Moving On

To all of Randa’s Fans – it’s time to move on. But I’m not going far: if you enjoy this blog and want to continue receiving updates about what I’m reading, writing, and thinking about (e.g. books, writing, cats, DC stuff, craft beer, travel) please follow me at

I’m making the move for several reasons, mainly for a little social media harmonizing – you can follow me @billgillislive on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

I also think that Randa’s Fans has run its course – it provided the perfect foray (more than five years ago now) into the blogosphere and, specifically, WordPress, which is a platform I love. I won’t delete the site, so the writing and the photos will remain (mostly for me, I understand, and for the [surprising] number of people who still stumble upon this). But it’s time to move on – maybe not to something more, but at the very least to something else: another experiment, a new adventure. I hope you’ll join me.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Layers

The Challenge: “Layers. Layers can reveal, conceal, and make something more complex. They can vary in size, texture, color, or functionality. Each layer can have its own story, meaning, or purpose. They can overlap, blend, or be distinctly separate. A layer doesn’t have to be a part of a single object but can even be a slice of a multifaceted image or scene.”

When I first began to consider this challenge, I thought about my photos and wondered what, among them, could communicate a non-linear, non-literal vision of layering. Layers of history, I thought, or layers of meaning. Then: layers of flavor, color, memory, narrative, or time.

But at the end of the day I settled on something pretty straightforward: the House of Sweden in Washington, DC.




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Free Book Friday: Wolf Hall

I like to support independent booksellers when I travel. For the past few years I’ve been fortunate to spend a good deal of time at my friend’s inn up in Woodstock, VT, and there are two great little book shops that I frequent right off the village green, Shiretown Books and the Yankee Bookshop. I try to buy something each time I’m there, which is where I picked up a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009, Book One of her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy).

The book is a remarkable accomplishment. Mantel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for it, and then turned around three years later and won the Man Booker again for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. She’s only the third author to ever win the Man Booker twice. And while I did not love this book (Tudor fatigue, perhaps?), the writing; the writing! It deserves every accolade it has received.

And now you can read it, too. It’s my second book giveaway, and the same thing goes – give me your stories, I’ll give you my book. Leave a comment and tell me something about you, anything; as I said last time, make me laugh/cry/snort/smile/say awww/etc. Why do you want to read Wolf Hall? I’ll pick one next Wednesday, and if I pick yours then in a private message I will get your mailing address* and will send you my copy of Wolf Hall, no strings attached. It’s the Picador paperback edition, in good condition. I look forward to your comments!

*For now I’m only mailing in the United States.

Recently finished Barbara Shapiro’s The Art Forger; Dava Sobel’s Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time; Kirk Read’s How I Learned to Snap: A Small Town Coming-Out and Coming-of-Age Story; Chris Cleave’s Gold; and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Gave up on Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit


This may not seem like the most obvious choice for a photograph representing habit, but I will explain.

This week’s challenge asks that we show “something that’s a HABIT. It could be your daily walk to the bus stop, or your daily paper lying on the doorstep. Maybe it’s the guy behind the counter at the deli you always visit for lunch, the stuffed bunny your child must have at bedtime, or the view from your desk as you sit down to blog.”

Habit, the challenge says, “the stuff of the everyday.”

I lost my cat, Watkins, this week after being together for sixteen and a half years. It’s been a week of recognizing habits only because they are gone – waking up in the morning without him, coming home from work each day to an empty space next to the door where he always used to wait for me; seeing what is not there, rather than what is. The habits of feeding, watering, and cleaning the litter box. And other habits, too, necessitated by his decline, like giving him vitamins and medication and, toward the end, fluids. I loved that cat. He was worth every one of these habits, both old and new. There’s this perfectly cat-sized hole in everything around here, which I thought was captured neatly, if sadly, in this ordinary photo of an impression of Watty’s paw.

This is habit to me – the tiny kitten paws that crawled all over me when he was little, that skittered across the hardwood floors as he raced around the apartment, those furry paws, depositors of little clumps of stray litter in the sheets, on the rug, sometimes all over the couch. He made countless biscuits with those paws – on blankets, on cushions, on my leg. Those paws swatted at shiny ribbon on Christmas morning and scratched many miles on his scratching post. I loved watching him lick and lick and lick his paw and then raise it to clean his face and head; and how they curled beneath him when he slept, or sometimes stuck straight up in the air. His paws felt like the pointed tips of a pick as he stood on top of my chest while I lay in bed or on the couch, before he settled in for a snuggle and a big long purr. And later, the distinctive sound of those wizened paws, the paws of an elderly cat plodding arthritically down the hall before climbing into my lap to sit with me awhile.

Watkins was cremated, but before he was they took an impression of his paw; I received it on Thursday. When I look at it, when I think about this week and the sixteen and a half years that preceded it, I understand something about habits: that some of them are incredibly hard to break.

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Gray Kitty Gillis

The week Watkins came to live with me I took him to the vet for his shots. He was eight weeks old. As I filled out the forms I left the Name field blank, because I had not decided what to call him yet. The office manager was not pleased. Once I handed her the clipboard she proceeded to write, in all caps, GRAY KITTY GILLIS in every blank that called for a name. She glared at me. I felt so ashamed that I named him in the car on the way home.

We were stopped at the intersection of Lakeland Drive and Riverside in Jackson. He was sitting in his carrier on the back seat. I was two years out of high school and had just received a postcard from a high school friend of mine, whose middle name was Watkins. I’d checked the mail heading out the door on the way to the vet and the postcard was sitting next to me on the passenger seat. I turned around and looked at him peeking out of the carrier, his cute little face pressed up against the door’s metal crosshatches. “What do you think about Watkins?” I asked. The light turned green and it was settled.

I got Watkins by accident. I worked at an answering service in college, and the front office manager was a woman named Martie, who bred her Siamese and Persian Smoke and sold the litters for exorbitant amounts of money. One evening Martie showed up during the night shift with kittens she was trying to give away. A couple of clients had backed out at the last minute and left her with two adorable little kittens who needed homes. I told her to keep the cats away from me – I knew that if I played with one of them I would want to take it home, and for various reasons I didn’t feel like I was in a position to get a cat right then. I went back to answering the phones.

I did my best to ignore all the oohs and aahs as people passed the kittens around and played with their little tails and faces and ears and feet. I was in the middle of a call when Martie walked up behind me and plunked one of the cats down on my left shoulder. I was heart-meltingly furious. I was wearing a headset and continued the call, but got distracted when the kitten started licking my earlobe. I tried not to laugh. The call went on and on and eventually the cat got bored with trying to get my attention and lay down across my shoulders and went to sleep.

I picked him up at Martie’s house the next afternoon and he came home with me.

The night I brought him home.

The night I brought him home.

Watkins and I covered a lot of ground, and a lot of years. We started out in Jackson, MS when I was twenty years old. We had a lot of good days together, but today was our last. Watkins was sixteen years, six months, and thirteen days old – and he was with me for all but the first eight weeks of it. My parents took great care of him off and on over the years, when I was in France and then again for the first few years that I was in Boston. But mostly he lived with me, in Jackson and Memphis and then later in Boston and eventually here, in Washington, DC.


I never knew how much I would miss him until today. I will miss the way his dark gray fur was solid white underneath, so he changed colors when you rubbed him backwards. I will miss the cutest, loudest purr I have ever heard. I will miss rubbing his chin. I will miss his little goatee, and that face, that impossibly squeezable face that I have rubbed a million times. I will miss the way he woke me up in the morning when he was hungry, not by meowing or running around or breaking shit, but by crawling up in the bed and nuzzling my face and purring so loudly it woke me up.

He greeted me at the door every day after work. If I closed him out of the bathroom in the morning he would scratch lightly to get in, or would otherwise be sitting just outside the door when I opened it. Watkins could not abide closed doors. He would go around the apartment sticking his paw beneath a closed door and yanking it open just a crack before moving on to the next.

Watkins loved Christmas (by which I mean, Watkins loved ribbon and shiny ornaments).






He loved sitting on stools;




And helping in the kitchen.





Watkins loved boxes;



His scratching post;


And traveling.


He loved shelves.






He had a sophisticated appreciation of unconventional seating options.







He always helped me read;


He was good at filing;


And he always rode in style, in his custom Watkins carrier.


Watkins was very sociable – he loved people.






And he adored Jeremy.





He was a lot of work the last couple of years, as he lost his eyesight and developed primary feline hypertension and had to take a stream of meds. He was a trooper, though, through all of it. I won’t think about his decline so much as I will think about all the fantastic years that I got to spend with him. I’m heartbroken; I feel like I might split open. But mostly I’m grateful.

Thank you, Mr. Watkins, my sweet gray kitty. You were an amazing cat, and I was lucky.  


His Sweet Sixteen portrait

April 22, 1997 – November 4, 2013

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The Wedding: Highlight Reel

— Chris & Tabitha, October 26, 2013, Owen Farm, Chapmansboro, TN —


C & T.




As usual, Mom waits until everyone else has been served!


First dance.



Father of the bride.


Mother of the groom.


Blurry, but fabulous.

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The Toast

— Chris & Tabitha, October 25, 2013, Owen Farm, Chapmansboro, TN —


Owen Farm. Filter courtesy of Instagram.

[Text of toast that I gave with my gal pal, Courtney, the Magnificent Matron of Honor]


In trying to figure out what to say today, I asked for help. I reached out to people who have been in relationships for varying lengths of time, and asked them to offer a few words about their relationship, about commitment and, if they wanted to, about marriage. Some of these come from your friends and family, people you know and love, some of whom are sitting here tonight. Some of them come from people you’ve never met, from friends and family of mine whose relationships I admire and who were kind enough to help me crowd source this toast! Here’s what they had to say.


Owen Farm. Filter courtesy of Instagram.


-Being in a relationship that is not disposable has really taken years to figure out, but ultimately I think it really takes deciding – again and again and again – that I do not consider this relationship to be disposable. It’s a subtle, but important distinction.


-Years 1 through 7 are all about working out which of your own things you can keep and which you have to let go, negotiating space and ownership. We have no idea how we got through it, but sex and kids were helpful.

Tabitha and me, afternoon of rehearsal. © 2013 by JP.

Tabitha and me, afternoon of rehearsal. © 2013 by JP


-You can’t expect more out of a relationship than you are willing to put into it.


-Commitment is not really something you make or think or say so much as something that you do, endure, survive, and feed.


Owen Farm. Getting Ready.


-Adventure. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or exotic or expensive, but doing new things together is a great way to build and share a life. Whether it’s exploring a new (or familiar) city or climbing a mountain, seeking out new experiences has allowed us to learn about ourselves, each other and the world around us.


-I know myself better than anyone else, and *I’m* sick of me at least once a day – how can I expect someone else to deal with the good and bad with perpetual good nature? I’m certainly not capable of it. So, ultimately, for me, it’s about acknowledging that a lifetime partnership won’t always be a delight, but knowing that there’s nobody else you’d rather be in the trenches with.


Owen Farm. Inside the barn. Filter courtesy of Instagram.


-Self-care and self-love are foundational to being able to love a partner healthfully. Coming to the table with ourselves sorted out sweeps out enough space for real intimacy to take place.


-Say sorry and mean it, say thank you and mean it. Share the remote. Take photos. Go on trips. Pull your own weight. Split up the chores. Listen. Talk. Listen some more.


Owen Farm. Outside the barn. Filter courtesy of Instagram.


-Go into a marriage knowing you are not trying to mold a person into what you might want them to be but to love that person for exactly who they are.


-Marriage isn’t ALWAYS happy or sad, rich or poor, fun or serious, exciting or boring, good or bad, easy or hard, but it is ALWAYS worth the effort.


Owen Farm. Filter courtesy of Instagram.


-Being together is like having our own team, where we can be ourselves and relax, where we can be weird if we want and we always have each other’s back.


-We are a team and committed to infusing our own corner of the world with good things in the form of laughter, hugs, eye-opening discussions, celebrations, magical experiences, and the support we each need when times are challenging, sad, or unpredictable.

Mom and Dad rehearse. © 2013 by JP

Mom and Dad rehearse. © 2013 by JP


-Perhaps it’s less about a long-term commitment than it is about the choice we make in each moment to stay together and to stay true.


-Here’s the point: Marriage, or commitment, is about acknowledging that we all have our own valid ways of going through life, and your partner has a lot to teach you about how to manage a situation, you just have to let them do it in their own way.


My place card at the rehearsal dinner.


-Compromise is important, but compromise cannot always be approached from the perspective of giving in, or giving something up, or losing out. Rather, it must be framed in terms of setting priorities, figuring out what is *really* important, and then working together to determine what path makes the most sense.


-Try to always assume the best in each other.


J’s place card at the rehearsal dinner.


-At the end of the day, marriage should not be about right or wrong, but about being reliable, kind, and understanding.


-It’s more important to be kind than to be right.


J and me, day of rehearsal. #sunshineselfie


And, maybe most importantly,

-Don’t stop being sweet to each other.


Owen Farm, overlooking the Cumberland River.


I ran everything I got through a word cloud program, to see which words were used most often and appeared most prevalently in the tag cloud. Unsurprisingly, words that stood out were:
















The Matron of Honor and I give the toast.

Courtney and I give the toast. © 2013 by JP

The three words that were used most often, however, that showed up the largest, in the biggest, boldest font, the words that capture most succinctly and completely all the stories that people shared and all the reflections on being in relationship and advice about commitment and marriage, were these:


To Tabitha and Chris – cheers – we love you.

© 2013 by JP

© 2013 by JP

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Good Morning

There are many versions of a good morning. Today, for instance, sleeping a little later, then propping up on pillows in the bed to drink coffee and read – ever steadily toward the end of Wolf Hall, which I will finish one of these days.

Captured in an image, however, is this good morning – the morning of my thirty-fifth birthday in 2012, waking up to a crisp June morning in Vermont’s green mountains with good friends, good food, coffee, and words.


It doesn’t get much better.

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Free Book Friday: Beautiful Ruins

It’s the first Free Book Friday here at Randa’s Fans!

It won’t happen every Friday, but when I have a book in good condition that I no longer need or want to keep for whatever reason, I have decided to start giving them away.

The price? Your memories.

It’s simple: the one I like best gets the book.

Seem biased? Sound a little unfair? Think about it like we’re playing Apples to Apples, or Cards Against Humanity. You’re playing to the judge. It’s all in fun, but the goal is to make me laugh/cry/snort/smile/say awww/etc.

Love to read? Want to play? Share your memories and let’s see how this goes.

The first book I’m giving away is Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. A friend of mine gave me her copy, and now that I am finished with it I want to pass it on. It’s a Harper Perennial paperback edition in good condition.

So, this week, leave a comment and tell me about the first time you realized you could read for pleasure, that you could read for reasons far better than because someone told you to. I was a sophomore in high school and a friend lent me her battered copy of Dean Koontz’s Cold Fire. While I was reading it I realized there was nothing else I would rather be doing; reading was fun. I started saving lawn mowing money to buy trade paperbacks of every Koontz novel I could find. It was a thriller with sci-fi elements, and it transported me completely.

I’ll pick my favorite next Wednesday. If you are the winner then in a private message I will get your mailing address* and will send you my copy of Beautiful Ruins, no strings attached. I look forward to hearing from you!

*For now I’m only mailing to the lower 48.

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Standing Desk: A Month of Standing

When I moved to France I was homesick and overwhelmed by the language and I remember thinking, if only I’d been here a month already. I was twenty-two. A month seemed like forever.

Now they fly by. It’s already been one month at my not-so-new standing desk! Here’s a quick recap:

Week One: this is awkward.

Week Two: this hurts.

Week Three: gel mat fabulousness! My amazing friends @citizensbrewco picked me up a gel mat on a run to Costco, and hand delivered it to my office.


I have since removed the sticker.

I continue to feel more productive when I’m standing, not because standing is an inherently more productive posture (although maybe it is?) but because, as I have said before, I am less inclined to get distracted. In part this is because it’s so easy to walk away – I’m already up, and if I’m in between things I can walk into the hall to get some water or pace back and forth while thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’ve also begun pacing while composing emails in my head, and then I will go back to the computer and actually type them. This instead of pathologically checking Facebook or Gawker, teeing up the next round of dream properties on Zillow, or scanning the latest rants from DCist.

I’m also engaging in more “deliberate sitting.” What does that mean? I used to stand or walk deliberately. I would make a point to get up frequently to get water out of the water fountain in the hall or from the bottle filling station in the basement of a building across campus, or I would walk across the quad to a different building to use the bathroom. These activities got me moving a little bit but weren’t “productive” (that word is fraught) in that they took me away from my office – so they were differently productive, let’s say, because I was moving, which was the goal for the moment, and besides whenever I leave the building I usually run into someone along the way and those conversations often lead to new projects, ideas, questions, or maybe just better collegiality, so not un-productive.

But now I treat myself with sitting, and the key here is that I sit away from the computer. And when I decide to sit down, I have to think about what I want to do while I am sitting. Because I have been standing I am usually excited just about the possibility of sitting, which infuses whatever I’m doing with that same excitement – whatever book or article I choose to read when I sit, or message I sketch out in long hand, or lists I make or classes I think through or meetings I prep for. If I’m not teaching, I sit more in the afternoons. I make tea, I sit awhile, and I engage with whatever I am doing in a way that I wasn’t before when my afternoon slump hit and my proverbial rainbow wheel started spinning and I almost unconsciously, robotically reached for the mouse and clicked on Sporcle or Facebook. The Burning Question: What has happened since the last time I checked fifteen minutes ago? The Eternal Answer: Absolutely nothing. It’s shocking how frequently an entire afternoon will pass and I won’t have checked my personal email or been on Facebook once. It’s fantastic. And I’m reading more, which also feels great.

Do I have more energy? I don’t know. Do I, in general, feel better? Yes. But again, it may be just in my head – and I no longer think that’s a bad thing. 

Finished reading Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life and Matthew Sanford’s Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. 

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