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Funbag

What Are The Best Roads In America?

1:43 PM EDT on August 1, 2023

The Blue Ridge Parkway passes through the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, USA, circa 1970. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. Drew's off this week. Today, we're talking about nominative determinism, the USWNT hooping, Taylor Swift, and more.

When Deputy Petchesky anointed me on my journey into the Funbag stratosphere, I anticipated lots of fun. I didn’t really know in what sense a "bag" came into things, but I trusted it would eventually make sense. Well, I can report that I have indeed had lots of fun writing this. Your emails have been delightful (mostly) and I have enjoyed turning over your questions in my mind this past week. But unfortunately for you, your emails have not been the most fun part of this whole bag situation. 

Imagine me, the intern with a more-than-ironic love for country music, scrolling through the Funbag inbox and coming across emails from Kelly Clarkson. The thrill! Being the pop-girlie aficionado I am, I quickly recognized that they were not from the masterful singer herself (sad), but rather her publicity newsletter from Atlantic Records. As I assume that Mr. Magary—wait, I just realized Drew’s last name sounds the same as the absolutely iconic Leo McGarry on The West Wing! Why did no one email me about the The West Wing?—does not listen to “Since U Been Gone” with regularity, I needed to investigate. 

Here’s what I know: On June 17, 2023, funbag@defector.com got an email from kellyclarkson@e.atlanticrecords.com reading, “thanks for signing up for Kelly Clarkson’s email list. you'll be the first to hear about Kelly’s music news and more.” Since then, the inbox has been blessed with four emails from Kelly’s team, including promotions for new music and merch. This is how I have learned that Kelly has a new album out, called Chemistry. Fun.

I have no idea who did the mitzvah of registering the Funbag for these emails. My investigation remains very much open, so do contact me with any leads. But at least I have discovered a reason for the "bag" part of the whole Funbag thing. It’s Kelly’s. 

I’ll leave you to decode that Gen Z slang on your own.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Because Drew will still be explaining to you why your team sucks, Alex Sujong Laughlin will be taking over the Funbag next week. This is very good news for you all. Alex is wise and funny and creative and kind, which I’m sure you’ve gathered from her appearances on the site and Normal Gossip and which I can confirm having had the pleasure of working with her. Send Alex your best questions.

Your letters:

Chris:

What are the 10 best states to drive through on a road trip? My wife and I recently moved from Nashville to San Francisco and drove the northern route. The sheer size and scenery of the mountain west was incredible. Growing up in the Midwest and living in the South, I can confidently say no states in those regions belong on this list.

Chris, I cannot name the definitive 10 states in good conscience because I have not driven through all 50 of them. BUT I have traveled on many a beautiful road in my life, so I will regale you with stories of such excursions. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road: “Going-to-the-Sun Road” is an insane name for a road. Once you’ve driven on it, however, you have no choice but to excuse its earnestness and embrace the grandeur of it all. The road is the main throughway in Glacier National Park in Montana, and its slow-going nature was a welcome forced rest after long hikes for me and my family. On our last day in the park, there was an abrupt traffic jam due to a bunch of bighorn sheep wandering on the road and the adjacent mountainside. I am no Sabs but I’ll treat you to my astute observation: Those horns are big. 

Blue Ridge Parkway: My family and two others went on a road trip to the Smoky Mountains a couple years ago, and though the drive was long it was magnificent. The highlight was certainly the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is just as majestic as it sounds. Things got a little funky when rain started plummeting harder than Japan did against Spain on Monday, especially since there was a designated kids’ car in which no one was a particularly experienced driver. Despite the meteorological obstacles, we had lots of laughing-so-you-don’t-hyperventilate-from-fear moments and some lovely views that made it all worth it. 

Cabrillo Highway: There’s nothing like leaving a cold, dark Montreal winter for a California vacation. The contrast just gets better when your beloved Bay Area aunt takes you to hike Big Sur, and you get to drive on the Cabrillo Highway on the way. The highway has ocean views to the max, and its most famous section, the Bixby Bridge, lives up to the hype. 

Pennsylvania Turnpike: Residing in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia means occasionally having to travel through Pennsyltucky, the deep-red stretch between our cities. (Thankfully, that’s changing somewhat.) If you can delude yourself into believing that the Trump 2016 signs and billboards telling you that guns save more lives than abortions are just part of the charm, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is quite lovely. There are curving mountain roads and lush green farmland, and plenty of not-half-bad rest stops along the way.

Caleb: 

I recently rewatched the Kimmel bit from 2017 where he finds four people whose name and job are in perfect alignment, i.e. the volunteer firefighter, Les McBurney (it’s just too good). That got me thinking about it the other way around. Kenny Pickett is not a good quarterback name. Scott Blewett is not a good reliever name. What are some of the other worst names to have for the job you perform?

As a Pittsburgher whose father’s name is Ken, I am ashamed to say I laughed at your mention of Kenny Pickett. You’re totally right that the quarterback is in an unfortunate line of work considering his surname. Here’s my best attempt at the kind of corny joke Jimmy Kimmel (great name for a pet store owner) would be proud of: 

Well, I gotta tell you, the other day I was just leaving an appointment with my gastroenterologist, Dr. Flo Brown. I had gotten some bad news, so I went to the bar across the street to wallow in my sadness. The bar TVs were showing bullfighting, and I couldn’t stop laughing because one of the matadors was named Buck Moore. I hope my favorite Defector guy, Kent Wright, makes a joke about it in his next blog. 

Also, for what it’s worth, I wish the USWNT’s coach was not named Vlatko Andonovski. It’s Vlatkover Andonover for me!

Jordan: 

Inspired by the question about movies it’s difficult to enjoy now because of their stars, what about a positive spin? Entertainment that’s only improved with age as we have learned more about the people who make it? I’ll start: I’m so fuckin proud to have been both a huge Nirvana stan and you have Goodfellas as my favourite film. In today’s ridiculous gender wars it’s so clear that Kurt Cobain was an example of gender-positive masculinity decades ahead of his time. And everything I’ve learned in this era about Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta (RIP) and even Scorsese has made me so happy every time I rewatch Goodfellas. If we’re gonna lose good art to people being dickheads we should appreciate art made by smart, nice people too, right?

I am not old enough to have really gone through this journey of increased appreciation of art over decades, but I do love this question. Knowing the stories of the people behind art allows me a much deeper enjoyment than evaluating it only in the context of my own life. Dirty Dancing comes to mind. The classic film was made well before my time but has remained ever-relevant in our post–Roe v. Wade era, as sharply laid out by Emma Gray and Claire Fallon on Love To See It. Here’s to Eleanor Bergstein

Dennis: 

As requested, I have a Taylor Swift question for you. I liked (approximately) 12 TS songs, and then Midnights came along and jumped me in a dark alley, and I basically like that whole album. Where do I go from here? What else of hers should I start with?

It’s funny that Midnights is the album that has reeled you into the Taylor world. For a lot of seasoned fans including myself, it’s a bit of an enigma. She’s never put out a record quite so uneven before, though detractors of Red will tell you otherwise. Midnights, according to Swift, reflects various moments throughout her life when overwhelming thoughts and emotions have kept her awake into the middle of the night. Thus, its themes are varied, and are a good launching pad into the rest of her discography. (The production of Midnights, dominated by hit-or-miss Jack Antonoff, is more cohesive than its subjects.) Here are some links between Midnights and older tracks, so you can be a bit more enlightened as you dive into the rest of Swift’s massive catalog! 

Anti-Hero” was the outrageously successful lead single from Midnights, and its self-reflective irony is reminiscent of 2014’s “Blank Space.” Though almost a decade apart, both tracks tackle Swift’s public image as a manipulative villain. “Anti-Hero” leans into the spirit of Midnights by revealing more of her own genuine insecurities than she did on the more parodic “Blank Space,” but the 1989 single is still one of the sharpest songs in her catalog, if you ask me. Swift’s relationship with fame will never not be interesting, which leads me to a Midnights deluxe track, “Dear Reader.” 

“Dear Reader” took me a few listens to let it fully wash over me. In the song, Swift speaks frankly about lessons she’s learned throughout her life, but the emotional climax lies in the bridge (as it so often does for Swift), in which she talks about the hollow loneliness of being a larger-than-life figure for millions. It echoes “The Lucky One” (2012), an ode to Joni Mitchell which Swift recently said is about “how horrible being famous is.” I also feel the same thread of desperation she expresses in “mirrorball” (2020), which is, by the way, my second-favorite Taylor Swift song. 

One of the few Midnights tracks that bowled me over upon first listen was “Midnight Rain.” Her candor in recalling a relationship in which she was not the victim but the success-hungry instigator feels like a direct callback to the excellent “Back To December,” her 2010 ballad about breaking up with that Twilight boy. For all the times when Swift has been angry about a partner who has done her wrong, you gotta give her credit for the times she’s admitted that it takes two to tango. In this sense, “peace” (2020) also relates; in that folklore masterpiece, she acknowledges the strain that her anxieties and status puts on her relationships.

Another connection between Speak Now and Midnights lies between “Dear John” (2010) and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.” Both tracks reference her troubled relationship with John Mayer, whom she dated when she was 19 and he was 32. “Dear John” is raw, devastated, and triumphant. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” benefits from over a decade of hindsight, and conveys the rage that she was treated so poorly by someone with such power. “Memories feel like weapons,” a lyric from the Midnights track, is an apt companion to the deathly sharp “Dear John.”  

Recent ex-beau Joe Alwyn is a large presence on Midnights, as he has been for every album since reputation. “Mastermind” is sexy and smart like reputation’s “Dress” (2017). “Lavender Haze” and “I Think He Knows” (2019) are sonically very similar. All of those celebratory songs were written before Swift and Alwyn separated, but luckily for us, Swift released a heartbreaking (metaphorically—read the lyrics) breakup track called “You’re Losing Me” in May. (It’s technically part of Midnights: The Late Night Edition which is why I feel comfortable including it here). Though about a different partner, “You’re Losing Me” has the same dejection and despair as 2010’s “Last Kiss.” If these tracks don’t take your breath away, I don’t know what will. 

Some quick ones, now: I associate “Question…?” and “hoax” (2020) because neither of them make any sense to me. “Vigilante Shit” is a less strong “mad woman” (2020). “Hits Different” has the same “happy, free, confused, and lonely” energy as “22” (2012). Finally, “You’re On Your Own, Kid” tracks Swift’s entire career—her whole life, even—with clear-eyed pride, and each line reminds me of a different song, including “Teardrops On My Guitar” (2006), “Clean” (2014), and “the last great american dynasty” (2020).  

Clearly, Swift’s history is quite a labyrinth, especially for those peering in for the first time. But this doesn’t have to be an obstacle—indeed, I think her complicated life lends her ultra-personal music nicely to a range of people and tastes. Best of luck launching into the Taylorverse; I suspect you’ll find some emotional threads that resonate. 

HALFTIME:

Todd:

My coworker recently said he is better at soccer than every person on the USWNT. As my coworker is not Lionel Messi, I think he's probably wrong. These are world class athletes we're talking about. Which leads me to my question: could you beat any of the USWNT at a 1 on 1 game of basketball? Crystal Dunn is 5'1" and I think she still has you beat. 

I initially didn’t want to dignify the first part of this question with a response but I’m feeling petty. Your coworker sounds like a dumbass. Has he ever … watched a game? Are you sure he doesn’t work for FIFA, or is Alexi Lalas? 

I don’t think there are any players I could beat at basketball, but considering I’m about as good at basketball as your coworker is at being realistic, that’s no surprise. I bet some players would totally ball out; probably any goalkeeper, and apparently Sophia Smith played basketball growing up. If being engaged involves any transferring of basketball powers, Megan Rapinoe would be very good, considering her fiancée is Sue Bird. Ultimately I think at least a few USWNT players might initially struggle with coordination in a sport where you carry the ball instead of kick it. The thing is, even with that, I would be terrified to go up against any of them because the sheer power of their competitiveness could probably fuel even that 61-inch maestro you mentioned to successfully dunk.

Dan: 

I'm in my 40s and have two young kids. All of their friends refer to my wife and I by our first names. We don’t care and probably prefer it, but when I was growing up we called ALL adults Mr. or Mrs. [last name] or risk the wrath of our parents. Other than for teachers, is Mr. and Mrs. no longer a thing? 

This has been a big topic of conversation among me and my roommates this year as we’ve begun to meet each others’ parents. Our conclusion was that all of our parents go by their first names to our friends, but we all know at least a couple other parents who prefer to be referred to by surnames. Based on this very small sample size, I think honorifics are still a thing in some families, but it’s less common than when you were growing up. And please, call me Dame Funbag.

David:

I recently replaced my Target pepper grinder with a higher quality version and the net is a much better experience to the point that I wondered why I did not do this sooner. People have gone so far as to ask me if I am using a special blend of peppercorns, which I am not. Have you upgraded anything in your kitchen with such an improvement in results and/or experience that you questioned why you lived with “average” for so long?

One of the most humbling experiences in my life was going to a friend’s house and seeing them slice a tomato with a chef’s knife. At my house, I always used a serrated knife to cut tomatoes, or else I would be awash in a spray of juice holding only a smushed tomato. That’s when I realized: My family’s knives were dull. I came home and sharpened our knives, and my life improved drastically. With an adequately sharp knife, chopping becomes both less strenuous and more precise. Plus, if you have the kind of knife sharpener that’s a long stick of metal you slash the knife against (apparently that’s called a honing rod), you get to swing a knife around and still look respectable. Now my standard for knife sharpness is if it can cut through a tomato as if it were butter.

Another great kitchen upgrade in my life has been getting a citrus juicer that has a little nest for the fruit and two arms you close to squeeze all the juice out. This was instead of one where you have to squish the fruit into the mound of a mini bundt-pan looking dish, which required a strainer for the seeds and is generally messier. My final suggestion: Life with a Dutch oven is better than life without a Dutch oven.

Adam:

A few of years ago my partner bought a butter bell and started leaving it out on the counter so we always had room-temp butter nearby. What a revelation it was! Having real butter that doesn't need to be futilely shaved just to make toast in the morning has been life-altering like a home-toilet bidet.

But there are problems with the butter bell: loading it up, remembering to swap the water in the bottom of the jar, the immense disappointment when the butter comes unlodged and plops into the water. Over time, we've used the butter bell less and less until eventually we stopped a while back. Instead, now we just leave a partially wrapped butter stick on a plate next to the stove top. Day and night, it's always there.

Are we sinners? Or is this kosher because God knows the heart loves room-temp butter?

Adam, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about this pressing issue. Butter does not belong in the refrigerator, and I will go to my grave shouting this. Imagine you have a perfectly toasted piece of bread or a perfectly tender ear of corn. Would you rather struggle with brittle pieces of cold butter or slather on perfectly creamy room-temperature delight? Yeah, I thought so. You can store butter in the fridge while you’re working through another stick on your countertop, but, unless you’re making laminated pastry, you should NEVER, EVER punish yourself by keeping butter colder than it has to be. 

Bradley:

Which is the more unforgivable sin: putting an empty milk container back in the fridge or leaving a single square of TP on the roll. My gut says the milk because you don’t keep spare milk under your sink?

Both are bad! Neither milk nor toilet paper are fun to run out of, especially if more is not within reach at critical moments. In this sense, leaving the toilet paper roll empty may be worse; there’s a, uh, messier consequence if you’ve truly run out and haven’t realized before doing your thing. But pouring a big bowl of cereal only to realize there’s no milk left is as disappointing as the USWNT's performance against Portugal today, so that’s bad too. As the arbiter of right and wrong in the world, I declare both wrong and unforgivable.

Gabriel: 

If light is faster than our neurons is it possible that the space between thinking and moving is something like God or consciousness?

Is God the thing that ties us all together, that force which makes us feel like we belong with each other, with the trees and the birds and the sun, and with ourselves? Is consciousness, derived from our firing neurons, what allows us to perceive that web of connectedness? Is it possible to know?

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