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Alison Fishburn
American writer living in Paris, Ontario.

I Will Always Love You: A Dolly Parton Reading List

Dolly Parton attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Staples Center on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Central Florida doesn’t do glamour. I know because I was born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, the birthplace of Publix supermarkets and where Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, died in a nursing home. Growing up, my sister Abby and I had a never-named game where we’d see a figure skater, Vanna White, anyone, wearing a pretty dress on television, and then we’d passionately bicker over who got to have the rhinestoned, beaded, or sequined costume. We knew what glamour looked like, and we wanted it. By the time I’d graduated high school, I knew glamour in real life. I’d seen it in person three times.

My high school band competed in an annual competition up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Each year, when the music part of the trip was over, we’d go to Dolly Parton’s dinner theater show one night, and spend a day at her theme park, Dollywood. And inside Dollywood, inside Chasing Rainbows, a museum dedicated to telling Dolly’s life story, was my pilgrimage: a collection of Dolly’s rhinestoned, beaded, and sequined costumes, more beautiful and breathtaking than anything I’d ever bickered over in the never-named game of my childhood.

Two years after high school, I moved to New York City and dug my heels into culture shock. Five years in, I got into a Dolly Parton-themed holiday party put on by a fancy New York PR firm. I glided through the night among the well-dressed and well-heeled. I sipped moonshine and peach iced tea with a party-themed name like it was mother’s milk. I danced to Kylie Minogue performing Dolly covers. And I held my head up high all night because I’d long already seen the installation in the front room, a sparkling display of Dolly’s costumes on loan from Dollywood.

I won’t say Dolly Parton changed my life. I’ve only just read her 1994 memoir “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” loaned it to three people, gave it as a wedding present, and have the first and only edition in paperback and hardcover. I recently got the first Christmas album Dolly recorded with Kenny Rogers, “Once Upon A Christmas.” I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t own any Dolly T-shirts or anything like that (maybe I should), I just think she’s a gift to humanity — a living, breathing embodiment of dreams. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Dolly would say, “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” Maybe she’s not for you, even though she’s for everyone. But, hey, don’t take my word for it.

1. “Outta That Holler” (Sarah Smarsh, Slate, October 2020)

In this excerpt from her 2020 book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” journalist Sarah Smarsh describes Parton’s brand of implicit feminism. By harnessing the value of economic agency and sexual power to overcome the poverty that defined her childhood — born the fourth of 12 children, “wearing dresses made of feed sacks” and “dyeing her lips with iodine from the family medicine cabinet for lack of lipstick” — Parton has shaped the person she is today.

She reminds her audiences that, no matter where they came from, everyone can identify with being shamed one way or another, and no one deserves it. Never be ashamed of your home, your family, yourself, your religion, she says, and adoring crowds applaud. One need look no further than her immense LGBTQ following to know that Parton’s transformation from a slut-shamed, talented teenage bumpkin to entertainment superstar contains a universal struggle that has less to do with being Appalachian than with being human. If her presence and the appreciation it instills in people could be whittled to a phrase, it’s “be what you are.”

2. “The Grit and Glory of Dolly Parton” (Emily Lordi, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, November 2020)

The person and brand that is Dolly Parton did not just happen overnight. Emily Lordi provides an overview of Parton’s decades-long career, illustrating how it’s been furthered not by reinvention, but through the reintroduction of Parton and her music, all while Parton herself engages with the times. Lordi first interviewed Parton over the phone, then in person after providing a negative COVID-19 test.

People want her gifts, her glow, her time; and Parton, who, as she says, “loves everybody and wants everybody to love me,” is often happy to oblige. She can’t sit still anyway — and early on in the pandemic, she decided to keep working, as long as her team could do so safely. Last May, she released “When Life Is Good Again,” a song of reassurance that justifies the journalist Melinda Newman’s claim, in Billboard, that, during the coronavirus crisis, Parton seems to have appointed herself America’s “comforter in chief”: “When everything is on the mend, / I’ll even drink with my old friends, / Sing and play my mandolin … And it’s gonna be good again.”

3. “Dolly Parton Steers Her Empire Through the Pandemic — and Keeps It Growing” (Melinda Newman, Billboard, August 2020)

The daughter of an industrious sharecropper father and a musically inclined mother, Parton is a savvy businesswoman whose earliest and latest decisions in the music industry are only the core of her empire. As Melinda Newman writes, “Her legendary body of music is just the start of what makes her Dolly. …”

She sounds surprisingly giddy as she talks about the next chapter of her career as if it’s her first. “I’m touched and honored that I’m still around and that I’m able to still be important in the business,” she says. “I honestly feel like I’m just getting started. I know that sounds crazy but I really feel like I might have a big music career, record career. Who knows?”

4. “Dolly Parton on How to Be More Like Dolly Parton” (Anna Moeslein, Glamour, November 2019)

In an interview with Parton, Anna Moeslein and Parton review “Heartstrings,” a Netflix series in which each episode is based on a different Parton song. They also discuss emotions and Parton’s position on what people can do to bring “a little Dolly in their own lives,” as well as fashion and beauty.

Well, I think it’s always important for us to be allowed to be who we are, all that we are, and appreciate that. And I know being a woman in this world…I’ve always been proud that I was born a woman, and I’ve joked that if I wasn’t, I would have been a drag queen. That’s my favorite line, but it’s probably true. I love being able to express myself, and I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. So I’ve always appreciated and loved people for who they are. Because we don’t need to all be the same.

5. “Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?” (Rachel Riederer, The New Republic, December 2020)

Citing Jad Abumrad’s Radiolab podcast (“Dolly Parton’s America”), Parton’s Netflix series, shoutouts from Nicki Minaj and Drake, and even a history course at the University of Tennessee, Rachel Riederer discusses the latest Dolly Parton renaissance. And, given the political landscape of the U.S., Riederer wonders if there’s a place for Parton’s enduring position to sidestep politics — which Abumrad refers to as “Dollitics.”

You cannot talk about sharecropping without talking about politics, and to say more would not be her style. She was not shy about her desire to sell books or to present her life as a fairy tale, and you sell a fairy tale by focusing on the romance and adventures of the rising princess, not the conditions that made her a scullery maid.

6. “Springtime for the Confederacy” (Aisha Harris, Slate, August 2017)

When I mentioned Dolly’s “dinner theater show” above, I was intentionally vague. Despite my setup, I know Dolly is human. And humans are complicated. Dolly’s dinner show seems complicated, too, but really, it’s not. The show, known until 2018 as “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” is performed before an arena split into the “North” versus the “South,” where the audience, feasting on a four-course dinner eaten without cutlery, cheers on white-washed narratives of colonization, then the Antebellum South, then a performance competition between the North and the South. As a high schooler attending the show, I sat and watched from the North side, not fully grasping how problematic the programming was. I suppose I could do what Parton did in the Billboard article above: plead “innocent ignorance.” As an adult, I know better.

The last time I saw the show was in 2006. Aisha Harris reviewed the show in 2017, after watching it the same week as Unite the Right, a white supremacist rally, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. At the rally, a neo-Nazi intentionally drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring others. (The president notably remarked in the aftermath that there “were very fine people, on both sides.”) Harris recorded the experience of the dinner show from start to finish, without holding back.

While the show makes zero mention of slavery, that’s not to say there were no references to the Civil War. The war was alluded to both in the overarching North-versus-South conceit and through details both subtle (the gray and blue color schemes on each side) and blatant: The racing piglets were named after Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Scarlett O’Hara. Dolly says that the show is about bringing back “those good old times,” referring to her childhood, but of course she wasn’t around during the days of Grant and Lee.

Harris wrote a follow-up to this piece after the show responded to her initial review, and again in April 2018, when the show dropped “Dixie” from its name.

7. “Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

Jessica Wilkerson, who grew up in East Tennessee, where Dollywood is located, confronts the worldviews of her upbringing with those acquired as an adult after moving away from home for graduate school in New York. Weighing the socioeconomic implications of Dollywood’s hiring practices and confronting “Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness,” Wilkerson strikes a reluctant balance, compartmentalizing more than one version of Dolly Parton.

But the aftermath of Dollywood left me low-spirited. I was nestled into a cozy room in the log house my dad built on top of a ridge, where we lived. From the peak of that ridge, I could stand and see the Smoky Mountains, where Dolly Parton grew up and where she built a simulacrum of her mountain childhood. Hers felt more real than mine. I was sad, but jealous, too. I lived in the real world of Appalachia. A world of layaway stores and packaged foods, bleary-eyed workers and stressed-out mothers. I longed for the simulation.

Alison Fishburn is an American writer living in Paris, Ontario.

Eating What Feels Right: On Going Vegetarian

Photo by Anna Guerrero

Bert’s Market was a grocery store in my hometown of central Florida that I remember for three reasons: It was always freezing, the place reeked because they butchered their meat on site, and it’s where I learned where the meat we ate came from.

One day, my sisters and I were with our dad at Bert’s when he lifted a package in front of us and made it dance. I was probably too little to know what species of animal the shrink-wrapped feet had belonged to, but Dad confirmed they were once part of a pig when he oinked. My older sister Ashley thought it was hilarious. My younger sister Abby laughed along with Ashley. I cried. And the feet danced “wee-wee-wee all the way home.”  

That might’ve been the first time I said I’d never eat meat again.

When Abby and I were in middle school, we decided to give vegetarian life a try. That night before dinner we had a conversation with Dad about it.

“What kind of tacos are we having?”

“Beef.”

Abby and I decided we wouldn’t be vegetarians that day.

In my adult life I’ve experienced situations that have prompted further consideration of giving up meat; like when I became a pet owner, when I was in a car that hit a raccoon, when I walked the stables at a county fair and saw the animals drawing breath, or that time I witnessed a rabbit’s death in rural Ontario. Read more…

I Will Outlive My Cat: A Reading List on Pet Death

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“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” — Colette

In place of an actual child, I have Birdie, a silver tabby cat covered in so much cute and cuddle it should be illegal.

Birdie came into my life almost three years ago after a messy divorce and she’s such a big part of my life now that I don’t know which one of us needs the other more. What I do know is that hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of losing her.

* * *

I was in elementary school when I had my first pet, a goldfish that died twice in one day.

While my family was on summer vacation, Nana was going to watch my fish. Before bringing it over to her house I decided to clean the bowl. It was only when I went to refill the bowl that I realized we were out of distilled water. When I asked my mom if we could go to the store, she told me to use tap water.

Ever the knowledgeable child goldfish owner, I knew you couldn’t just use tap water (the chemical balance is all wrong for their bodies). My mom insisted my fish would be fine for the 10-minute ride it would take to get to Nana and Poppa’s house.   

“We’ll get distilled water when we get there.”

Oh, mother. I wish it were that simple. Not even halfway to their house I found myself with the bowl on my lap and my fish floating on the surface of the water.

“He’s dead! My fish is dead!”

* As an adult, I learned my mom just swirled the water around hoping we’d leave Nana’s house before my fish floated again.

At a stop sign, Mom reached around to the backseat for the bowl. I wanted to tell her “I told you so!” but I waited for a miracle instead. And then it came. When Mom handed the bowl back to me, my fish was swimming around.*

By the time we pulled into Nana and Poppa’s driveway, though, my fish was floating again.

I set the bowl on their kitchen counter when we got inside, and Mom asked Nana if she had any distilled water. (Oh, mother.) Nana took one look at my fish and lifted the bowl. I watched her walk with it to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Flush.

She returned to the kitchen and set the empty bowl on the counter. I stared into the empty sphere while Mom and Nana agreed with each other that I could always get another fish. I wanted my fish. Read more…

Addiction, Disorder, Disease, Call It What You Want: A Reading List on Alcoholism

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No one sets out to become an alcoholic. Life happens. And then life happens some more, and one day one drink is eight drinks is you get the idea.

I never got to meet my dad’s dad. He died just after my older sister was born, when my dad was 21 and became a dad for the first time. Even though Grandpa was an alcoholic — to the point Grandma divorced him over it — that’s not what ultimately killed him. That’s just what I’m afraid will happen to my dad.

Alcoholism falls into two categories: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. Growing up, my dad’s drinking habit fell into the “week or weekend, 12-packs of Bud Light don’t judge” kind of dependence. He drank socially, but his specialty was drinking alone in the garage late into the night. Sometimes my mom would become so frustrated with his drinking that she’d go off to her parents’ house to avoid it altogether, leaving my sisters and me behind.

On one of these nights I needed a ride to stay over at a friend’s house and opened the door to the garage. I found Dad in the drunken state I expected and asked him for a ride. After reminding him Mom had left a couple hours earlier, he stared at me with bloodshot eyes, eventually slurring out, “Can you drive?” Not legally.

It took him more tries to get into the passenger seat than it did for me to start the car (one), and he passed out not long after that. When I pulled up to a stop light, an empty bottle rolled from under the seat and hit the back of my foot on the brake. The person in the passenger seat looked like my dad but wasn’t my dad. He wasn’t the person who loved me, who I loved back. He wasn’t the person who went to work every day to support his family. He wasn’t the person who told the best stories and made everyone laugh. He wasn’t my dad. The person next to me was this thing — addiction, disorder, disease, call it what you want — that manifested itself when the sun went down.

I was 17 when he got his first DUI. Attempts at sobriety started piling up after that, with nights of seeing him shake and sweat under blankets. I was 23 when my younger sister died in a car accident. Dad got his second DUI soon after that. Life happens.

There are days when I hope there’s still time for sobriety to stick to him. But I admit, there are more days when I’m a cynic, a realist. I know his body has been conditioned over decades to depend on alcohol in order to function and no one is meant to live forever.

For both the hopeful and the cynical, what follows is a reading list on how alcoholism has been experienced by real people who have struggled and managed to survive. Cheers.

1. For Leslie Jamison, Running and Drinking Were The Two Quickest Ways to Escape (Leslie Jamison, April 2018, Vogue)

For Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams and The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, running and drinking became her escape from shyness when she left junior high.

Jamison describes how she trained to be a long-distance runner and drank her way through high school, literally drinking to the point of passing out the night before her graduation ceremony. She “finally stopped drinking entirely” at 27 and it was at that point when she learned she “needed to be released from that defining sense of self,” created by running and drinking, so that she could “meet the other selves that were in there, waiting.”

If running and drinking both offered a sense of release from myself, they offered it in very different—nearly opposite—ways: Drinking felt like transportation out of myself, while running transformed my sense of who I was. If drinking loosened me from the cloister of my body, then running involved inhabiting that body fully: sweat pooling in my collarbone, flattening my hair to my skull, coating my shins in layers of dust and grime.

2. Distress Tolerance (Kaveh Akbar, April 2018, Gay Mag)

Psychologists refer to “distress tolerance” as our ability as individuals to endure negative or painful experiences. “Alcoholics and addicts, whose lives are often spent lurching from one painful crisis to another,” Kaveh Akbar writes, “tend to display distress tolerances that are significantly higher than those of their sober peers.”

Akbar uses his own experience with drinking as a remarkable case study for this assertion. He describes how he once got into a bike accident while drunk, resulting in a shattered pelvis and a cracked vertebra, but also the discovery by doctors that Akbar had a two-month-old fracture on a different vertebra that he didn’t know he had. Possibly more remarkable is that this wasn’t the turning point for Akbar to get sober. That “took another couple years.”

The more you drink, the more you become defined by the drink, the more you look like a drink and smell like a drink and behave like a drink. In a blackout, this effect reaches its apex — you leave your body completely, and the drink is finally left to move unaccompanied through the world.

3. For Years, Alcohol Was My Only Comfort. Then It Nearly Killed Me. (Heather King, July 2019, The New York Times Magazine)

Heather King, a former aircraft maintenance technician in the Air Force, writes about her history of drinking and how she “felt as if [she] had to drink in order to function, or at least appear to function, as a normal human being.” Alcohol was her “lifeline.” When she nearly dies in a drunk driving car crash, and after her mother bails her out of jail, King realizes she not only wants to get sober, she wants to live “[f]or the first time in many years.” And her desire to live, after nearly 20 years of drinking, finally outweighs the desire to drink.

Related reading: Jane Brody writes about functional alcoholism in a 2009 piece at The New York Times.

What I appreciate most about King’s piece is that she’s a realist. She acknowledges the “struggle” she “fought” to become sober, admitting that “[t]he decision to get sober and stay sober, by no means easy, was the single most important decision” she has made in life. She’s honest that she couldn’t get sober for anyone else, not even her children — she had to want it for herself for it to last.

Alcohol became my solution to everything. I justified it by saying, ‘If you lived my life, you would drink, too.’ I convinced myself I could stop. After all, quitting was simply a matter of will. The Air Force had taught me resiliency and strength. What other tools did I need? But alcohol had me beat; I just didn’t know it.

4. I Hadn’t Seen My Addict Father in Years — Then I Ran Into Him on the Street (Jordan Foisy, August 2019, Vice)

In this intimate and matter-of-fact glimpse of what it’s like to grow up with an addict parent, Jordan Foisy shares what it’s like to finally meet the person they may have been all along.

After not seeing his dad for three years — as the title suggests — Foisy runs into his dad and the two make plans to have lunch the following day. What unfolds is hours of hanging out together and Foisy getting to see that while his dad has a coke problem and lives on the margins of society “garbed in clothes that look like a donations box sneezed on him,” his dad is also “funny, opinionated, hypocritical, charming, strange, and loving.” At the end of the day, though, Foisy is left realizing his dad is “committed to his drugs, and letting them kill him. He doesn’t want to get better because what kind of life is waiting for him on the other side?”

This piece begs the question: Does someone have to get sober in order to live?

A lifetime of movies had left me with these fantasies of The Great Conversation: If I had enough courage, I could engage my dad in a way that would save him, and by saving him, save myself. It would end in great heaving sobs between the two of us, our arms wrapped around each other; him committing to getting clean and apologizing for all his misdeeds; and myself, born anew, filled with confidence, serenity, and, inexplicably, newfound athletic prowess.

5. Chasing Drinks with Lies, and Lies with Drinks (Katie MacBride, April 2018, Longreads)

Before getting sober, Katie MacBride was a blackout drinker who told lies about drinking and, when holes were poked in her lies, doubled down on those lies. She writes about her period of reckoning that started after waking up on a hospital gurney with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .4 (blackouts start at .2-.29 BAC), a box cutter and, in her words, “A suicide note I vaguely remembered writing on a Post-it just in case I ever needed it.”

MacBride’s story illustrates how the lies we tell ourselves only take us so far and then we have to start being honest with ourselves.

When there were no clues, I had no story — none of my own anyhow. My life belonged to witnesses, unwilling participants who might know the things that I did not. This is the scariest part of being a blackout drinker: not the inability to remember, the fear that someone else does. The worst thing you can do to a blackout drinker is tell them the truth.

6. The End Of Alcohol: One Writer On Going Sober (Billie JD Porter, April 2019, Elle)

Billie JD Porter writes about being an all-or-nothing kind of drinker since the age of 13 and growing up “relatively used to the idea of hitting the self-destruct button, and the fallout that went with it” as a result of having parents addicted to heroin. When her parents’ struggles with various substances became a mirror for her own alcohol dependency, Porter decided to take a year off drinking to discover the root of why she drinks.

By taking a break, to discover what that may be, I was strengthening my own foundations, so the past doesn’t grow into an even bigger, scarier monster that I’m unable to confront, like it has done for my parents.

At the time of my hiatus, I was only 23; I don’t think my days of cry-laughing into Tyskies and obnoxiously shouting my way through an evening into the early hours are behind me just yet, but I wanted to learn to be able to drink and have fun, in a manner that doesn’t see me descend into a downward spiral, taking me and everything I’ve worked so hard for, with it.

* * *

Alison Fishburn is a writer and recovering Floridian living in Ontario. She’s working on a memoir about the sudden death of her younger sister while learning to grieve. You can find her on Twitter @AlisonFishburn.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

When Lips Speak for Themselves: A Reading List on Red Lipstick

Humanity’s love affair with red lipstick dates back to 3500 B.C. when Queen Shub-Ad of Ur, one of the Sumerian city-states of ancient Mesopotamia, first wore a red lip made with a base of white lead and crushed red rocks.

Mine dates back to 2013 A.D.

I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier. Everything felt beyond my control, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Indulging in cheap retail therapy seemed like the only thing I could do to feel like I had any power over anything. Finding a new lipstick, spending six or seven bucks on a cosmetic that would stick with me when my face went sideways at any moment, became my mission. And lipstick would stay on my face — it wouldn’t betray me like my wimpy waterproof mascara had.

I stared down rack after rack of tubes sealed shut with plastic, my eyes scanning for something called Pacifies Hurt or This Kind of Thing Happens to Other People. My puffy eyes gravitated toward the darker shades of red: a spectrum that reflected back to me the degrees of anger and grief I felt. A palette that required confidence, a quality I was stripped of but wanted to seem like I had — just to get through the next 24 hours. After spending hours comparing the tiniest of shade variations under fluorescent light, I went home with a tube of matte Really Red.

Really Red got me from the first time I applied it in the bathroom mirror of my childhood home. Seeing myself with it on, I saw who I wanted to be: someone who was brave to face the day ahead. Even if the world as I knew it was over, I was someone who looked as if there was a shred of her world left. At the funeral, Really Red spoke for me when words stuck to the top of my mouth, or when it was for the best that I didn’t say anything. With a smile, Really Red could say, “it’s okay to approach me.” And with a purse of my lips, I let Really Red say “go to hell” to those who said that “god just needed another angel” and “it was part of God’s plan.”

For years I wore Really Red to make me look like I felt OK. Six years later my collection of lipsticks has expanded, but every shade is red. It’s the color I wear because when I wear it now I actually believe I’m OK, because it’s still the color that gets me, and because on any given day when I catch myself in the mirror with it on, I see the person I want to be. And therein lies the power of red lipstick: its innate ability to be anything at any time for its wearer. Read more…