When my dog Rosie died a few years ago I decided I wanted a painting of her—something that would both look nice on my living room shelf and remind me of Ro. After a lot of digging around, I found an artist on Etsy and placed my order. I loved it. And so, when Pawley passed away last summer, I returned to the artist for another portrait.

I liked them so much that I decided I wanted to go ahead and add Winston’s painting to the mix. I already have a spot in mind to hang these three happy faces in my new home.

Anyway, I really just wanted to share the artist: Allison Gray at Go Gray Artwork. She’s been amazing to work with—and each one is better than the last. She’s in high demand though and her custom pet portraits go super fast. So, keep an eye on her Etsy page and sign up for email alerts if you’re interested.

What can you see in your mind’s eye?

I recently read this New York Times article on aphantasia. Never heard of it? Me neither until now, but, like me, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept.

Aphantasia is the inability to form an image in your head and apparently somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of the world’s population falls into this category. The rest of us are on a spectrum with a very small group being able to go so far as to essentially replay an entire movie in their minds.

I’ve referenced this concept often in the past year as I’ve been building a home and constantly been forced to imagine spaces that don’t yet exist. I can see a lot in my mind’s eye. When I am grasping to remember a piece of knowledge, I’m picturing it on a page or even imagining the scene I was in when I learned it. I remember book plot lines by the scenes I created in my head. When I speak, I’m often picturing written words in my mind. This all feels completely normal to me.

Here’s where I get weird though: I can picture the faces of most people I’ve encountered—the lady who served me coffee this morning, a work acquaintance, my yoga instructor from last week—but I cannot picture the faces of the people I care about the most. I can’t see my mom’s face. I can picture photographs of her and I can get glimpses like choppy videos of her walking or giving me a hug. But I can’t see her face.

I’ve tried. Really hard. It’s a strange gap. But this weekend I was talking to my parents and it turns out my dad is the same way. (My mom, on the other hand, is mildly offended that I can’t picture her face.) My dad can also picture faces of other people, but not the ones he really knows and loves best. From what I can tell, science hasn’t dug into this part yet. (The condition of aphantasia only got its name in 2015 so we’re still early on this stuff.)

So, what about you? What can you picture in your mind’s eye? An entire room? A movie? Your loved ones? Now I’m so curious about where other people fall on this spectrum. It’s such an intrinsic part of how we all exist and we never talk about it. Anyway, now that small talk is returning (file under: Things I didn’t miss during Covid), consider this a good convo starter for your next cocktail party chatter.

Beach Reads

I’m headed to the beach today for a long weekend and have very carefully chosen Mary Kay Andrews’ The Newcomer, John Grisham’s The Reckoning, and Katy Birchall’s The Secret Bridesmaid as my check-out-of-real-life- while-I-lounge-on-a-hammock beach reads for the weekend. I didn’t want anything that made my brain work even a little.

If you’re also on the hunt for some hammock—or beach, or pool, or just lazy summer afternoon on the couch—reads, I’ve put a few of my recent favorites below.

For juicy, gossipy fun… Where the Grass is Green and the Girls are Pretty

Remember how reading The Devil Wears Prada made you feel like you should wear stilettos, be a size 2, and work for Vogue? This is that exact same concept except now the author (and the rest of us) has aged 15 years. So, this is set in wealthy suburbs and involves a lot of Botox. This is the kind of book that pairs perfectly with a pool and a cocktail.

For a little suspense… The Last Thing He Told Me

This reads like a mix of chick lit and mystery, which may be my favorite genre for a beach read. It’s hard not to reveal spoilers in this one, but the premise is basically that a woman’s husband disappears, leaving her with a cryptic note and a lot of questions. It’s fast-moving and fun, and feels a little like something you’d watch on Lifetime.

For a lot of suspense… Win

I really like Harlan Coben books in general (and if you’ve never watched his Netflix miniseries, it’s time to break out the popcorn now), but this may be my favorite one of his characters yet—which is good news because apparently this is the first in a series. This story is full of plot twists around a murder in a penthouse, the kidnapping of a wealthy heiress, and a domestic terrorism case. Which is all very fun. But the most fun is Win himself who is both brilliant and very likely a sociopath.

For memoir (and Dazed and Confused) fans… Green Lights

I love memoirs, but I wouldn’t recommend most of them for beach reading. But this is Matthew McConaughey. His stories are mostly light-hearted and fun. I listened to this book on Audible and highly recommend that version because it’s read by McConaughey himself. Not only are you listening to his famous Texas drawl the entire time, but in true actor fashion he adds a lot of emotion to the text—including even the occasional laugh.

For seaside self-improvement… Think Again

I’ll really read anything from Adam Grant. If you want a quick taste of his writing, I loved this recent NYT column on Languishing. This book was about the idea that the most successful people have the ability to unlearn and rethink. As a person who is quick to draw conclusions and slow to change my mind, this was a bit uncomfortable to read. But I think that was the point.

Mexico Musts: My 5 Favorite Food Stops South of Cancun

When I was hitting the dance floor at Señor Frogs on my high school senior trip to Cancun, I really never imagined that I’d return to the area more than half a dozen times over the next few decades. I also never imagined that culture on the Yucatan Peninsula—or really anywhere—could get better than tequila shots taken to the classic tunes of the Ying Yang Twins at Señor Frogs. It was a different time.

Anyway, these days I prefer to travel south once I fly into Cancun and, like a lot of Americans, it was my first international stop post vaccine. So, in case you’re joining the masses headed to Mexican beaches these days, I thought I’d share five of my favorite spots for a bite around Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

La Cueva del Chango for Lunch

Located in the center of the town of Playa del Carmen, this is a great post-airport stop on the way to Tulum. Or, if you’re staying in Cancun, it’s perfect for lunch during a day trip to the cenotes or Mayan ruins. The restaurant is all open-air seating in a lush jungle-like setting that belies the fact that you can walk down to the street market after lunch. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ordered here (guacamole and margaritas are obviously a must), but they have a dish on their lunch menu that I dream about sometimes. It’s a poblano chili pepper stuffed with cheese, corn, beans, and rice that is everything I love about Mexican flavors all on one plate.

La Reyna de Michoacan for Snacks

It’s in a part of Tulum not frequented by as many tourists, but this ice cream and popsicle shop is worth a stop. The paletas (fruit popsicles) are made with real fruit—think chunks of coconut and tart citrus flavors. If you’re there any time soon (read: the hot, hot summer months) these sweet chilled treats are a perfect afternoon snack.

Agave Azul for Dinner

Ok, it may seem a little odd to recommend a sushi restaurant in Mexico, but you’re going to have to trust me on this one. The Rosewood Mayakoba has really done things right with this gorgeous Asian restaurant set over a lagoon. This is one of those everything-is-perfect kind of restaurant experiences. The fish is fresh and delicious. The drinks are refreshing and creative. And the setting is stunning. Plan to get there early or stay late for a drink at the stylish Zapote, just across the lagoon.

Posado Margherita for Dinner

Yeah, I know, Italian food is also not a typical Mexico trip rec, but this charming beachside restaurant in an Italian-inspired boutique hotel in Tulum somehow makes perfect sense. They incorporate local seafood and vegetables into traditional Italian recipes. The bread is baked in house, the wines are Italian, and even the gelato is made in house. So, just embrace the idea of eating some of the best pizza you’ve ever had on a beach in Mexico.

Gitano for Drinks

Honestly, it’s been a bit since I’ve spent a night in Tulum so there are likely some recent additions I don’t know about. But I really felt like this spot had the best cocktail bar I’d been to in the region. If you’re into Mezcal, look no further—they have a selection of more than 50 from Oaxaca. But even if you’re not (I’m not), these cocktails made with local fruits and herbs are amazing. And the setting may be even better. The design was inspired by the idea of a room hidden in the jungle for the last century and the result is enchanting.

It’s come to the point in the home building process where I’m starting to pick out finishes—so, the fun stuff like lights and tile and shelves and mirrors. Which means that I have spent A LOT of time looking at both home decor magazines/blogs/Instagram posts and home furnishings websites in recent weeks. And I’m here to report a serious disconnect.

Every home decor magazine and blog is all like “this year is all about pops of color!” and “check out this bold wallpaper!” and “why don’t you have jewel-toned fabric on all your walls yet?” If I look at some of my favorite designer Instagram pages like @charlottelucas, @barriebenson, and @maalleninteriors (shown in order below), I feel like my home should look a little like a suitcase packed for Woodstock in 1969—the more orange, pink, and patterned, the better. And if you don’t have French wallpaper with vines and birds, and at least three emerald green furnishings, what are you even doing?

Meanwhile, over on the home page of every major home furnishing site, there seems to be a competition for who can create the beigey-ist beige room possible. Here’s Crate and Barrel coming in strong with a room that includes exactly one color. In this room, you’re so pure, you just drink water and sit in the sun with your one blanket.

Pottery Barn is kind enough to add a few blue hues and a cup of coffee to the scene.

But don’t get too comfortable. Over at Lulu and Georgia, you can sit on your couch and look at your one brown bowl.

Serena and Lily is my all-time favorite home site—primarily because I love all of their blues and greens. And while they have more color than anyone else, even they’ve gone with the “we live in a world of beige and golden hues” theme.

Finally, West Elm is my favorite. They don’t even show furniture. They’re just like, here are some food groups that match the theme.

You see my dilemma? It’s really impossible to know what’s in style right now. (Side note: Someone should really psychoanalyze what it means that in a year with so much turmoil and unrest, American home furnishing stores are like “here are the most warm, comforting, and bland furnishings ever—buy this soft beige blanket and soothe yourselves.” But that’s a post for another day.)

Anyway, it’s really hard out there for a human who enjoys bright whites and colors in softer hues. And so all of this has been leading up to a confession: It turns out that my current favorite home furnishings/inspiration site is Pottery Barn Teen.

I refuse to feel ashamed of this. I blame the industry on the fact that my home is going to look like a 14-year-old girl decorated it. Perhaps if there’d been more options and variation, I could have found inspiration elsewhere—maybe even in a place that includes kitchen decor because adults use kitchens. But this is where we are and so I’m embracing it. And it really only feels awkward when I’m scrolling through items and there’s something like a random Harry Potter themed owl clock thrown in.

Anyway, this is the latest update on my home building. And I’d like to respectfully ask that if you come to my home in the future, you just settle into your bean bag chair next to the porcelain unicorn diffuser and keep quiet about it.

A little (ok, a long) story about Charlotte history

Yesterday, I had to pick up something at my office. I take a strange route to the office now from my new apartment. I drive down a small road that runs smack between the western-most airport runway and I-485. There’s one turn-off on the road that takes a bridge over I-485 and at that turn-off, there’s a sign with an arrow to Dixie’s Grille.

I’d noticed it a few dozen times before, and had looked it up on Yelp. The photos of cheeseburgers looked tasty and it had decent reviews. The name made me apprehensive though. So, as I was driving home from the office, I decided to swing by Dixie’s Grille just to see if it was a place I might like to visit one day.

This is the story of how I came across the Cooper Log House, a 1780 pioneer home that is likely the oldest standing structure in Mecklenburg County. To most people, this would be a semi-interesting find. To a person who prides herself on her knowledge of Charlotte history, this was basically the equivalent of an Egyptian archeologist accidentally stumbling across the tomb of a mummy they didn’t even know had existed.

The house sits on a corner and I only noticed it after I’d turned around from Dixie’s (which looked promising, by the way). The house is striking in person. It’s so obviously old and makes no sense in the neighborhood. Naturally, I ended up spending a large portion of my evening researching the home and surrounding area. Its history is remarkable. And it’s given me an entirely different perspective on Charlotte’s early history. Here’s what I learned:

The original owner of the home was a pioneer named William Cooper who built the log cabin on 350 acres next to the Catawba River (it’s said William inherited part of the land from his father, John, one of the earliest settlers in the area who came here from Scotland). William was a slaveholder, raising cotton and other crops. He passed the home to his son, who passed it to his son, who fought in the Civil War and went on to be the Sheriff of Mecklenburg County from 1887 to 1898.

The home itself has been added on to many times—mostly in the 1800s. But it’s said to still have original pieces like a fireplace mantle from 1780. It also has several outbuildings from the 1800s.

This part of Charlotte, known as the Dixie Berryhill neighborhood (adjacent to Steele Creek), was originally incredibly prosperous. It included miles of Catawba River shoreline and hundreds of acres of farmland dotted with fancy antebellum homes. Then, in the 1870s, a railroad was built that went directly from Charlotte to Atlanta—its primary crossing was just south of where Wilkinson Boulevard now crosses the Catawba.

Postcard of the Wilkinson Boulevard Catawba River Bridge in 1920. (Note: This is the same bridge today and it’s annoying because cars are much larger in 2021.)

The railroad was built there because of the proximity to the crops. Then, in the 1920s, Wilkinson Boulevard was built there because of the proximity to the influential area and closeness to the railroad. Wilkinson quickly became the most major highway in the state of North Carolina. Then, in the 1930s, Ben Douglas built his first runway at what would become Charlotte Douglas International Airport. He chose the location because, at the time, pilots needed landmarks they could see from the air and the perpendicular lines of Wilkinson Boulevard and the Catawba River were perfect. Finally, in the 1990s, when planners were trying to decide where to put the outer loop (I-485), it made sense for it to be close to the airport, but not as far west as the Catawba.

And so now, precisely because it had been the fanciest area in town and home to the wealthiest landowners 200 years ago, that area of town is criss-crossed with major highways, railroads, and an airport—making it a far cry from fancy these days.

I didn’t know any of this before yesterday and I couldn’t be more excited about it. It’s hard to find much Charlotte history beyond 150 years ago. But here’s this little treasure trove right across the river from me.

So, back to the house (and I promise this entry is ending soon): According to Mecklenburg County land records, it’s been owned by the same man since 1989. And according to this weird listing on Zillow, it’s not for sale but it’s “open to offers any time.” Currently, it doesn’t look like a historic home. In fact, it looks a little like a junkyard. (I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the current owner. I think he may actually be running some sort of junkyard from the backyard.)

No one seems to be giving the structure the attention it needs. Beyond some documents I found about being sure to save it when I-485 was being built, it’s been virtually ignored in the public sphere. So, I need someone with a historical focus to make one of those offers, buy this home, and fully restore it. Then open it to the public (me!) so I can visit Mecklenburg County’s oldest home.

All this because I just wanted to check out a burger joint.

Last winter I tried Whole30. I hated it. Like, if I were rating it on a scale of one to five, I would rate it a negative 17. If I was feeling generous.

However, while I was eating like some kind of carnivorous rabbit, I did discover one thing that I actually liked: these tasty PF Changs inspired lettuce wraps. They’ve become one of my favorites on my recipe rotation again lately, so I thought I’d share.

Personally, I like to have them with a side of crab and cream cheese wantons and a glass of sauvignon blanc, just to reassure my body that I’m not putting it back on Whole30. But, theoretically, these are also a healthy dish. Either way, enjoy!

As best as I can tell, we’re approximately halfway through building my home. (I like to say “we’re.” I’m not doing anything other than being the annoying lady who shows up every day with a Labrador who tries to eat all the lumber.)

But we’re getting to the fun stuff now, like choosing faucets and which way doors should open—things I’ve literally never considered. Here are some random things I think are semi-interesting that I’ve learned so far in home building:

  1. One of the most unexpectedly fun things is seeing the view from each new room built. I built my house with views in mind, but I’ve found that every new window is exciting—regardless of the view. It’s something about being able to really imagine yourself in the room looking at that view that makes it real.
  2. Staircases are often built outside of the home and have the actual hardwoods on them. So, they don’t go in until there’s a roof and guaranteed dryness. The rest of the house is built without them. Weird, right?
  3. White mortar for bricks costs more because it’s made with fancy white sand, I guess?
  4. You can change more as you go than I realized. A wall went up and I said “Nope, I don’t want a wall there.” So my builder took it down. So now that’s actually happened several times.
  5. Building a house means you become a veritable meteorologist. At any given time, I can tell you the forecast for the next week because if it’s raining, progress stops. Apparently, the second half of building is less weather dependent, so I should be able to return to normal levels of weather knowledge soon.

Anyway, those are my revelations so far. I’ll post soon about more thrilling things. Like those faucets.

January Reading List

I read 16 books in January. If you’re thinking “geez, it sounds like you never left your house,” you would basically be correct. Between a global pandemic, chilly temperatures, and my newfound love of the Libby library app, there’s never been a better time for cozying up with good books.

I actually enjoyed all of these. Addie LaRue was a little too fantastical for me, The Huntress went about 50 pages longer than necessary, and I need John Grisham to chill on his need to take a stance against the death penalty in every single novel, but otherwise, I’d recommend them all.

Here are my top three picks though:

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in awhile. I loved the characters and the imagery and the way the entire book stretched my imagination. I’ve realized I like novels that have a small element of magic—like, it doesn’t take over the story, but it’s integral to the plot. This was also just a really cool plot, and one that I know will stick in my head for awhile.

Dare to Bloom is one of those books that if you read it at the right time (or, as the author would say, “season”) in your life, it’s going to feel like it was written just for you. Zim Flores, the author, might be the coolest person ever. She’s a young entrepreneur with a passion for God and traveling. And she’s just so smart and thoughtful and real. This book inspired me and it made me think. I’ve already decided I’m going to re-read it just to soak it all in.

Anxious People is hard to explain. It’s actually impossible to explain. On its surface, it’s a funny and poignant story about a failed bank robbery and an amusing hostage situation. But really it’s a story about loss and failure and how incredibly hard life can be sometimes. (Note: There’s a suicide that’s a pivotal part of the book and if I’d known that, I wouldn’t have read it. I was fine, but if that’s a trigger for you, keep it in mind.)

So, February is shaping up to be another cold and isolated month. What should I read next?

Day One

Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. Forgiveness means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin. – Desmond Tutu

I want to be clear. I will never be one of those people who posts fluffy quotes on pink backgrounds about how “we’re still neighbors” and “can’t we all just get along” in regards to the irreparable damage and pain caused by Donald Trump.

But I do think that today offers the opportunity to be Day One of being our better selves as a country. And I think the people who are angry about the last four years (myself included) have to be the ones who put our anger down first in favor of forgiveness. Not because we’re bigger people and not because others necessarily deserve forgiveness. But because history has repeatedly shown us that path is literally the only way to move forward together.

(To be clear, I know it’s easier for me—a white, Christian, middle-class, American-born, straight woman—to say all of these things. I understand my privilege and know that the righteous anger others feel comes from much more personal places.)

I keep thinking though of the Anne Frank quote this week, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” If we could actually believe that of each other, if we could set aside the name-calling and the generalizations and the hiding behind computer screens, then I think we’d find that people are truly good at heart.

So that’s my hope—to set those things aside. It’s a big one to place on a broken country ravaged by disease and divided along so many lines. But today, as a unifier replaces a divider and a female steps for the first time into the second-highest office, I see proof that great things are possible. And I believe we can move forward—together.