastic land of a good-hearted queen on, so stay tuned.

Also, we have sweet patches of our cool ass logo we’ll be selling!


Patch on point.

2) Mildly Depressed

I’ve also been making art pieces and writing essays for my new year-long project, Mildly Depressed. It’s writing to reconcile the beauty with the bullshit—with newness coming at you every Wednesday.

Mildly Depressed features a bi-weekly podcast and embroidered photos like this one. Each image is from the New York Public Library’s Digital Library. I embroider them based on an essay topic, which is themed around being mostly happy, mildly depressed. 


There’s also a bi-weekly podcast the delves into one subject of the overflowing self-help cannon per episode.


3) A Feminist And A Comedian Walk Into A Bar

Chicago comedian Justin Golak and I belly up to two hot mics for some admittedly biased hot takes as well as some actual thoughtful discussion. We talk about the big news or pop cultural items of the day. The format goes like this: We pick three topics to discuss on each episode. And then we discuss them.

You can find our first three episodes here and be sure to subscribe on iTunes! New episodes every Monday!


And, as always, you can subscribe to my newsletter/RSS feed on this site, but a new Facebook page for my writing now exists, too.

Go like it now before you forget. You’ll get regular updates of new writing on all these exciting new projects.

OK. That’s all for now. Talk soon!

Essay-ish: I want Hillary to talk about Bill

This blog post was originally titled “Hillary is not her husband.”

It was going to be an explanation of the outrage I feel when women defend voting for Donald Trump by bringing up his opponent’s husband as an excuse for his own actions.

But as I was writing that piece, it became more and more clear that there was indeed something about Hillary that I still need and want to hear. Not necessarily as a voter, but as a woman.

To be clear, and just to get this out of the way, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Trump was never an option for me.

So, Trump was caught red-handed being pro pussy-grab by  Access Hollywood—not the hero we wanted, but the hero we deserved.

And since then the Republican party has been more eager than ever to distance itself from their candidate. This is good news but it’s also frustrating.

It feels more than a little demeaning that protecting women from sexual assault and condemning misogynistic language is the last straw for the party and not the incredibly racist and classist language he has used before in rallies they helped support.

If the Republican party really cared about me, they would let me choose what I do with my  own body.

But it is encouraging if but a drop in a large bucket they need to fill.

I’ve been alarmed but not surprised to see how much Hillary has been drug through the mud of the resulting counter-attack. Why do we hold women responsible for what their husbands do? Do we have as many examples of men being held to that same standard?

I’ve always been of the mind that I don’t care about a politician’s personal life. I’m all for open relationships if that’s what you both have decided on. It’s none of my business and it shouldn’t affect your policies. I can separate your sex life from your legal life. I also don’t completely blame Hillary for being angry at the other women Bill has slept with or even intimidating them. Hillary should not carry the weight of Bill’s punishment for his disgusting abuse of power.

What is a big deal, though, is if he raped someone. Ugh. And if she knows it and was complicit in covering it up.

I will vote for this woman to be president, but I think she should go on the record about this issue. Bill’s sex addiction and dalliances are something she’s been notoriously quiet on for decades.

I understand why. But this pussy-grab situation is an opportunity for Hillary to explain herself, especially in an election that has been all personal and in a culture that is more and more often blurring the lines between the personal and the professional.

The thing that was so gross about Trump’s statements in that pussy-grab video was that they aren’t out of the ordinary in a lot of places. Being in situations where there is a very subtle but clear male dominance makes learning to draw boundaries or stick up for yourself difficult. When that Trump-style approach to women is passed down from men to adolescent boys, you’ve got trouble.

We all have a story or five. I was groped by a notoriously creepy peer my junior year of high school while walking through a hallway. He came up to me, put his arm around my shoulders, put his hand down my shirt, and grabbed my breast. Stunned, I didn’t say anything and quickly walked away when it was over. 

What makes a high school boy feel like that is acceptable? That my body was his to touch without permission? Why did I feel like I had no recourse but to take it and try to forget about it as if it were my fault?

It’s a culture that props women up as objects to be used for power, prestige, and dominance. Even if you don’t want to call that rape culture, it’s something and it’s worth talking about. And its effects can be found all the way from soap opera sets to Capitol Hill to high school hallways.

Now here’s where Hillary comes in. What I’ve always loved about her is her outspokenness and pride in the kind of woman she is. While her “I ain’t no Tammy Wynette” interview from the ‘90s irrevocably turned millions of women off to her, it turned women like me on to her.

I adore that she spoke to the complicated reality of having a relationship in such a brutally honest way. 

Also, this quote has been ridiculously truncated and spun for the purposes of drama and politics.
Also, this quote has been ridiculously truncated and spun for the purposes of drama and politics.

But Hillary did, in essence, pull a Tammy Wynette. She has stood by her man for a very long time by staying married to him.

Why? I refuse to believe it’s all about power and politics.

I think she, like millions of other women, has had to make concessions to survive and be happy in a world where men are treated differently from women. Also, isn’t it post-patriarchy to stay with your husband because you are a team, not because other people think you should divorce to make them feel better about their own choices? Loving a complicated man, a bad man is relatable for a lot of people. How cool would it be for her to talk candidly on the pain of this issue instead of in some canned glossy anecdote about sexism she’s faced professionally?

I think she has an open marriage because her and Bill’s relationship and love has always been based on their intellectual attraction, not their sexual attraction, and I think that’s OK. How cool would it be to have the first openly open marriage in the White House?

I think the accusations of rape against Bill are really serious and she can’t and shouldn’t just ignore them. Then she’s victimizing women she argues she protects. How cool would it be to have a candidate discuss the leniency of rape punishment in this country and the ways it personally touches each of our lives?

I think there’s really exciting potential for having a female president, beyond having glittery “Future President” onesies in Target. This is a chance to have the leader of the free world talk about us as one of us. Maybe the personal does have a place in politics if it means moving us through sticky, multi-faceted issues of equality and justice. Presidents are celebrities now, hence Trump’s candidacy, and she can use that to the advantage of my generation and our daughters.

If Hillary’s going to be held accountable for her husband’s actions — and god damn, her opponents have proven repeatedly she will be — she should address them. She should explain herself and why she stayed with him. In doing so, she could progress the conversation about herself, the conversation about love and sex in modern relationships, and the conversation about misogyny in places of power and women’s complicated maneuverings to live within them.

Inspo: Solange’s graceful anger, presidential poetry, and a ghost story

Solange’s new album

Called “A Seat at The Table,” this album is underpinned with a rightful feminine and black anger that Solange has fine tuned in her work over the past five years. It’s brilliant. The interludes with audio from Master P’s interviews about being black in America and in an industry that feeds off black art with little recognition of its source are some of my favorite moments; but my vote for most beautiful song is this one, “Cranes in the Sky.” It’s not the most lyrically moving song on the album, but it’s most indicative of what I love best about this album and what I love about her: Solange has faced and explored her rage and learned to control it and make it her own by making it something that is woven into a tapestry of modern emotion. It is graceful, real and, as this video demonstrates, pretty even when it’s ugly. It feels like she has made the anger for herself — this is for you to view and listen to but she doesn’t need to make the anger about anything but what she needs to say. If she’s going to have it and have to inhabit it, she’s going to make it beautiful in the meantime. That cuts through a lot of pop music’s flat attempts at outrage and “lady anger” today, marking Solange’s as a very inspiring artistry.

“I Want a Dyke For President”

Performance artist Mykki Blanco performs a poem that activist Zoe Leonard wrote in 1992. Hopefully a poem like this — a poem about the banality of politics, the disconnect of politicians from Other people, a dream that these experiences no longer push the human lives they’re connected to into the shadows of the margins — is a history lesson in 2092. No longer relevant. A cautionary tale.

Karen Russell reads Mavis Gallant

Hot damn, I’m developing a serious fangirl crush on Karen Russell! The author reads one of her favorite Mavis Gallant stories on this episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction podcast (which is a podcast worth a hundred listens for any lit fan because the author’s basically give a comp lesson right after they read another’s work). Mavis was excellent at making the absurd read completely rational, which is pretty much exactly how I’d explain Karen Russell’s work. So it makes sense Karen Russell has a fangirl crush on Mavis Gallant.

This short story, “From The Fifteenth District” is essentially a ghost story with a wry sense of humor. It’s fun for that reason, but I particularly enjoy how this sets up a discussion on the ways we eulogize the dead and to what degree of damage. Mavis manages to do this in a voice and style I’ve never heard before.

My girl Karen’s girl Mavis.
My girl Karen’s girl Mavis.

Review-ish: Sweet Spoils at Miishkooki

Referring to any day that has already occurred, any day that is not today, as “simpler times” is wrong. It wasn’t simpler. Today is simpler, at least if we’re speaking about the basics of getting the lower portion of our hierarchy of needs met.

Technology and industry have freed up time for us to find our purpose instead of our supper.

The only way in which is may have been simpler “back then” is the subject of fear. You knew who or what your enemy was, which ultimately makes that thing less scary. The boundaries and the sides were in black and white, for better or worse, however problematic.

Today we don’t have that mental resting ground, or at least we shouldn’t if we are to be aware and thoughtful about what is happening in our communities, nation, world. But what does all that thinking for the outside do to our insides?

By Joan Cornella

It leaves many of us numb. Left staring at the warring outside through a pulled aside velvet curtain made in China. Our alarm buttons have been on so long, their din has become background noise in a landscape of mental disbelief.

So what do we do? Turn inward. Or find a way to laugh.

That’s what Joan Cornella’s work is about for me—the recurring disbelief that things are never, ever what they seem and everything from enemies to heroes are indefinable properties constantly en morph. Essentially. there’s no place to land. 

Angela Dalinger
Except maybe on mental health islands, like those in paintings by Angela Dalinger.

The inaugural exhibit at Miishkooki Art Space in Skokie on Chicago’s North Shore features Cornella’s work. The Spanish illustrator’s comic panel storytelling style is sick in both senses of the word and absolutely worth seeing in person.

The show’s called “Sweet Spoils” and it features other big names in the world of illustration and Instagram-famous fine art: Angela Dalinger, Nate Otto, and Alex Gamsu Jenkins, to name a few.

“Ayahuasca Shaved Ice” by Sean Norvet


Sean Norvet’s majestic oil painting, a centerpiece in the show, is a nod to our post-apocalyptic mind fuck. There’s so much to feed our face, so much to distract us, we can’t see that everything around us melting away.

Or maybe we choose to indulge in all of that exactly because we can see what’s happening and it’s overwhelming. Which came first: the content or the binge?

Whether it’s Jim Ether’s playful fat-cat flies atop steaming piles of shit or Brandon Celi’s desolate spaces — where, when inhabited, his listless subjects go through the motions — this show is a testament to the fact that our modern melancholy can also look cool as fuck.

“Sweet Spoils” is on view at Miishkooki through Oct. 21.

By Brandon Celi
By Brandon Celi

m-d-pic m-fridge-door m-tahitian-treat

Interview: 10 Questions with Author James Carpenter

James Carpenter gave up writing in his twenties. It was “quite literally killing me,” he recalls.

That’s because he associated the act of writing with the act of drinking. To recover from his alcohol abuse, he needed to put down his pen.

The Pennsylvania native went on to teach middle and high school English and eventually spent 14 years as affiliated faculty at The Wharton School. He lectured in computer programming, system design, and entrepreneurship.

But when he retired, the calling to tell stories was clear.

He answered. And since then, Carpenter’s fiction work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Fiction International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ambit.

His new novel, “No Place to Pray,” came out this month from Twisted Road Publications, a publisher that aims to bring marginalized voices to the mainstream. The book is a moving example of how one’s personal experiences with issues we all can struggle with—addiction, mental health, spiritual search, race relations in America—can be lush if tempestuous landscapes for storytelling.

Here, Carpenter talks about why those subjects are so important; how Southern and American Gothic literature can tell these stories in a way other genres can’t; his advice for fledgling authors; his own daily writing practice; and notes on forgiveness and self-awareness, from a man who has had to learn a lot about both.

He also has one of my favorite answers to the dinner guest question.



Author James Carpenter's latest book is "No Place to Pray."

Why title the book “No Place to Pray”?

The title has two senses. In the first, the characters, especially LeRoy and his mother, seek some kind of spiritual rescue from their difficult lives, but the institutions where they look for it forsake them, leaving them with no place to pray. In the other, many of the characters lead lives in trying and often squalid places: taprooms, brothels, tarpaper shacks along the flats beneath a bridge — places where it is difficult to pray. Similar to the way one might speak of a filthy apartment as no place to raise a child, we could say that where the characters have found themselves is no place to pray.

Why use the Southern Gothic style to address topics of social interactions, religious institutions, self-awareness, mental health, and race? What does that genre offer us today?

I didn’t set out to write a Southern Gothic novel. It’s obvious that writers so tagged are among my influences, especially William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Though most of the story is set in a fictional southern state, my model for place was where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. That it comes across as southern is not entirely coincidence, as there is a large expanse of our country, including western Pennsylvania, eastern and southern Ohio, and northern West Virginia, that bears a striking similarity to the deep south, often derisively referred to as Pennsyltucky. The characters’ colloquialisms and rhythms of speech are what I grew up with. When I wrote about the river and the countryside surrounding it, I had the Allegheny in mind. For the town, such places as Beaver Falls and New Castle, Pennsylvania served as my inspiration.

But Southern Gothic’s tropes are well suited to the broad issues your question addresses. We can’t shine a light into the darkness if we aren’t willing to enter into the darkness. We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches.

I think it’s been a mistake to think of Southern Gothic as addressing a narrow segment of American culture. Niche audiences would not have made Faulkner a literary icon and Nobel laureate. Southern Gothic writers are concerned with Americans at the margins of our institutions because it’s there that the truth can be uncovered, which is very much the case not just in parts of the south, but from coast to coast. I prefer to think of the genre as American Gothic, a more generalized treatment of broken people that would include authors as diverse as Richard Wright, Louise Erdrich, and John Steinbeck, as well as settings ranging across the continent from the urban East to the Great Plains to Southern California.

What role does a human’s innate and individual spirituality play in this book and why was that important to you?

First, it’s important to me because I firmly believe that we are primarily spiritual beings capable of spiritual fulfillment and that much of our history has revolved around asking what that means. We’ve come up with a great many answers which, for the most part, emphasize love, compassion, peace, and joy. Unfortunately those answers have too often become codified in religious institutions, which reduces the animus intrinsic to spiritual fulfillment to dogma and ritual.

Several of the characters in No Place to Pray are driven by spiritual impulses—Agnes and LeRoy certainly, Miss Wells and Pastor Johnson ostensibly, and even Harmon, who sees visions in spite of himself. But the institutions that they’ve been taught to believe can provide the peace they seek let them down as they attempt to adhere to unrealizable admonitions to avoid angering God. From LeRoy’s comment that, “Pissing off a powerful celestial being ain’t a good move no matter how you slice it” to Miss Wells’s attempt to measure her life against the impossible theology of the New Testament verse her Sunday school students have memorized: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” What they seek isn’t where they’ve been told to look.

But grace, whatever that might be, is actually everywhere. We and everything that surrounds us are imbued with and immersed in unimaginable immanent spiritual power, but like the truck crossing over the bridge and “unaware of the ethereal suchness through which it lumbered,” our eyes are too often closed to it.

We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches. …  The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibility for the wrongs we have committed.

How did you research for “No Place to Pray”? Was there anything particularly important for you to get right as far as your characters or setting?

It was critical that I get race right. I studied other white writers who dealt with race, William Styron, of course, as well as J.M. Coetzee, John Berryman, John Updike, and others. I studied the post-Civil War history of racial oppression, especially the largely successful efforts in the south to resurrect slavery as a legal institution, notably in the practices of tenant farming. But most of all, I simply talked with friends about their personal experiences, from what it’s like to walk into a restaurant as part of a mixed-race party in the 21st Century to what it was like to march in the south for civil rights and be beaten for doing so in the ’60s.

Is there anything you hope readers learn, think about, or take away from this book?

That however tolerant and open-minded we think we might be, all of us hold tight to unconscious misconceptions about people who are different from us. In the opening chapter, a group of black men agree that you can’t know what goes on in a white woman’s head. Then they amend that to mean any woman’s head. Whether you are a man or a woman, how many times have you heard, “You know how women (or men) are”? As innocuous as such consensus many seem in the moment, it is the seed from which egregious injustices can sprout and bloom. We have to do better. We can do better.

Does writing about these topics through a fictional lens offer you anything personally? For example, a relief in the sense of offering something to the conversation about social problems?

I had to give up writing when I was in my twenties. Struggling with my own debilitating alcohol addiction, I found that writing and drinking were inextricably intertwined with each other in how I saw myself: hunched over a typewriter in a dark room, the workspace haloed in the light of a desk lamp, with a cigarette burning in an ashtray, and a cocktail glass of bourbon right beside it. Writing was quite literally killing me. So I stopped writing and with the support of friends and family stopped drinking.

Some thirty-five years later I picked up my pen again. Much of my reason for writing “No Place to Pray” lay in telling myself my own story, a way to make sense of the insanity of my young life, and to find some sure foundation upon which to stand where the landscape didn’t shift with tectonic ruthlessness. Though “No Place to Pray” depicts a dark and uncertain world in which not everyone survives, those who do, come out of it strengthened and with their souls bruised but intact. I am one of them.

Also, I spent my childhood in a house inhabited not just by my parents and brothers, but by the demons of alcoholism and physical abuse. (As Hank Williams, Jr. sang, it was a family tradition.) Similarly to the way LeRoy retells his life story through his fantasies, rewriting them in ways that make the unbearable bearable, “No Place to Pray” helped bring me to a place of reconciliation with my own past.

Are we prisoners of our past mistakes — personally and culturally?

No. I strongly believe that redemption is possible. But it can only come if we are honest about those mistakes and willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to make right the harm we’ve caused. And that holds true across the full spectrum of our interactions with each other, from verbal abuse within a relationship to the economic and political oppression of entire populations. The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibility  for the wrongs we have committed.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you stick to a routine, and if so, what is it?

When I’m working, I write five days a week, usually the first thing in the morning before the day’s chores and responsibilities hijack my mind. I begin by reading poetry, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I know when it’s time to go to my desk when the words on the page begin to spin into whatever story it is that I’m working on.

My goal is one page a day. I used to aim for 2,500 words per day, but the result was quite dismal. I was more concerned with word count than quality and I would find myself after several months with a few hundred pages of embarrassment, with no way that I could see to fix them. When I began to think in terms of a restricted daily count, the writing got better and the accumulated pages something I could work with.

Each morning I begin by reading aloud the last of what I wrote yesterday before turning to what’s new for the day. I write for however long it takes to complete 350 words. (If I’m really tuned in, I’ll let myself go on, but I have an absolute upper limit of 850 words. I make myself stop at that line, no matter how good I might think the writing is.) I finish by reading aloud what I’ve written for the day, making some adjustments, but not many. As I’m falling asleep that night I think about where the story is going and what I’ll do to advance it the next day.

Do you have any advice or tips for fledgling fiction writers?

Always be reading. Read widely. Read the masters and read books that receive really bad reviews. Ask what the difference is. What makes one opening sentence compel you to continue reading and another to set the entire book aside? Why does one author thoroughly describe their characters’ physical appearance and another give almost no description at all, and yet both make for fascinating reading? The time will come when you are struggling with some part of the craft, a description, a snippet of dialog, or a bit of action, and you will discover some other author’s solution to the same challenge somewhere in what you’ve read, to which you will find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s how they do it! I can do that!”

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

Gertrude Stein, Buckminster Fuller, and Martin Luther King. All three were visionaries, far ahead of their peers. They represent the pillars of any community, art, practical innovation, and the canons of justice and spirit upon which everything else rests. I imagine them gently polite and gracious over aperitifs. As the appetizers are served and they begin to understand one another, they laugh and nod knowingly. The conversation animates and rises through the courses as they connect and find their rhythm, and by the digestif, they’ve left all of us behind to wonder and marvel at what they have to teach us.


Purchase “No Place to Pray” on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or from publisher Twisted Road Publications.

Continue following the No Place to Pray blog tour tomorrow at Lori’s Reading Corner!

List-ish: Five Awesome Moments in Pop Cultural Coffee

Happy National Coffee Day!

Everyone claims that non-holiday holidays like this were started by the correlating industry and card companies in order to get you to buy more of your stuff; however, I think these holidays were started by social media managers needed content and hashtags in order to make their brand, product, company seem Just Like You TM. This site says it’s also World Heart Day and National Biscotti Day.

Thus, I’m feeding into the hype. Here’s to coffee. Without which, I’d be the soggy, soul-crushed, non-productive animal I truly am. Now where can I get some biscotti to dip into you?

Most Ridiculous Outfits Worn While Serving It

Winner: Roseanne in Roseanne

Runner up:  SNL Coffee Talk


The Americana housewife apron, girly colors and sexy ruffles looked so wrong on Roseanne it was so right. Especially for a show about the changing structure of families, women and work.

Most Wonderful Repeat References to It

Winner: Twin Peaks

Runner up: Gilmore Girls

Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. And a slice of cherry pie. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.

The mundanity and simplicity and homeyness of “coffee and pie” is an intentional contrast to the topsy-turvy, mysterious world of Twin Peaks — where home is anything but “Home.” The contrast is meant to confuse your deepest subconscious even further. That’s if the most unsettling scene in TV history didn’t already do it for you.

(I almost don’t want to publish this video on my blog. It is so quietly discomforting. Hands down the most disturbing thing I’ve ever Netflixed. And I have watched some weird stuff. Shiver.)

Best Oldies Song About It

Winner: “Cigarettes and Coffee” by Otis Redding

Runner up: “No Sugar” by The Guess Who

This song’s about nothing and everything all at once — smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and talking about anything your souls connect on at 3 am with your lover. Otis Redding seemed to know the overlooked moments in life were the ones most worth singing about.

Most Random Correlation Between It and Chick Flicks that Defined My Adolescence

Winner: That Cruel Intentions Scene With the Escalator

Runner up: The She’s All That coffee shop reunion that happened in September

“I am colorblind. Coffee black and egg white.”

The escalator scene is memorable because of the escalator, sure, but I was always obsessed with the Counting Crows song that played with it. What an odd, perfect choice. The dissonance of the lyrics, the dissonance of losing your virginity. Imperfect. Beautiful. Strange.

Best Glamorization

Tie: Sex And The City

coffee-satc-2 coffee-satc-3 coffee-satc

Ladiiiies! Talking ‘bout flicking the bean while sippin’ on it. This show (and the proliferation of Starbucks on every corner in real life) was essential in making to-go coffee an everyday (sometimes hourly) experience in the early 2000s.

Tie: Breakfast at Tiffany’s


I mean, damn. Look at that: Of course this scene’s iconic. Holly Golightly made drinking coffee out of a crappy throwaway look impeccable — worth every 14-carat paper cut.

List-ish: My favorite summer photos 2016

This spring I moved to Chicago and had the best, most revelatory summer ever. Here are some of the reasons why.


Me and 95th. Everyone who has been here a while makes fun of the CTA because it’s gross. It is, I guess, but what do you expect from public transportation? I love that it’s so easy to use and makes me less weird about going out. I wish this for every city — occasional pee smell and all.


Mermaids make good soldiers. This tattoo shows my friend who she is and what she fights for. It’s beautiful and so is she. Summer is the best. More inhibitions, cares, and clothes get shed.


Savage the muppet. Summer’s for the Marion dogs.


Capone’s bar. Justin performs at Green Mill, a cultural institution, where slam poetry was born and Al Capone partied. Every place in Chicago has some kind of gritty story turned glittery in the lens of time.


Caught in bed. This summer has been about rebuilding our friendship. These little moments of total comfort around one another and in each other’s spaces are my favorite. Those moments are the ones you don’t remember but wish you could. I plan to capture more of them as we move along.


Sox and 35th. The Cleveland Indians (the team I root for by hometown proxy) played the White Sox. Chicago won and there weren’t many people there, but we took a lot of selfies and got to bicker over who was eating more of the nacho cheese, thus ruining any chance of fair distribution for the chips.


Kid toss. My brother-in-law, niece and nephew nail farm parkour.


Mary’s room. I was home for my grandma’s funeral. After the calling hours, I went to the farm house where she had lived her entire adult life and where my dad’s family all grew up. Everything inside was frozen for a moment by the gravity of the day. Trinkets and totems covered this old dresser in my aunt’s room. She was recovering in the hospital after a brain hemorrhage that happened months before and couldn’t make it to the funeral for her mother, a circumstance that made the unpredictable cruelty of timing twist a quarter turn sharper.


Grandma’s room. The bed’s gone. A dresser and trunk and a rocking chair and lamp are all that’s left. The shell of the room is covered in reminders of their family, their faith or both.


Missy. I didn’t expect how sad I’d become inside the empty house. My sister and cousin were coming to join me but not soon enough. I headed to the barns looking for a kitten my dad had been telling me about, hoping to distract myself from what was coming up from deep inside me. But in the barn, I ran into one of the farm’s employees working that day — someone I was startled to see, I just figured I was alone. The surprise unraveled everything and I burst into tears. Dressed up in heels, sweating and sobbing inside the milk house. He was so patient as I gasped and sobbed gasped and sobbed gasped and sobbed trying to explain who I was and that I was looking for a “kitty my dad likes.” “Oh, that’s Missy!” he said. He took me to her. It was as if she had been waiting for me all along.


Dad and Honey. No one works as hard as my dad. His rough hands tell the working class hero story I worship, but he’s always so tender with animals. He’s got a farmer’s realism but respects an animal’s power. A few months after this was taken, he was thrown by several spooked cows and spent weeks in a hospital recovering from having his insides crushed, ribs snapped. He will always be the person I respect the most.


Chicago zen. There’s a circle of Buddha heads along Lake Shore trail. They’re part of the Ten Thousand Ripples project, an art-based program to spread peace in Chicago. They are there to remind passers-by to pursue calm and understanding, socially and psychologically. Lake Michigan geese love it as much as I do.


Spotted. I was shooting these photos from far away. This guy saw me though. He watched for a second to determine if I was a bringer food or if I was a threat. I was neither. He went back to pecking the dirt.


Concrete jungle. After a day at the Art Institute, I headed outside not totally knowing where I was or where I needed to go. Luckily, I exited the side that neighbors Millennium Park. There was a garden full of wild flowers going toe to toe with the skyscrapers for best scenery. As I kept walking, I happened upon an orchestra doing a dress rehearsal for a show later that evening. The city’s full of excellent surprises.


Dive in. A free beach volleyball tournament near my neighborhood.


Land ho. All summer long I’ve run along the lake. I’m alone here in a way I needed and sought; I’m making space so I can ask myself questions I need to answer so I can set the course of my life. This has been the perfect place to stop running from myself. Also, the view is unfailingly interesting. To one side you have a dangerous blue blanket covering secrets and seaweed. On the other you have a great American city’s towering skyline pulsing from the heat. It all makes chugging through two miles in 85 degree sludge feel not so silly. I always take an intermission at one of the beach houses and watch the water. (I still am giddy about the concrete stadium seating and open spaces for the public to use.) Seagulls fight for food or bob along the waves, a picture of peace. Sail boats dot the horizon in lonely, sunny succession. Each remind me of things I want to remember.