Category Archives: Travel

Who’s never left home? Who’s never struck out? An ode to the Dixie Chicks

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own,
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone?”
–Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Sometimes a song can serve as an anthem or a guiding light. The Dixie Chicks were (are) that way for me.

In reality, the band’s four albums were released over the course of eight years. But I think of them now as a soundtrack to my college experience, as though they stacked upon each other to represent each class of the traditional four-year education.

The Dixie Chicks always take me back to the decisions and risks of early adulthood. Moving from my parents’ house in Jacksonville, Florida, to Dorman Hall, 177 miles away in Tallahassee, wasn’t a risk by most measures. I had a full scholarship, so I knew how my bills would be paid. Mom and Dad pledged another $300 a month for food and gas. I was on their cell phone plan.

But I didn’t know who I would meet when I arrived, besides the girl I’d soon call my roommate, a girl with whom I’d discussed matching comforters, a microwave and a shared disinterest in a television. I didn’t know who I would become.

I’m not certain now whether it’s reality or my memory rewriting history to fit a narrative, but I believe the Dixie Chicks must have been my companions on that two-and-a-half hour drive. I assume “Wide Open Spaces” was a declaration for many 18-year-old women who set their sights on new faces in the late ’90s. It was our anthem of independence.

The Dixie Chicks remained with us throughout college. My best friend and I belted out “There’s Your Trouble” with men in mind. The band’s second album, “Fly,” was released weeks into freshman year, and “Cowboy Take Me Away” became the anthem for love we hoped to find. We choreographed a line dance to “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” unaware that we’d be the only karaoke contest entrants to sing country instead of rap. It didn’t matter; the truth is, some days you do have to dance. The crowd loved us, even if the judges didn’t.

Coming to you live from atop a double decker bus: American tourists! 🙌🏻 #londonbaby

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

“‘Cause when the world doesn’t make no sense
And you’re feeling just a little too tense
Gotta loosen up those chains and dance”
–Dixie Chicks, “Some Days You Gotta Dance”

I gave away Dixie Chicks tickets my sophomore year. I don’t remember how I came into them, but it was a street team-esque set up. If you volunteered before the show, your admission was free.

Passing on those tickets remains one of my great regrets.

But I had regrets yet to come. That’s surely typical of decisions made at 19 and 20. At that age, I was convinced I should leave college and set out for the great unknown as soon as possible.

But I couldn’t do it without the Dixie Chicks to send me on my way.

The band’s third release, “Home,” was the only Chicks album that didn’t immediately grab me. There were tracks that did; “Long Time Gone” and “Truth No. 2” had instant appeal.

And as I prepared to leave my college town, just three years after enrolling, another song grabbed me. I know it first as a Dixie Chicks song–my lack of back catalog knowledge is embarrassing–but whether it’s the Chicks or Stevie Nicks singing, “Landslide” brings me back to the transition between college’s adulthood incubator and the rest of my life.

“Well I’m afraid of changing ’cause I built my world around you
But time makes you bolder, children get older
I’m getting older, too”
–Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”

Through jobs and moves, cross-country road trips and existential crises, the Dixie Chicks’ music has carried me. Each album feels as fresh now as it did on release. I’d argue some songs even improve as I age.

But I still hadn’t seen the band live. The comments that sent them into a tailspin before the United States declared war in 2003 significantly reduced future opportunities. The band toured in favor support of its fourth, and, to date, final, album, but they didn’t come my way. I thought my dance had ended.

But 15 years after I gave up my chance to see the Dixie Chicks, they announced a European tour–and I decided to go.

I had never visited Europe. That, too, was one of my great regrets; if I had a college do-over, I would’ve stuck around for a fourth year and studied abroad. When I bought a pair of tickets for the band’s Birmingham, England, show, I still wasn’t sure I’d see the other side of the pond. But I could always sell the tickets if I had to. How do you put a price on a dream, anyway?

Somehow the pieces fell into place. Thanks to a friend’s Sky Miles and careful AirBNB selections, I traveled overseas with my college roommates for less than $700 each. For them, the trip was about more than a concert. And OK, it was for me, too. But the show was at the heart of my trip.

From Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, UK #dixiechicksbham #londonbaby #theotherbham

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

The Dixie Chicks are still as high-energy and spirited as they ever were. It’s as though a decade, births, divorces and public outcry never occurred. Well, as far as their stage presences is concerned, anyway; were it not for the backlash to Natalie’s George Bush comments, some of their best material wouldn’t exist.

It was funny to see them in the country where the incident occurred. I looked around the 15,000-seat arena and wondered how the scene compared to that 2003 performance int he more intimate Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Was the crowd as reserved then as the people gathered in Birmingham? Or did the room ripple with energy?

The quiet Birmingham crowd didn’t stop us from singing every word. When “Ready to Run” was accompanied by a video mocking the U.S. presidential candidates, we joked to the Brits seated beside us that we were on our “Ready to Run” research trip. Later, when we finally rose from our seats for “Wide Open Spaces” and danced to “Sin Wagon,” one of those seemingly reserved Brits leapt to her feet as well.

I’ll see the band again this weekend, and if the North American tour had been announced sooner, I may never have made it to Europe. The trip unwound my two greatest regrets. It was a dream 15 years in the making, even if I took a round-about route.

“Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around”
–Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

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Filed under Autobiography, music, Travel

She needs new faces, she knows the high stakes

This summer has been filled with stress and change, some of it positive, other elements less so. I’ve been seeking positive ways to ease those adjustments: subscribing to a flower CSA, attempting to increase the number of yoga classes I take per week, setting aside more and more time for reading.

Today, inspiration struck.

A song playing over the sound system at Urban Standard reminded me of the Dixie Chicks, and so I spent the rest of the day listening to “Taking the Long Way” (an album I’m still infatuated with, all these years later). I tweeted about my music of choice, and later noticed the band’s account had favorited that tweet. So I clicked through to the band’s Twitter profile–and remembered they’re touring Europe this spring.

Then I did what any normal person would do. I hopped on Ticketmaster and bought a pair of tickets to see the Dixie Chicks in Birmingham, England.

A coworker giggled as I narrated the purchase. (“I don’t even know how much I just spent! How do pounds convert to dollars?”) Several people have already asked if I purchased tickets in the wrong Birmingham by mistake. (I didn’t.) Now, I’m daydreaming about my first-ever European trip.

One of my greatest regrets is giving away tickets to see the Dixie Chicks on their “Fly” tour. My sister and one of my best friends went, while I spent the weekend on a ministry retreat to one of Florida’s least appealing beaches. Fifteen years later, I’m correcting that mistake.

I’m not yet sure how this plan will come together. I’m not positive it will. I have to figure out airfare, lodging in multiple cities, what I want to see and do in England and whether I can justify the expense. Oh, I need to be sure my passport hasn’t expired! But I have time–the show isn’t until April. As many reasons there are to travel abroad, why not make the impetus for my first such trip a concert? It’s something I’ll look forward to for months to come–and likely won’t forget for years afterward.

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Filed under music, Travel

It was the air you breathed that fanned the flame

“You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” –Birdie to Kathleen, You’ve Got Mail

Travel expands your view of the world, sometimes showing you a different way of life, and sometimes showing you that it could be your own. After four days in New York City, shared with people I love, I remember that Birmingham isn’t the only city where life happens. It’s even possible that it’s not the only city for me.

I realize how counter-intuitive that sounds. New York is the stuff of dreams, literature and screens, big and small. Birmingham is typically not. But I’ve found my home and dreams in Alabama, with a career that satisfies me, a small group of friends I love and volunteer work I’m passionate about.

For years, New York has been the thing I don’t want. It’s fast-paced and high pressure–traits I’ve captured just fine on my own, thanks, without a city to reinforce them. But seeing the city with my sisters and my friends Josh and Dan reminded me that so much contentment comes from being around people who care about and challenge you.

I may be a little more susceptible to that right now, because I have had trouble connecting with a lot of people around me lately. That disconnect seems to come and go with different seasons of life. The truth is, I love Birmingham and am committed to it for the foreseeable future.

But there are other possibilities out there. And maybe it’s healthy for me to see that.

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Filed under Autobiography, Travel

Head full of doubt, road full of promise

Today I had one of those moments when you realize you’re becoming your parents. I usually love those; I’m perfectly content as an almost-perfect hybrid of my homebody mom and dreamer dad. But I’m afraid even my dad would be disappointed by today’s epiphany.

I don’t recall specifically how we got there, but this afternoon my boss, a coworker and I were in my boss’ office, listening to her stories of visiting the Czech Republic and Slovakia. As she rhapsodized about towns frozen in time and picturesque scenery that seemed straight off a set for Cinderella, I suddenly realized: I may never see these things myself. I may never travel outside of my own country. I may have already become my parents.

My dad, in particular, is bothered by his lack of travel experience. I barely remember a family trip to the Birmingham International Airport when I was just a tiny thing. Daddy was off to Michigan for a church mission trip, and I stood at the window, waving goodbye.

For the longest time, that was the most exotic trip I could recall my dad taking. Last year he accepted a new job that required him to spend two weeks in Denver for training. He was nervous about the cold and not particularly excited about the trip. But Mom was thinking of flying out for a long weekend to visit, and I did my best to convince them that this was the best idea they’d had in a long time. I’ve been to and through Colorado several times, and a long weekend in Telluride was one of the most magical experiences of my still-young life. (Plus, that dry cold really is different. Even to this Alabama-born, Florida-raised girl, it wasn’t so bad.) Mom and Dad listened to my advice, and sure enough they had a wonderful weekend.

Earlier this year, he was flying back west for more training. It was a week or so after I spent a day in Washington, D.C., and Dad just happened to have a layover in Dulles International Airport. It didn’t take much to persuade him to leave the airport, take public transit to the National Mall and at least spend a few minutes taking in the nation’s capitol. He agreed that a glimpse of D.C. was worth returning to airport security.

There’s so much my dad still wants to see. He’s never even been to New York City to visit my younger sister. But with a mortgage, bills and a kid still in high school (for seven more months), travel hasn’t been in the cards.

And though I take after my mom’s homebody tendencies–I’ll spend part of my upcoming vacation sitting on my couch with a stack of books–there’s so much world out there that I want to experience. It costs money, though, so much more than I have been able to set aside for such an occasion. My travels have taken me to New York, Seattle, San Diego and Telluride, but save for a few hours in Cozumel, those trips may not take me beyond our nation’s borders.

My mental to-save-for list is too long for my liking. The rainy day fund will never be big enough to make me feel secure. I suppose that’s life for a worrier. But I also hope to save for a car to eventually replace my ’99 sedan. One day I might like to buy a house. Or a couch. I may someday get married, and I don’t expect Mom and Dad to spring for that occasion. I’m not going to begin saving for college funds for unborn children from an unmet husband, but I will say it seems sometimes that the list of reasons to save could stretch out endlessly.

So where does a trip to Europe fit in? How do I make my way to Bali, and the little town my friend Jamie insists would be my southeastern Asia spot? Will I ever visit friends in Africa? Even if I muster the courage to spend weeks in Mexico, trying to understand the conditions that lead people to risk everything to immigrate to the United States, legally or not, would I have the means to do so?

As with anything in life, it’s easier to accept failure than to try and risk success. But if I’m going to tackle any of my dream list, I’ve got to make squirelling money away a higher priority. I’ve taken a month off of eating out, and that may be a start. But there’s so much happening in this city, and so much that’s free or cheap, that I’ve got no excuse for not trying a little harder. I think it would make my mom and daddy proud.

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Filed under Autobiography, Insecurity, Travel

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

Nashville’s Lightning 100 dubbed July 26 “McCartney Monday,” and the mid-day DJ filled the lunch hour with all Paul McCartney, all live versions, all by request. I stopped my car and texted the request email when I heard this, then sat in my car in front of the restaurant where I was meeting a friend, hoping to hear my request. When “Helter Skelter” came up third (after “Venus and Mars Rock Show” and “The Long and Winding Road”), I danced in my seat and celebrated my song being played. I felt like a teenager who finally got to tape her new favorite song from the airwaves.

And that’s how I felt throughout the Paul McCartney concert that night. That’s the power of The Beatles’ music: It brings out that pure, simple love of a good song. There’s plenty to digest, lyrics to think through, guitar solos to pick apart. But it’s also just good music in a way that even a child with a penchant for Top 40 can recognize.

Paul seemed to enjoy the music as much as the thousands of fans gathered for his first-ever Nashville show. He and his band calmly, quietly walked on stage, but they immediately kicked up the rock with “Venus and Mars Rock Show.” Several songs in, Paul said he wanted a minute to take it all in. He slung his Hofner over his shoulder, stepped away from the mic and gazed out into the crowd as we went wild. Paul McCartney was taking us in.

The mood remained exuberant as Paul and the band switched from Beatles tunes to Wings songs to his solo material. The set was carefullly paced, with an interlude of quieter, piano-based songs (“The Long and Winding Road,” for one) followed shortly by tributes to John Lennon and George Harrison. As Paul played “Something” on the ukelele, the band returned to stage and kicked in, a moment so overwhelming it brought tears to my eyes.

There were several moments that brought me near to crying: “Blackbird” and his brief discussion of the American Civil Rights movement. The crowd sing-along during “Hey Jude.” (How cool to say that, for one night, my voice joined Paul McCartney’s!) When he spotted a fan whose sign asked him to sign the tattoo of his Hofner on her back, then brought the crying, shaking woman on stage to do just that, I wanted to cry and hug her.

There was also a lot of laughter. The screen behind the song showed Beatles Rock Band footage during “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Paul is still a showman, posing for the thousands of cameras every several minutes. When he flashed a thumbs up or winked, you could see the same boy doing that 40 years ago. He brought a young Mexican fan on stage for “Get Back.” The boy didn’t speak much English, but he sang it–and had no problem shaking his tush to the beat. I couldn’t help but laugh during the pyrotechnics of “Live and Let Die,” (I could feel the heat from the nosebleeds!) and my cheeks hurt from smiling (while I shook my own little tush) during “Helter Skelter.”

But the best, most overwhelming moment of all was the show’s conclusion. The band segued from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” into “The End,” with Paul changing several of the “love you”s to “we really love you.” It was a celebratory cap on a special night. And as they shredded those guitars and the awesome graphics from the conclusion of Beatles Rock Band played, I literally went weak in the knees. There was one of my favorite musicians–the one who I wanted to see more than anyone alive, and who could only be topped by the band that made him famous–playing one of my favorite songs, a song that makes me stop and take it in even when listening to a mere recording, from one of my favorite albums of all time. There, in the room with me. I’ve only known and loved these songs, from the band that revolutionized music, for three years. How lucky am I to have a lifetime ahead with them?

Set list:

  1. Venus and Mars Rock Show
  2. Jet
  3. All My Loving
  4. Letting Go
  5. Got to Get You Into My Life
  6. Highway
  7. Let Me Roll It
  8. Long and Winding Road
  9. 1985
  10. Let ‘Em In
  11. My Love
  12. I’m Looking Through You/Tequila
  13. Two of Us
  14. Blackbird
  15. Here Today
  16. Dance Tonight
  17. Mrs. Vanderbilt
  18. Eleanor Rigby
  19. Ram On
  20. Something
  21. Sing the Changes
  22. Band on the Run
  23. Obladi, Oblada
  24. Back in the USSR
  25. I Got A Feeling
  26. Paperback Writer
  27. A Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance
  28. Let It Be
  29. Live and Let Die
  30. Hey Jude
    First encore:
  31. Day Tripper
  32. Lady Madonna
  33. Get Back
    Second encore:
  34. Yesterday
  35. Helter Skelter
  36. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
  37. The End

Reviews:
The Tennessean
American Songwriter
Nashville Scene
Spinner

My life with The Beatles:
“It’s so hard to reason with you,” a tribute to “Please Please Me” and enduring Beatlemania
“All we are saying is give peace a chance,” or how the Beatles saved my friendship with Adam
“It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few,” and several hundred of them are about the Beatles
“I’m writing you to catch you up on places I’ve been,” in which the Beatles make the drive to New Orleans oh-so-much more bearable
“How do I feel by the end of the day?”–better with the Beatles.
“The more I think about it, the more I know it’s true” that the Beatles make me happy.

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Filed under Autobiography, Love letters, music, Travel

And we’ll remember this when we are old and ancient

This is a concert experience so excellent it bears repeating.

I always tell people that the Ryman Auditorium is such a great concert venue, I could sing on stage and people would still applaud. There’s not a bad seat in that room, and there’s a certain magic to it. I’m not sure if that’s more because of history or acoustics. Either way, it’s a wonderful place to see a concert.

So I was thrilled months ago when it was announced that the Decemberists would be playing the Ryman in September. I’ve desperately wanted to see them on their current tour, during which they’re playing The Hazards of Love in its entirety, but their I had already been told a Birmingham stop was unlikely this time. I bought tickets immediately, so anxious to make plans that I didn’t even check my seats. It’s the Ryman. How could I go wrong?

An hour later I got curious and pulled up my confirmation email. Front row. Center.

Before the concert began, my friend Monica and I sat in our oh-so-close seats and discussed our expectations for the evening. We admitted we set the bar high: If this wasn’t the best show we attended this year, we would be disappointed. (And we both attend a lot of concerts.) But here was the thing. We were certain we wouldn’t be let down. The Hazards of Love is such an epic album that we knew the night would be memorable.

The Decemberists are apparently a brilliant live band (this was my first time to see them, but I’ve since heard that from multiple people). My heart was racing as they came on stage, and every moment of The Hazards of Love set was just right. When Shara Worden came to the front for her first solo, she instantly lifted the energy of the very excited but very polite crowd. (My mantra is now, “Shara Worden is the very definition of bad ass.”) “The Rake’s Song” was one of the evening’s highlights. I’d been anxious to see the majority of the band behind drums, and it was incredible. I thought the guys in the folding chairs set up before the front rows of pews were going to lose it.

The band took an intermission after The Hazards of Love before a second “greatest hits” set. I turned to Monica and said, “The only way this could get better would be if we were in the center of all the music.”

I’m not as familiar with the Decemberists’ back catalog, but I thoroughly enjoyed the second set. They finally got us on our feet with some gentle admonishing; I think everyone remained seated during the bulk of  The Hazards of Love simply out of consideration for the rest of the audience. But now we were on our feet, singing along and cheering as Colin Meloy bantered with us.

I’m not a fan of standing ovations, and frequently plop back in my seat if I don’t think the performance merited one. This time, I was on my feet until the band returned for the encore. The final song of the evening was “Sons and Daughters,” and at the conclusion of the song Meloy prepared to lead us in a sing along. But before we could join in chorus on the song’s final line, he stepped to the front of the stage and said something to the effect of, “You guys. Get up here.”

I looked at Monica, wide-eyed, and took off. About 100 audience members clamored onto the stage. I looked up into the balcony of the Ryman as we sang, “Hear all the bombs fade away.” Sure enough, I was singing and they were still cheering.

And then, everyone on stage spontaneously began jumping up and down. It was such a communal moment; no one started it, but I don’t know that you could have remained planted on the ground unless you had a very large instrument holding you there.

At last, I was inside the music.

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When you play my song, play it slowly

Even though I normally keep my bedroom as dark as possible when I sleep, I’m not sure I’ll be able to close out light tonight. I’m spending tonight and tomorrow night in Nashville. It’s the one city that I could imagine stealing my heart from Birmingham, and right now I’m sitting in the heart of it. My hotel room overlooks the Ryman auditorium, the Tennessee Titans’ stadium, the river and the capitol (???). I’ve got 20 feet of windows stretching out before me, and since I returned to the room tonight I’ve found it difficult to do much but stare through them. (OK, I might have danced around a bit too. No one can see me from up here!) With Over the Rhine serenading me and a good book or four waiting to be read, I’m glad for the chance to slow my pace in a city I love.

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I’m writing you to catch you up on places I’ve been

I misplaced my camera a while back. I say misplaced instead of lost because I know it’s in my apartment, somewhere. In the months since it went missing, I’ve relied even more heavily on other people for photos.

Well, both Elisa and I were camera-less for last weekend’s Jazz Fest in New Orleans… but this is what I would have shown you, had I the means.

  • An overcast, windy day
    We arrived at the festival an hour after it started on Friday. Mission one: Food. (We both had crawfish etouffe and cheap, flavorless, domestic beer. I quickly learned that Jazz Fest is all about the food.) Mission two: Set up camp. The main stage wasn’t terribly crowded, perhaps because the sky promised rain. A less crowded festival and breezes to keep us cool made for a glorious afternoon.
  • A dork with a book
    The sky finally delivered just before Stevie Wonder’s set. Everyone scrambled for their ponchos when it began sprinkling, then pulled them off when it cleared up, only to scramble again 10 minutes later. The rain was persistent, forcing me to protect my book from the weather and read through my translucent orange poncho. (Yeah, that’s right. I said I was forced. Putting the book away was not an option!) Someone out there actually has a picture of this… the people next to us found me pretty amusing, I suppose.
  • A dancing hippie (or a few thousand dancing hippies)
    While I was racing toward the final pages of Paper Towns, Elisa threw back her hood and danced in the falling rain. Neighboring dancers even invited her to join them. I suspect she might have had as much fun as I did reading my book!
  • The best festival moment, ever
    As Stevie finally launched into “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (thank you, California Raisins, for introducing me to this song so many years ago!), the sky responded with equal abandon. Rain poured on what remained of the crowd, and the New Orleans Fairgrounds became a beautiful, muddy dance party. (I was still reading, for a few songs longer anyway.)
  • The aftermath
    The rain returned early the next morning (not that I know from personal experience–I slept through the storm!). By the time we returned to the festival, it was a barely-controlled mud pit. We spread a beach mat below our chairs, prepared to throw it out at the end of the day. We’re smart girls–appropriate shoes and appropriate attire meant that the only mud on us was from our fellow spectators stepping on instead of around us.
  • The look on my face when I realized Community Coffee uses powdered creamer
    Not. OK.
  • Two sleepy girls
    A day in the sun, surrounded by Parrotheads, makes for two smelly, exhausted girls. I was so disgusting when we returned to our hostess’ house that I sat on the floor instead of furniture while I awaited my turn to shower. But exhaustion didn’t keep us from making a late night fast food run…
  • A gorgeous day for eating outside
    We skipped the final day of the festival, instead sleeping in and taking a lazy Sunday morning. I met an old friend who lives nearby for lunch. We sat on the restaurant’s deck, with a view of the water a block away. It was the kind of day when you never want to go inside again.
  • A dork with a deck of cards
    Yeah, I played solitaire on the (passenger side) floorboard of my car during the drive home. And I lost. Every time.
  • Two happy girls
    Road trips with friends have to be one of my favorite things. I could do without gas prices and travel time, but without them, would we have six hours of Beatles, multiple boxes of Nerds and more enthusiastic laughter than I can recount? Doubtful.

I may not have anything physical to show for a long weekend away, but I have memories, music and friends. Sometimes, misplacing your camera isn’t so bad.

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Filed under Autobiography, Reading, Travel

I was born in a state of grace

One of the (many) ways I know Birmingham’s home:

It doesn’t matter where I’ve been or why. I’ve been to West Texas for a job interview and fought the urge to kiss the red clay dirt when I returned. I’ve spent a week vacationing in New York and longed for Southern accents. I’ve lounged around Florida with my parents and siblings and wondered if that’s really where I was raised.

Every time I return, I am so glad to see my sweet home, Alabama.

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Protected: and every other girl would fly away

At long last, somebody is recognizing my true worth and flying me out to a job interview. 🙂

I’ve never been flown to an interview before! I’m so excited!

I’ll be in Amarillo (yes, Amarillo. Yes, Texas.) October 24 and 25, I believe (details to be arranged tomorrow). I’m interviewing at the newspaper, and they have openings for a features writer, cops reporter and general assignment reporter.

I’m also hoping Jackson will actually call my references (but since it’s been almost a week since they called me already, I’m not holding my breath), and I’m applying for a job at the company where my friend Kristen works (which has FL and DC locations).

The real question is, where does Emma want to live next?

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