Charleston, South Carolina: Palm trees, peacocks, and pirates, oh my!

Charleston sign

Charleston, South Carolina has been named the top city in America by Conde Nast for four years in a row, but my mother wants you to know she wanted to visit the city years before any of that happened. I’d like you to know that those ratings actually make a difference to the popularity of tourism in the city, which is why hotel room prices downtown have skyrocketed over the past few years. At least that’s what the nice man at the visitor center told us while he was booking our bus tour. I give the visitor center an A+. In addition to the regular flyers, maps and brochures you would expect, they have 3-4 people on staff who can help you book tours, hotel rooms and other touristy stuff. They also have a gift shop, so I was able to buy a magnet right away, which is something I do for every city I visit. I bought the magnet because it was pretty and the horse and carriage is on a spring, so it bounces around. Later I learned the magnet is of Rainbow Row, a row of 13 houses in Charleston all painted a different color.

Rainbow Row magnet

My mom and I have been going on day trips in the area for a while now. First there was Biltmore, then Nag’s Head, then Wilmington and then Wilmington again. On the second Wilmington trip we popped down to Myrtle Beach for part of a day, but this time we made a South Carolina city our final destination and stayed in Charleston for two nights.

We got booked on the last tour bus of the day with three other ladies. Our vehicle was an air-conditioned van, the kind that might shuttle you to a hotel and back. The company also had larger vans, but our tour guide wasn’t licensed to drive one of those. At the end of the tour he revealed it was the first time he’d both driven the bus and given the tour at the same time, which he’d done because he was filling in for someone who was sick. Despite those low expectations, the tour went rather well and we didn’t have any traffic accidents, though I did make sure to keep my seat belt buckled.

Pink house

I didn’t know much about Charleston, other than it was the home town of Stephen Colbert, who happened to announce he was funding every project South Carolina teachers currently had on the very day we were visiting, which was a rather odd coincidence. I bet there were a lot of teachers kicking themselves for not posting a project on that site beforehand.

There are a lot of beautiful things about Charleston. There are brightly colored houses, wide open porches, and a few houses with double winding staircases to the front door, which I learned was so men and women could enter a house on different sides so no man scandalously caught a glimpse of a women’s ankle on the way up. There are a lot more palm trees than I expected, and a lot more swamps too, though considering the fact that Frances “Swamp Fox” Marian is from this area, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. This also made the “Swamp Fox” theme song stick in my head for half the bus tour. Did you know he was played by Leslie Nielsen? I had no idea.

As lovely as Charleston is, the legacy of slavery can still be felt everywhere. The tour guide pointed out the slave quarters at one estate, which were above the kitchen that was separated from the main house to prevent fires from spreading. I’m sure the forced residents of the kitchen house loved that idea. There is an area of town known as the Old Slave Mart which was shut down in the 1850’s when public slave auctions were outlawed and they had to move that stuff indoors. Our guide also pointed out a building with tall exterior walls that had been the designated fallback position if there were ever a slave revolt. This made me wonder if anyone who was making plans for the potential slave revolt ever thought to themselves, “Hey, if there is such a large danger of slaves revolting, maybe there is something inherently awful about slavery and we’re bad people for depending on it so much?” Then I kept hearing about how rich the residents had been. We passed at least two or three houses that were wedding gifts from rich fathers who had told their daughters to build the houses of their dreams. I guess with money like that they preferred to plan fallback positions instead of ending slavery.

Anyway, considering how much the city depended on slavery, it shouldn’t be surprising that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and that the first battle of the Civil War was fought at Fort Sumter, which is on an island off the Charleston coast. We made a stop halfway through the 90-minute bus tour at White Point Garden and got to stretch our legs. We could see Fort Sumter from there, but it was itty bitty in the distance. Pirates also used to raid in this area. Pirates! I was not expecting that. I associate pirates with the Caribbean and Johnny Depp, not South Carolina.

After the bus tour we were pretty wiped out, so we crashed at the hotel until the next day when we visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. Do you know who else was visiting? Hurricane Ana. At least, she was on her way, which is why half our visit occurred in the rain. The peacocks didn’t seem to mind.

Peacock at Magnolia Plantation

Damn, peacocks must be able to jump pretty high to get on top of that sign. They can’t fly, right? I know they attack with their talons, so if you ever get attacked by a peacock, look out for its feet!

After watching a little film about the history of the plantation, we went on the train ride with two other visitors. I’m fairly certain our train driver thought we were all crazy and would have rather been somewhere dry and warm. But dammit, this was the day we had planned to see the plantation, so we were going to see the plantation!

Magnolia Plantation train

The local wildlife didn’t seem as bothered by the rain as the local humans.

Birds in the rain

The tour took us by two different lakes, through a forest, and by the Ashley River.

Bird in the swamp

Oh, did I mention there were alligators?

Alligator in hiding

The rain had forced most of the gators into hiding, only surfacing enough of their bodies to breathe. Most of the gators on the grounds are small, but our guide said there were at least five large gators around. Thankfully we did not see any of them and that was perfectly all right with me. Our guide did point out two spots that are well-traveled gator trails from the lake to the river. I was glad there was no traffic on them at the moment!

Oh, and of course there were old slave quarters.

Slave quarters on Magnolia Plantation

After that, my mom and I swung by the Charles Town Landing site which is the original marsh where they started Charleston until they moved the city to a better spot few years later. We looked around the visitor’s center, but didn’t feel up for walking around the park in the rain which is the only way to see it (unless you rent a bike, and biking in the rain didn’t sound any better), so we headed back to the hotel.

Overall it was a nice visit to the “low country” which is what they kept calling the area in TV commercials and on the local news. However, I was happy to make our way back to the high country, even if we have less peacocks around here.

Peacock at Magnolia Plantation

Three days without my laptop


My brother once referred to my computer as the electronic extension of my body. This was before smartphones had even been invented too, but it was as true then as it is now. I rarely go more than 12 or 18 hours without using my laptop. And if I’m not using my laptop, I’m Googling something on my smartphone or my iPad. My computer. It’s always there. Like my arms.

So it was a pretty extraordinary when I went three whole days without using my laptop computer last week. Yes, THREE WHOLE DAYS! I don’t think my computer has spent three days switched off in the entire four years I’ve owned it. Could leaving it off that long cause it to breakdown, like a car left parked in a garage for too long?

As a freelancer, I’ve been too paranoid to take any trips without my laptop in case someone’s site crashes or gets hacked and I need access to my work files. I took my laptop to New York. I took it to San Francisco. I even took it to Punta Cana of all places. But when my mom and I were visiting Charleston, South Carolina last week, logistically it made more sense to go downtown for a bus tour first and then check-in at the hotel afterwards. I didn’t want to leave my laptop in the trunk of a car in 80-something degree weather for several hours, so I thought, eff it, I am going to leave the state without my laptop computer!! Oh, yes I am!!

This is what passes for crazy, living-on-the-edge, behavior in my life. However, I was not going off the grid completely. I set my work email to forward all messages to my Gmail, which I could access on my smartphone. All in all, it went rather well. There was a WordPress security update released, but my sites were set to auto-update, so no worries there. No one’s web server was confiscated by the FBI and no one got hacked. All I really had to do was reply to a few people to tell them I’d get back to them later.

The only slightly disturbing moment was when Google sent me an email saying my tax information had been updated on my Adsense account even though I had not updated my tax information on my Adsense account. The only thing that prevented me from having a panic attack was that I was reading the email from my Gmail account, so even if I had been hacked my password obviously hadn’t been changed. Also, back in March two of my clients had gotten emails from Google about an Adsense policy breach that turned out to be a bullshit mistake, so I figured this was another SNAFU on their part. Some Googling confirmed I wasn’t the only person to get this bogus tax email, so no worrying was done on my part. Four days later Google sent out an email apologizing, which is like a year in Internet time. Google, you are really losing your magic mojo.

It was nice to step away from my work for awhile. It’s hard to get “real” time off when you work for yourself. Even when you’re away, you’re not totally away. But I somehow managed to take a whole week off this month for the first time in forever, and it was great.

And then…the apartment complex decided to replace the plumbing in my apartment building, so contractors were knocking on my door at 8:30am for the next three days in a row. When you come back from vacation, you really come back from vacation.

I was the governor of the fourth grade

When I was in fourth grade I became the governor of my class. For one term, anyway. There were three terms and a one-term limit on service. Before that I was the auditor and afterwards I became the librarian, which was a nice, laidback way to spend my post-political career. All of this was made possible by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Horney (yes, that was her real name). She set up a simulated government and economy in our classroom that in retrospect I appreciate as an epic, awesome undertaking that she was under no obligation to implement. She really went above and beyond the call of duty on this one, which is why I remember her fondly in my heart.

Mrs. Horney

My class started the year by coming up with a name for our state. We settled on Fourlywood. After that, we had a contest to design the currency for our economy. My grade-school crush, Stephen, won with his design of “Doggies.” (Total tangent: Some basic Facebooking confirms that my grade-school crush is still cute but also gay, which I should have realized when he referred to John Stamos as a sex symbol. My fourth-grade heart is totally broken.)


After we had a state name and currency, we all had to get jobs. Mrs. Horney had a list of possible jobs, but I don’t remember how we handed them out. We probably raised our hands if we were interested in a certain job and somehow a winner was determined from those people. The school year was split into three terms and each term you had to switch jobs. We had a governor and deputy governor who I think were elected by the class, though I can’t be sure. I believe those were mostly figurehead positions, because I don’t remember passing any legislation when I was governor. I was the auditor during the first term which means I had a shoebox of all the money in my desk. Remarkably, I never embezzled anything. I essentially acted as the state treasurer and tax collector. Yes, we had to pay taxes.

We also had a bank where you could deposit your doggies and write checks off your account. Two students were named bankers who managed all the bookkeeping. We had to pay rent on our desks every month, which I collected when I was auditor, and if you couldn’t pay your 5 doggies you got evicted and had to sit at a table instead. There were also minor fees you had to pay for some things, like using the pencil sharpener outside of designated hours, which I collected on behalf of the state.

Fourlywood Checkbook
Fourlywood checkbook register

We were also subject to the whims of fate. Everyone in the class was assigned a number alphabetically by last name. Every month or two Mrs. Horney would get out the box of numbers and the governor would randomly select several from the box. These people were then in a car accident or their house was hit by a tornado or some other awful thing. They’d have to pay damages, unless they were insured.

And now comes the part where I must confess something. During my term as governor, I remarkably was never hit by the whimsy of fate. In fact, the first number I pulled out of the box was number 4, my number, only when I read it aloud it sounded like “One.” That’s right, y’all, I was a corrupt governor. Which means Mrs. Horney’s simulated government was even more realistic than even she probably imagined. Thankfully there was no court system in Fourlywood or any police, so my corruption was never discovered and I was never indicted on any charges. It does make me wonder if anyone else in our class got away with embezzlement or theft or other felonies. If you had access to yellow paper and a Xerox machine, counterfeiting would have been ridiculously easy.

We had a flea market at the end of the year where we brought in toys and other things we didn’t want anymore, and we could purchase them from each other using doggies. I’m sure there are other details of this project that I’m forgetting. There is an entry for “Postmaster” and “Store” in my checkbook register, so there must have been a mail system and a regular store where we could purchase things. (Just as I wrote that sentence I had a vague memory of buying Now or Laters resurface.)

Overall it was a fantastic experience. It also happened to teach us about issues we’d have to face in the real world, like managing money and how to get away with deception. I’m not sure what happened to Mrs. Horney. I can’t even remember her first name, and my grade-school yearbook doesn’t list it either. (Yes, I had a grade-school yearbook. Yes, I think that’s kind of weird.) If she ever happens upon this post during a random Googling I’d like to let her know I appreciate all the work that must have gone into creating Fourlywood and thank her for going that extra mile. The fact that I still have Doggies stored in my closet a quarter of a century after the currency was devalued shows how much I enjoyed the experience. It was awesome. It was epic. Governor Fulda thanks her.

That time I missed out on a major national news event

Static on TV

When I watched CBS Sunday Morning today they reminded me that it’s the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which means it’s also the 20th anniversary of my high school band trip to New York during which I was completely oblivious to the Oklahoma City bombing. At age 14 I wasn’t all that interested in following the news, so when the band went out of town for half a week I was somehow able to avoid reading any papers or seeing any newscasts about the event. I remember overhearing my band director saying something about a bombing to someone else, and there was a snippet of conversation I heard on a radio show on my Walkman when I was scanning through the New York stations, but that was it. I lived in my own little bubble for half a week and came back to town with an “I Love New York” t-shirt, not any appreciation for the national disaster that had just occurred.

When I got back 3-4 days later and saw stories about the bombing on the news, I was like, “Wait, what happened?” But at that point in the story the reporters didn’t bother to explain what had happened 4 days earlier, they just reported on the latest developments. The only way to get news at that time was through the TV, newspaper, or radio, so it was a bit difficult to figure out what was going on. The internet existed back in 1995, but I don’t think any major news organizations had a web presence yet. I didn’t even have my own email address at the time, so the internet was more of a novelty than a useful information source.

As a result, I feel like I missed out on a national moment, as sad as that moment was. Whenever the Oklahoma City bombing comes up in the media I’m reminded that I did not experience that event like the majority of the country experienced that event. Twenty years later, it’s amazing how hard it would be for me to be that oblivious to world events unless I was consciously living off the grid. A tragedy like that would start trending on Twitter immediately, people would share articles in my Facebook feed, and I’d see it mentioned when I visited news sites during the day.

It’s amazing to realize how much more saturated I am in information now than I was in 20 years ago. It’s also amazing that that saturation seems completely normal. When a major news event happens, I expect a bystander to tweet a photo or post a video to YouTube. It’s a bit strange for something major to happen that isn’t recorded. It feels like we’re all having a large, communal experience that we weren’t having decades ago. Everyone is accessing a group of common experiences through videos and camera phones that we couldn’t share before. It’s much harder to know nothing. We all seem to know the same something.

I’m not really sure if this is bad or good. I do like knowing what’s happening in the world. I like being able to Google something and get the information I’m seeking instantly. I like checking Twitter and Facebook, but sometimes they make me feel like I’ve wasted hours not doing anything. It’s impossible to consume everything out there, and I have to wonder if it all seemed more manageable 20 years ago. Or not. There were probably people back then with piles of newspapers in their living room like I have hundreds of links bookmarked in my browser, saying, “I will read this eventually! I promise! I can’t throw it out yet!”

There’s so much media available to consume now that that I feel like I can never keep up. There are dozens of TV shows I’d like to watch that have gotten great reviews, but I don’t think I could watch them all unless I abandoned all my clients and spent all day watching TV instead. And sometimes I’m too tired to focus on something new and would rather turn my brain off and watch some Law and Order reruns instead. *chung chung*

Back in 1995 I would never anticipated any of that. I could just ride along the east coast in a bus full of band geeks without knowing what was going on a few thousand miles away, headphones on, in my own little world. I’m not sure if I miss that or not, but it’s odd to think that it will probably never happen to me again. I’m fairly certain a 14-year-old on a band trip today would hear about a national news event like that while it was happening, not 4 days later. We’re all connected in a much larger community now, and it’s hard for anyone to opt out completely.

Playing the stock market

I don’t remember exactly why I opened a Sharebuilder account, but I know it involved free money. I think they offered to give me $50 if I opened an account, so I did. I’d never played the stock market before, unless you count opening an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), but that money is invested in an index fund so I’m not actively doing anything other than depositing money into it every month.

I learned about the stock market and bonds and IRAs and other financial voodoo like that in my early twenties after I graduated college with some credit card debt. And then my transmission broke. And then I had gallbladder surgery. So I was in debt for many, many years, signing up for new credit cards just so I could get nine months of no interest with my balance transfer, and slowly paying my debt down. That slow, suffocating horror made me decide I would like very much never to be in debt again. I did some reading and felt educated enough to handle my savings and my IRA, but I never dallied with day-trading or purchasing a specific stock by itself.

However, now that I had this free $50 I decided, what the heck, let’s play the stock market! It’d didn’t feel like real money, more like I was playing “Monopoly.” If I lost it all, well, I hadn’t really earned it in the first place. And if I made some money, wouldn’t that be fun?

Oh my God, y’all. It has been so much fun.

The best line chart ever

Remember that $50 I started out with? Over the past five years it has almost QUADRUPLED!! It topped out at $192 a few weeks ago. I am so good at playing the stock market! My only regret is that I did not dump my entire savings and IRA into this thing. What super-rocket stock did I buy, you might be asking? I bought Allergan. What the hell is that, you might be asking? They’re the manufacturers of Botox.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is, “Write what you know.” Similarly, when playing the stock market you should buy what you know. I might not now how to properly pronounce “Allergan,” but I did know they were going to get FDA approval for Botox as a migraine treatment not too long after I made my purchase. Yes, my chronic headache might give me 99 problems, but bad stock tips ain’t one. The stock did go up as I predicted. And it continued to go up, and up again, and up again.

More recently a company call Actavis acquired Allergan, which drove the stock up to that peak point I have highlighted in my chart. I don’t know much about Actavis, and I don’t really care enough to educate myself about Actavis, not that they haven’t tried:

Big boring book

Thick boring book

One of the strange side effects of owning a stock is that you are occasionally sent big, fat, reports about the stock’s possible merger with another company. These days the phone book isn’t even as thick as this thing. I feel bad for whoever has to assemble this report. I have to wonder if they hid total nonsense passages in the middle as a test to see if anyone bothered reading it. I didn’t. I tossed it directly into the recycling bin.

It also came with an invitation to attend the stockholder’s meeting in California, which I imagine must be a totally boring event. But I do feel just a smidge special to have been invited to a stockholder’s meeting, because it sounds very grown-up and elite.

Anyway, I can’t decide if I should sell my stock now and get out, or stay with it and see where this roller coaster ride ends. Is this the peak? Or will it continue going up? Past results do not guarantee future performance! I was tempted to get out when it hit $100, but I didn’t want to bother figuring out how capital gains taxes were going to complicate my tax return. And like I said, it still feels Monopoly money to me. Only, I’ve never been as good at playing Monopoly as I am at playing the stock market.

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