Sunday, September 5, 2010

JSF in Hotlanta: Extended Version

My need for alone time might be outside of normal, but I’m okay with that.  Scott’s job (and subsequent periods of absence) provides ample time for me to read, write, and veg at night after the boys go to bed, but I rarely have the opportunity to interact with the outside world (my favorite place to be alone).  
I’ll take this opportunity to gratuitously fawn over my husband.  First of all, he is a MAN.  And I mean, he farts and burps and takes a ridiculously long time to poop.  He likes football and chicken wings (I’m hoping to change this if I can get him to read JSF’s Eating Animals) and getting his hair cut at Sports Clips.  He falls asleep within seconds after sex and thinks nothing of eating garlic, peppers, and onions even when he knows he’s going to get lucky.  He is utterly disgusting.  He’s a MAN.
That said, Mr. Johnson is, at times, the biggest woman I’ve ever met.  He likes to talk (and talk and talk and talk) about our problems, cries when animals die in movies, and loves “spending quality time together” (and then talking about how much he loves spending quality time together afterwards).  His sensitivity is sometimes unnerving to me, as I have been accused of having a block of dry ice where my heart should be.  
In my defense, I have become much more emotional since having children and have even attempted to get in touch with my feminine side on several occasions to include: 1) crying during a Budweiser commercial during the Super Bowl right after Will was born (love those baby clydesdales!), AND 2) almost making a mix tape for Scott when he was deployed last.
The benefit of having a woman for a husband is that quite often he can read my mind before I open my mouth, so when I’m pissed about something--whether it’s his inability to pick up the phone to tell me he’s going to be later than expected or his disregard for my presence in the bed next to him when he lets a particularly gaseous explosion erupt--he corrects himself with little help from me.  He’s always harder on himself than I ever would be.
Another benefit is that he works tirelessly to ensure that my needs are met.  (On the occasion that he has slipped back into man mode and worked less tirelessly, benefit #1 kicks in and with a few words from me and a swift kick from his own conscience, he returns to center pretty quickly.)  I have learned in my almost seven years of marriage that this is not something to take for granted.  It is something to be appreciated, cherished, and reciprocated.  (You’ll have to check with Scott to know if I am at all hitting the target on this.)
So, when Scott was completely on-board with my going to Atlanta to meet JSF, I was not surprised by his reaction (though I forgot how to breathe when I realized that the stars were aligning).  His last three-week trip (which turned into 25 days) had come at a particularly bad time for me.
Suffering from a 1/3 life crisis, I was a complete emotional wreck (or as much of one as I can be) before he even left.  Then, while he was gone, I was left with hours and hours and hours to think about all the things that were bothering me.
I wasn’t experiencing anything out of the ordinary for someone at my age and stage in life (I’ll elaborate on this another time), but the point is, I was feeling overwhelmed and confused in a way I’d never experienced.  The fact that Scott’s epic trip (which included stops in Hawaii, Australia, and Thailand which may have forced him into insensitive man mode) coincided with this breakdown was rock salt in my self-inflicted wounds.
When he returned from his trip, my intuitive husband knew that the best remedy would have to go beyond an afternoon alone or a massage, and as someone who believes wholeheartedly in a God that cares about my not having a nervous breakdown, I believe God sent me a trip to Atlanta wrapped in a Jonathan Safran Foer bow.  (See previous post if you don’t yet know who JSF is.)
Tuesday morning, a package arrives from Vicky's with my new bras and underwear.  What's that saying?  "Character is matching your underwear even when no one else is looking."  Tuesday afternoon, I make a stop by Ann Taylor (true love ♥) for a new black dress.  Scott does not score ANY points when I show it to him, and he says, “Don’t you already have one kind of like that?”  (Did I mention he’s a MAN?)  I also pick up several other (on sale) items at various stories throughout the outlet mall as if to say, “Congratulations, me, on things looking up!”

Once my bag is packed (complete with said dress, my 4-inch red heels, chocolate-covered almonds, and peppermint sticks), I get on the road around 10:30.  The trip from Charleston to Atlanta is a pretty straight shot from I-26 to I-20, so I am free to focus my thoughts on the friends who have accompanied me instead of worrying about navigation.  
My friends:
  1. Ron Currie, Jr., author of God Is Dead
  2. William Faulkner, one of my favorite people in the omniverse
  3. Eddie Vedder, minor God
So, my mom has been telling me for months to get The Help on CD to listen to on the road, but a) I haven’t taken any road trips lately, and b) I have a natural aversion to anything on a bestseller list (which often makes me late to the game on stuff that is ACTUALLY good, but also satisfies the contrived emo/indie girl inside--you know, eff the man and all).  So, I stop by the library on my way out of town to see if they’ve got it, but they don’t because some housewife checked it out last week, so I browse the shelves and settle on God Is Dead, a book I’ve seen before and heard good things about.  Also, Currie is my husband’s middle name (his mother’s maiden name), so it has to be good, right?
I also pick up an anthology of William Faulkner’s short stories, all of which I have read a million times, but since I’ve taken a chance on this new Currie guy, it’s nice to have a familiar friend with me.  The anthology includes an excerpt from his 1949 Pulitzer Prize speech, which I could listen to on repeat.  His voice is nasally and Southern and oddly presidential in tone.  Feels like home.
For those moments when I tire of listening to my friends talk, I’ve also loaded my ipod with all my old favorites because the best kind of friend is the kind that can sit in the car and listen to music (and sing along) for hours with me.  Without. Saying. A. Word.  
I don’t know if you know this, but Eddie Vedder wrote the entire “Into the Wild” soundtrack for me.  It’s in the notes, in tiny writing, invisible really if you aren’t looking, but it says, “This effort, like all albums that came before it, was written because of and for one Leia Johnson.”  A similar inscription can almost be found on every other Pearl Jam album, except it reads “one Leia Hollingsworth,” of course.


So, Ron, William, and Eddie take turns riding shotgun as we cruise up I-26 toward Georgia.  I’d love to paint a picture of the wind blowing through my hair as I drive nine over the speed limit with the windows down, but let’s be real.  I am all girl when it comes to temperature, and I take a blanket with me everywhere I go.  So, despite the fact, that it’s 85 degrees and sunny out, I drive with my favorite red blanket over my lap, left foot tucked under my right leg, car on cruise control.  The best part of driving by myself?  Not freezing because of my sweaty husband.  I might even turn on the heater.
The trip will take just under five hours, and three and a half hours in I’m feeling a teensy bit hungry, so I search for food in the GPS.  Charleston will freeze over before I eat at McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A while I’m sans children, so I pick the first place that’s not Asian and not fast food.  Pulling off at the next exit, I google “Madison Chophouse Grille” and check the reviews on Trip Advisor.  I mean, the fact that there ARE reviews on Trip Advisor means the place can’t be too awful.
The GPS says the restaurant is 2.8 miles off the highway, so I meander first down a wooded state highway with a few fast food restaurants and a couple gas stations.  The highway paves the way into the sweet little town of Madison, Georgia.

My view during lunch, a house and some cutesy little boutiques.  The white house with the picket fence on the left is one of the featured pictures on the Madison, GA website.
Who knew?  (

I arrive at 2:30, right between lunch and dinner, as what I assume to be regulars get up to leave.  One gentleman, a man in his late sixties, turns to me as they move to the door and says, “We’ll get up on out of here, so you can enjoy your lunch without having to listen to us gab!”  I’m kind of in love with this man who gabs and is going to “get on up out of here.”  I am the only one in the restaurant other than the waitstaff, and my waitress is attentive without being overbearing, suggesting several items on the menu.  I decide on a chopped cashew chicken salad with warm poppy seed dressing, which turns out to be exactly the right choice.  I eat, flipping through the pages of JSF’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  It has been a couple of years since I read it, and like any extremely good and incredibly moving book, it’s like reading it for the first time.  I invite nine-year-old Oskar Schell to sit with me while I finish half the salad (along with some pretty fantastic rye bread) and then box the rest up to go.
My waitress and I chat a bit when she brings me my ticket with a Tootsie Roll Pop, and it’s official.  I am going to contact Barack Obama (there are a few people in between, but ultimately he is Scott’s boss, and why mess with the go-betweens?) and tell him we need an Air Force base in Madison, GA.  If that doesn’t work, I’m going to start looking at property to retire here.  When I ask how many people live in Madison, the waitress tells me how many people live in the county, and that is the kind of place I want to live.  
It turns out Madison is the county seat, so the bulk of the population does live in town--somewhere around 17,000 people she thinks.  Later, I google Madison, GA, and this is what I find:
  1. Madison is “the town Sherman refused to burn” (because it was home to pro-Union Senator Joshua Hill).
  2. Madison was voted #1 Small Town in America by Travel Holiday Magazine.
  3. Madison is pretty much my favorite place on earth.  (William Faulkner would have been proud.)

On my way back to the highway, I stop off at a bookstore I had passed on the way in called “Dog Ear Books.”  As I browse room after room of this historic home turned bookstore, I overhear a conversation between the owner and a regular customer.  He and his wife have been moving toward vegetarianism, and the customer guffaws at the idea.  I can’t see her from around the corner, but I picture her looking like Paula Deen.
I make my way toward the cash register and pause to text Scott.  He just texted me that Will had an accident at the park and is LOLing through text at our son’s misery.  I’m also LOLing because I’m not the one having to deal with four-year-old poop.  I’m LOLing all the way from Madison, GA.
The only thing I pick up to purchase is a reproduction of a British war propaganda poster from 1939 that has a picture of the queen’s crown with the words, “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.”  I might hang it on the ceiling above my bed, so it’s the first thing I see every morning.  As I approach to pay, a drunk man rolls in and sits in a chair next to me.  The owner, a bearded man somewhere around my age, is finishing a phone call and nods at me like, “I’m so sorry for being rude and that it smells like beer in here at 3:30 in the afternoon.”

Several CDs by a band called the “Bearfoot Hookers” are propped around the register, so when Tom (I see his nametag) hangs up, I ask, “So what’s the deal with the Bearfoot Hookers?”
He replies, “They’re pretty much the best band in the world,” which obviously means I should buy the CD, especially after he follows it up with “I’m the bass player.”  After asking which CD is the best, he tells me I should start with their newest, titled “Beer Drinkin’ Gospel Revival.”  The drunk guy says his favorite is “Sweet Pickle Grits” and continues by telling me “they’re the kind of band you gotta hear live, man!”  
I ask Tom to describe their sound, give me some comparables, like “Are you anything like the Avett Brothers?”  He tells me they’ve opened for the Avetts, but they’re more Allman than Avett.  I was raised on Southern rock, and I’m always up for taking a chance on new music, so I pick up a copy of “Beer Drinkin’ Gospel Revival” and place it with my poster.
As I head back to the highway, I pop in the CD (I think Eddie needed a break anyway).  The album has all the components of a successful Southern rock album: beer-drinking songs, songs about God, and songs about women.  One song, titled “Amanda Lynn,” strikes a particularly right chord in that it’s punny with a little mandolin run.  I am a sucker for puns.  And the drunk guy was totally right.  This is the kind of band you need to see live, man.
The Bearfoot Hookers sing me all the way into Atlanta, where I find the Atlanta History Center (so I don’t get lost later) before checking into my hotel.  The man at the front desk asks what brought me to Atlanta, and I am completely aware that I sound like a snob when I say, “I’m here for a lecture at the Atlanta History Center.”  Whatever.
I’ve got about an hour before I need to leave, so I sprawl on the bed and flip through the channels.  Dr. Oz is talking to teen girls and their moms about sex, and I am reminded again why I am so thankful that I am not a teenager.  One girl actually asks--on live television--if you can get pregnant from anal sex.  I fear for the future of humankind.
I am thirty minutes early to the lecture.  Not anxious or anything.  I sit on the third row (because the 1st and 2nd rows would be stalkerish) and check Facebook on my phone to pass the time.  As the auditorium starts to fill (the lady at check-in said about 240 people are coming), I am impressed at the diversity of the crowd, people of all ages and ethnicities.

When JSF takes the stage, the crowd settles in to his rhythmic speech patterns with contented grins.  Everything he says is engaging, but not because he’s saying anything earth-shattering.  He’s just talking.  And he invites the audience to participate in the discussion.  JSF is promoting his newest book, Eating Animals, so the conversation revolves around food, particularly meat, in relation to the factory farm system.  Two participants include a girl who grew up on a factory farm and the president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.  The highlight of the night is when JSF (following a diatribe on meat eaters from the VSG president) makes a long point about how he doesn’t even like animals that much.  This, to me, is what makes him relatable and why everyone (especially all the people who have said to me when I suggest this book “Oh, yeah, I can’t read that!  I really LOVE bacon!”) should read his book.  It’s a complicated issue about which we should all be informed.
I make friends with two women in line as we wait to have JSF sign our books.  I have, in my head, gone over all the things I want to say to him when we get to the front of the line, but after my brush with Amy Sedaris, I’m realistic about my expectations.  I figure if I can introduce myself and ask for a picture without spitting on him or falling in his lap, it will be considered a success.
I take pictures of my friends with him first, and then one of them takes a picture of me with JSF, and the entire exchange is civil and pleasant and not at all freakish.  I even manage to have the conversation that I have with EVERY OTHER PERSON I MEET when he reads the post-it with my name on it, so he knows who to address with his signature.
JSF: So, Leah?
Me: No, it’s Leia.
JSF: Lay-uh.
Me: Yes, like the princess in Star Wars.  I have to say that every time I introduce myself.
JSF (turning to look at me instead of the book): Oh, then I’m sorry to have made you say it again.
Me: Oh, no. It’s totally fine.  It’s totally...(mumbles something incoherent while all the blood in my body rushes to my cheeks)

Pursed Lips Smile

I gather my books and tell him it was nice to meet him, as his assistant hands him more books to sign.  The moment is divine.
I walk to the parking lot with one of my new friends (the one responsible for taking the picture) and immediately call my mom as I get in the car.  I fill her in on the details, which aren’t many when it comes down to it, but I know she cares even about the banality of my story.  She understands what a gift this whole day has been for me.
I stay up writing until after midnight and then crash on the king bed sans pajamas.  (TMI?  Maybe, but this is one of life’s greatest luxuries because there is no chance of a child climbing into bed with me.)  The next day, I have to be on the road to get back to Charleston for a 3:30 meeting, so I stay in bed as late as possible even though I got a call from Scott needing direction about Will’s uniform at 7:30.  Lying in bed, I turn a mental page.  Everything truly is illuminated.


  1. Gosh I soooo understand the 1/3 life crisis. You said you would be posting more on this later. I hope you really do.

    Sounds like your husband is really great. Cool trip.