Saying goodbye to Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach

When we got married, we had no money. We spent a total of $300 on the wedding and reception, combined, and even that was incredibly stressful. Her ring came from a pawn shop. I didn’t have a ring for the first year we were married – we couldn’t afford it. A friend bought Renee’s dress, and another friend gave us their house for the reception.

It was really, really, tight.

So when a friend gave us the use of their condo in Carolina Beach for a week so we could have a honeymoon, it was a dream come true. At the wedding we had been given nearly a thousand dollars in cash from guests who would come up and slip folded bills in our hands, so we had the money to enjoy ourselves that week.

That was the week we fell in love with Carolina Beach.

It is a small beach town, with cheesy bright colored buildings, seasonal shops, restaurants of variable quality, and a pretty nice boardwalk along the dunes. That week we found new restaurants we liked, we walked along the beach for hours, went to the nearby aquarium, rode the ferry, and slept with the sliding glass door open so we could fall asleep to the crashing of the waves.

The Deck House is a restaurant in a converted church just off the main drag, and we ate there the first night we were in town at a friend’s recommendation. It felt decadent to eat there, and we instantly fell in love with it. I don’t think we have spent the night in Carolina Beach since without eating there at least once.

Next door is Kure Beach with a massive wooden dock that juts out into the ocean, where old men fish and the seagulls wait patiently for bait droppings and fish cleanings. We learned that if you bought popcorn in the bait shop, the seagulls would flock to you like you were St. Francis and that it would delight any small children who happened to be nearby.

There is a small island bookshop that sold overpriced used books and a few new books, but we believe in supporting what we want more of, so we always would spend an hour or so in that shop, and always buy a book or four. It is next door to the fifties themed diner, and just down the street from the coffee shop.

Up the road a few miles is the dock where I scattered a friend’s ashes, and down the road is the causeway where I love to sit on the rocks and watch the ferry go by while the waves lap at my feet.

We have been there probably 30 times over the last nine years. We have watched businesses change hands and improve, or fail. We have been there in every possible season, every possible weather. We learned that the week before Memorial Day is the best combination of affordability and seasonal shops being open, developed favorite restaurants and must do’s anytime we are there. We have even talked of moving there.

And now we are moving 12 hours away.

In some ways, moving away from there is harder than moving away from Raleigh. Carolina Beach was where we went to get away. It is where we went to relax, and where we began to be a family. We dreamed there, and we dreamed of there.

So last Thursday, we went one last time to say goodbye.

We ate at a restaurant we liked. We walked the boardwalk. We swung on the swings and talked about the future and reminisced about the past. We walked out on the pier and watched the waves and the seagulls. We bought a couple of used books. We got sunburned, ate donuts, watched the birds dart into the receding waves in search of food. Along the way, I wept some. Several times, in fact.

And then we drove the two hours home.

Old White Men

I feel like I have always been old. A woman broke up with me because she said she had no desire to date a man in his 70’s (I was about 25 at the time.)

Growing up, we didn’t have much money. All of my grandparents had either died or moved far away, but I had many surrogate grandparents. The community we lived in had lots of retired farmers, and they raised me, for all intents and purposes.

I would stay with them during the day in the summer, and after school during the school year. I would sit in the kitchen with the wives, who made homemade biscuits with religious devotion, and the best gravy on earth. (I no longer eat wheat much, but I can still make a hell of a gravy). I would ride the tractors with the men, and we would mend fences or sit in the shade in the heat of the day.

Often there were no other children around, so I learned to entertain myself. I would read, or go for long walks, or sit in the shade and chat with men who had retired from their labors. I learned the art of conversation and how to receive company. (To this day, if you come in my house, you are going to get offered something to drink, I don’t care who you are.)

I noticed seasons, learned the names of the trees and the birds and what sounds they make and I developed a strict attention to the weather report.

My musical tastes are catholic, but if I have to pick a favorite, it would be country music from the 60’s and 70’s – the music I grew up hearing in the car and on the kitchen radios of those farmhouses.

So it sort of makes sense I am old. I was taught to be by old white men.

I don’t mind it. I am content with my own company, I have an appreciation for the news and the wider world and yet am content to operate locally, because all change begins locally. I learned to really listen to people, and when in doubt, to default to listen to people older than I am.

I don’t fear becoming older. I feel like I have been there forever. What I do fear, however, is no longer being contemporary. No longer keeping up. No longer learning new technology, no longer being current. Being bogged down in what I am so sure of that I no longer am open to new ideas. Of being afraid of new things, new ideas and new people.

My dad one time told teenage me that it wasn’t his job to be my friend – it was his job to teach me how to be an adult, and to move in the world without his help. It was my work to learn how to do it. I think about that all the time.

Likewise, I think my work now, in my mid-forties, is to learn how to be older than I am now. Because I will, if all goes right, be older than I am now for much longer than I will be the age I am now.

So I try to learn something new all the time. I try to put myself in new positions, to be exposed to new ideas. I try to read authors I have never read before and read lots of tech websites to stay current on the latest thing, even if I have no desire to own it. I have developed a wide circle of friends who are from different cultures, races and ethnicities than mine.

And I also love Murder She Wrote reruns. Because I am, inside, old.


Being a regular

There is a coffee shop near my office that I go to most days. Actually, more than that – it is part of my routine.

I always go there on my way to the office. It is on the way, and it is part of how I tell my brain that it is time to shift to work mode. Most mornings, I show up there about 8:50 AM.

Because I am a regular there, several neat things happen. For example, I get to know the staff, and they get to know me. We aren’t going to each other’s house for dinner or anything, but they know the coffee I like and how I like it. It is generally the same crew working, so I know their names and we laugh at common jokes and doesn’t that make the world a little better?

Other people on the same schedule as I am are also there every morning at 8:50 AM. The college professor from the college around the corner. The slightly smarmy businessman standing in front of the building waiting on his 9:00 AM meeting to show up. The soccer mom in a minivan who shows up with her 3-year-old, and every morning they have long, endearing, discussions in line about what he is going to order when it is their turn.

I try hard to be a regular at places. I am all for exploring, but there is something to be said for being a regular part of someone’s day, and they are a regular part of yours.

When I first arrived in Raleigh, I was looking for a third place to hang out and write. The third day I was here, I wandered into Morning Times, and the barista asked me my name. The next day when I came back, she used my name in greeting me, and I am now a regular there, too. I have, conservatively, spent $3,000 there over the last 11 years.

One of the things I am most dreading about my upcoming move is losing all of my regular spots. The corner table in the library. The bookstore I like to browse when my head is full. The table at Morning Times where I like to write and, when not writing, gazing at the street traffic going by. The bench in the park where I people watch. The banter with Hannah the barista in the mornings.

But one of the things I am most excited about is looking for those places in my new home in Jackson, too.


My ax is dull

My grandfather, my Papaw, was a gruff man. He was kind to me, but he did not suffer fools lightly, and he did not do things he did not want to do.

He was a Navy UDT frogman in WWII (the precursors to the Navy Seals), then transferred to the Navy Aircrew in the Korean war, where he was shot down over enemy lines and lived off the land for more than a week before being rescued.

He gave zero thought about what you thought about him.

I loved him so much and wanted to just be in his presence.

One day we were sitting on his back porch. I was maybe 12. My grandmother came out and said that a neighbor had just called and wanted to borrow a hundred dollars. She had told the neighbor probably, but she would talk to Papaw and get back to him.

“Nope. We aren’t doing it.”, he said.

“Why not?”

“Tell him my ax is dull,” he said.

“OK,” she said and went back to the house to call the neighbor.

I had to ask.

“Papaw, what does your ax being dull have to do with you not lending him money?”

Papaw smiled. “Nothing, Hugh Lawson. But if I don’t want to do it, one excuse is as good as another.”

Why Jackson?

For the last 9 months, Renee and I were working on a plan to move from Raleigh to Jackson, MS. Really, it started a couple of years before that – you can read the whole story here.

One of the hardest parts of this process has been not being able to talk about it. It has largely been responsible for my relative light blogging schedule this year: The most important thing going on in my life was now off the table for discussion.

But now we can talk about it, and I thought I would share some things about why we picked Jackson. There were lots of reasons, but here are some of the major ones.


This may seem a weird place to start, but my single strongest cultural allegiance is to this region of the country. I am not an American who lives in the South, but a Southerner who lives in America.

I was born here, grew up here, was educated here, got married here, and will have my ashes scattered in the ocean here.  I don’t make sense in any other region of the country. These are my people, and I am of them, and for them.  Not because they are without flaws, currently and historically, but because they are my people. We knew that wherever we would live, it would be in the historic South.


There is much to be said for rural life, especially if you have economic means. But if you don’t, survival there can be exhausting. Urban living is cheaper, more sustainable for the average person, and quite frankly, more common, with more than 50% of the country now living in cities.

I grew up on the remnants of a farm, but have lived “in town” since 1991. It would be hard to go back. I remember living 27 miles from a gallon of milk after 8 PM, and it was not the paradise it is often painted to be.

Additionally, I want cultural stimulation: Libraries, theaters, baseball, movies, bookstores, arboretums. All of that is in the city. And the work I do – fighting poverty, homelessness, and racism via community building – is urban-centered.


I miss my family. Renee misses hers. Family is important to both of us, and while we recognize that not everyone belongs to loving families they want to be around, that isn’t our story.

Additionally, we are planning on signing up to be adoptive parents once we get there, so we want to be near our birth families while raising our family. Jackson is only three to four hours away from the majority of both of our families.


People think we are crazy from moving to a city everyone is moving away from, and moving from a city everyone is moving to, but all that incoming population comes with a cost. It has gotten incredibly expensive to live here in Raleigh. I know lots of people who make 40,000 a year that cannot afford to live in the city, and I know tons more who make far less than that.

We bought a fixer-upper 1,000 square foot house in Raleigh in a depressed neighborhood five years ago that we could barely afford – now we couldn’t afford a shack in that same neighborhood.

In Jackson, we can buy a move-in ready 2,000 square foot ranch house on a quarter acre lot for what we paid five years ago for the tiny fixer-upper here. For example, here are 3 bedroom 2 bath homes under $150,000 in Jackson. That search yields 56 results.

The same search in Raleigh yields 7.

Doing the work I do is hard, exhausting, and it is not financially rewarding. To be able to live in a comfortable house, where my family feels safe in the yard and where I don’t have to be “on” 24 hours a day? Priceless.


Jackson is not a paradise.

It is economically depressed. Its infrastructure is crumbling. The schools are a mess. There aren’t enough jobs. The racial history of the state and the stupidity of the current state administration are infuriating.

And yet they are not without hope. The current mayor of Jackson is amazing.  I would move there just to be able to be a part of whatever he is doing.

And he is just the public face of a decades-long resistance movement that seeks to bring power and self-determination to the people of Jackson. I want to be part of that.

The church I will be working with? They personify hope. The things they want to do for their neighborhood and their city inspire me, and fill me with the belief that the world can be better.

Jackson feels alive, and there is a movement of people there who want to move it forward. And they want us to be a part of it.

* * *

There are lots of other reasons, but those are the big ones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it is near the Gulf, or near New Orleans, or that it has a vibrant art and music scene, or a ton of fun things to do, or any number of other quality of life issues.

We are excited, and looking forward to living there, and being useful there. And we are planning on a house with a guest room, so you can come visit us.


“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”  – Anne Lamotte

At the age of 45, I learned something about myself. I should have known it before – all the evidence was there, but I ignored it because to take it seriously would have meant changing things I did not want to change. But at last the evidence is overwhelming, and I have to pay attention.

I am useless from a creative standpoint after 2 PM.

Any writing I get done has to happen before 2 in the afternoon, or it won’t be any good at all. Any critical business decision I need to make needs to happen before 2 as well (see the life-changing book Willpower for why that is).

There is nothing magic about 2 PM. It is more about I wake up at 6 in the morning, and my brain is really only good for about 8 hours. I don’t think it was always like this. I used to have late night writing sessions, where I would power up on coffee and pizza and power through.

But if I am serious, none of that writing was actually very good, either.

No, everything I have written in the last decade I am proud of happened before 2 PM. After that, I just have to reboot. I don’t think it is a consequence of growing older, but more recognizing something about myself I hadn’t paid attention to before.

But, as I am fond of saying, it is better to know than to not know. Because I know, I can arrange my day so that after 2, I don’t have critical meetings, I don’t try to do creative things, and I don’t demand too much of myself.

This doesn’t mean I can’t work after 2, of course – but it does mean that I need to structure things so that things after 2 don’t require my creativity or heavy decision-making skills. Light meetings, status updates, rote work – all of that can happen after 2, and probably should.


I once knew an older man who went to the casinos outside Memphis every day. He would take $300, and he would play the $5 craps table, and he would play very safe bets and when he had doubled his money he would quit for the day. And then tomorrow he would come back, with $300 and do it again. If he got down by $100, he would quit for the day.

He made good money. When I asked him his secret, he said “Money management. Most of life is just money management. Deposits and withdrawals, credits and debits.”

I know nothing about casinos. Or craps. Or even money, really. But I do know about relationships. And I am here to tell you that relationships are like a checking account.

We make deposits and withdrawals into our relationships with other people. I smile when you walk in? Deposit. I share something you wrote on Facebook? Deposit. I help you move? Big deposit.

We have a disagreement? Withdrawal. I ate all the chips and didn’t tell you? Withdrawal. I don’t show up for our lunch date? Withdrawal.

We all do this. We all have debits and credits with each other, and while we don’t keep score, per se, it is obvious when someone only makes withdrawals. We avoid those people. We get tired of them quickly.

The truth is, some people only withdraw. The guy who only calls you when he needs your help. The person who only critiques your work, but never affirms it. The guy who “just wants to play devil’s advocate.”

Those people are not automatically bad people. There are probably lots of accounts they routinely make deposits into. But that account they make deposits into isn’t your account.

In your account, they are overdrawn.

Food shopping

In our house, I do most of the cooking. That is both by choice and by inclination – mainly because I enjoy it, and the other resident of our house does not. A part of our division of labor is that I am in charge of groceries, and she is in charge of dry goods.

I am fortunate enough at this point in our lives that my life is not so overscheduled that I can do it (most days) and thus get to do something both that I enjoy, and that is useful on a near-daily basis.

I am a pantry cook. I enjoy looking at what is available and putting together a meal out of it, with trips to the store being mainly to fill out what is lacking or to get something I need that is fresh.

But even when I get to the store, I treat it like my pantry too: I look for what is cheap, what is on sale or what has been discounted and use that as the basis for my meal planning. I have some rules of thumb in this department. For example, I am attracted to any form of fresh meat that is below $2 a pound, especially boneless meat.

I also mostly go to only one store – the grocery store near my house. There are lots of reasons I shop there. For instance, that is where my neighbors go, so by shopping there, I am in solidarity with them. I also get to know that one store really well and learn the rhythms of their discounting and sales. I also get to know the staff there, and I believe you should always have a relationship with the people who feed you, and, by my shopping there, I feed them as well.

Most days I stop by there after work to get whatever fresh thing I need for tonight’s dinner: a head of lettuce, some green beans, a pork chop. Actually, most days it isn’t to get the pork chop because my limited freezer space is filled with meat I bought when it went on manager’s special, their term for meat nearing its sell-by date and thus is heavily discounted.

But when I am there, I am constantly scanning. What is discounted? What is on sale, or just a really good price? What are we low on at home? Canned beans and tomatoes are a staple, as are frozen vegetables. I make it a rule to never leave with just what I came for. I am always stocking up the pantry.

This way of eating (and shopping) assures that our overall food costs will be lower than average since I am buying most things when they are heavily discounted and  that we eat far more fresh things than is normal for most folks.


My new blog

For years I have been an active blogger, writing on various sites both personally and for work. And for years, “blogger” was a big part of my identity.

But over the years, the web has changed somewhat, and my job has changed somewhat, and I became less of a blogger and more of an essayist. Not that there is anything wrong with being an essayist, but I missed just blogging. No pressure, no finding the perfect image, no sense of obligation, no mission other than sharing your interior life with other folks.

So I started a new blog. Just for fun.

This isn’t where I expect to share grand insights into the human condition, or talk about my work of building radical communities of inclusion, or where I will link to things that give me hope for the future of our species.

It is, however, where I will share pictures from my garden, or vignettes from my day, or muse out loud about something I am dealing with. I might share a recipe that worked for me or a rant about the cable company. There will be few images, no long essays and no editorial vision.

It isn’t for work, or for money or for serious. It’s just a blog, yo.

My Media Diet – January 2018

What are you reading these days? I get asked that a lot.

I read a lot. Not as much as I used to, but still, a lot. I mention my favorites in The Hughsletterevery Monday, but that ends up only being a fraction of what I actually read. And these days, I am consuming other forms of media, too – like podcasts and shows on Netflix or Amazon. I want to be intentional about remembering the things I read and watched that gave me pleasure or growth – all too often they slip away. (Anyone out there know how many movies they watched last year? And were they good?)

So, inspired by Jason Kottke, I intend to keep track and sharing quick reviews and ratings of things I watched, read or listened to every month.

Note: I have a short attention span, so I quit many more books and movies than this. I only include the ones I finished.


This month, they were all nonfiction.

How to shoot video that doesn’t suck – Steve Stockman: I want to be better at video. Not just my performance on video, but I want to understand how it works. This was a good overall guide to the theory behind why a thing works, as well as rules of thumb. I don’t think it would make you amazing, but would, as the title says, keep you from sucking. (B+)

Theft by Finding – David Sedaris: – It got well deserved rave reviews, and I liked it, but it would be most interesting to people who already follow his career. (A-)

Ex Libris – Anne Faideman: A collection of essays about books and reading. Good if you like books or reading. (B)

How to cook a wolf – MFK Fischer: I adore her. She was a badass proto-feminist who loved to cook and took no shit, especially from men. And what do you do when the wolf shows up at your door? You cook him, of course. (A+)

The First 20 Hours: How to learn anything fast. – Josh Kaufman: The premise is that learning a skill and mastering a skill are different things, and most of us just want to learn to play the guitar, say, and not be master shredders ala Jimi Hendrix. And the author believes it takes 20 hours to learn most skills. I liked it. (A-)

My role is shifting at work, as we bring in managers to run the day to day operations, and I am spending a lot of time thinking about what my role is going forward.  I like Dorie Clark’s writing and style. I read a lot of business books, if for no other reason than the people I seek to most influence read them, and I want to know what their influences are. These, however, were very useful, and highly recommended. (A collective B+)

Reinventing You – Dorie Clark

Stand Out -Dorie Clark

Entrepreneurial You – Dorie Clark

Stand Out Networking – Dorie Clark


Hurry Slowly – a new-ish podcast about creativity. I listened to the first 10 episodes. I like her pacing and questions, and episode 4 (about swimming with the sharks – not a metaphor!) was my favorite. (A-)

The Tim Ferris Show – I have a love/hate relationship with this podcast (and the guy, honestly). He is abrasive and arrogant, although less than he used to be. He does long-form interviews with amazing people, however, and this episode on prisoners, forgiveness and second chances was brilliant, partly because he was the quietest I have ever seen him. The episode is a strong A+. The podcast overall is a B-.


The Post – Every bit as good as everyone says it is. First time I have been in a theater in years where the audience clapped multiple times during the showing. (A+)

Broadchurch – Season 1 (Netflix) A murder in a British beach town. Starring the guy who played Dr. Who and the woman who played John Watson’s wife. The pacing was good, the themes were dark and it drew you in. (A-)