Category Archives: travel

More Kentucky Folks

Last week I wrote about Kentucky relatives on my father’s side of the family. This week’s reminiscences are of Kentucky folks on my mother’s side.

Our Uncle Sam (yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam, and an Aunt Jemima whom I never met) and Aunt June lived on a farm outside of Campton, Kentucky. We took the Bluegrass Parkway, which was then a toll road, to get there. Every summer, we vacationed there for a week or two, along with visiting other relatives in the area.

We often stayed a night in Campton, where my Aunt Thelma ran a small hotel (Roses’ Hotel) and general store right across from the town diner, which had much to recommend it, including jukebox access at every table, and a pinball machine. (Note: I have no idea whether Uncle Sam, Aunt June, and Aunt Thelma were actually my aunts and uncles. They could well have been second grand-uncles and great-grand-aunts twice removed, for all I know. The only titles we used for any relatives other than Granny (Coburn) and Grandma (Rose) were aunt, uncle, and cousin. But I digress.)

The general store was notable to us kids for having a wide assortment of penny candy where we could get root beer barrels, red hots, and Sugar Daddy pops. There were clothing and tools in the back, but we never made it farther than the candy counter.

Uncle Sam, down the road a ways, was a sharecropper. He owned the land where the house was, on one side of the road, and farmed the other side of the road for some other owner. He had cows and chickens and a horse. When I brought my then-fiance Dan to visit, he and Uncle Sam went off to bring in the cows. Dan, having no experience with cows, wandered along behind them with a stick, while Uncle Sam made polite conversation by pointing at various plants and asking, “Do they have those where you come from, Mr. Reily?”

Sam’s wife, Aunt June, was a round, comfy woman with bright, black eyes, who was at least part Native American. She was famous for her biscuits. Dan won her heart when, just before we left, he stuffed his pockets full of them.

We had, I would say, a strained relationship with the chickens. We would try to gather eggs for breakfast, but were never assertive enough to reach under the squawking and pecking fowl and collect the eggs. An adult had to be summoned for that. I was also mildly traumatized when I saw Aunt June wring a chicken’s neck for that night’s dinner, and I learned what the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off” really meant. I still ate the fried chicken, though.

The horse was another matter. We loved to ride it, but once when I was on its back, one of the farm dogs came yipping at its heels and the horse took off at what seemed to me great speed toward the barn door. The closed barn door. I bailed off sideways into the cornfield and the horse sensibly stopped when it got to the barn door. But for a moment, it was terrifying.

There was lots to do at Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s. There was a fishing pond. The path to the pond was lined with blackberry bushes and if we visited at the right time of year, we picked the berries on our way to the pond. I don’t remember catching any bluegills longer than about three inches, of which we enormously proud, but which were fed to the barn cats.

Another notable feature of the house was the plumbing, or the lack thereof. There was running water in the house for washing or cooking, but there was no inside toilet. Instead, we had to make do with the outhouse or, at night, with the “slop jar” under the bed. The bed was cozy with handmade quilts and it seemed a shame to leave their warmth to grab a flashlight to trudge to the outhouse.

Living along with Sam and June were our cousins, C.B. (Benny) and Betty Sue. C.B. was kind of a hellraiser and too old to be interested in young cousins, but Betty Sue, although among the shyest persons I’ve ever met, liked to hang around with us. Later in life, she became an attendant in a senior care facility.

The farm was a special place, with a traditional porch and rocking chairs. If it wasn’t too hot – and it often wasn’t, this being in the Kentucky hill country – we would sit and rock and drink lemonade from Mason jars.

Perhaps my memories of these idylls are why Dan and I choose to spend weekend getaways at a bed and breakfast called The Farm, where we get a small cabin with a porch and rocking chairs, beds with patchwork quilts, chickens and goats and rabbits that have the run of the barn and the yard, and huge country breakfasts. We’re going again this August, and I can’t wait.

Kentucky Folks

Not a lot of people know it, but I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the first four years of my life. My father, who was very attached to his mother, took us to visit on school or government long weekends, and sometimes even regular weekends. Summer vacation invariably involved a trip to see Granny, Pete, and Willie; Uncle Sam and Aunt June and their kids, C.B. and Betty Sue; and Cousin Addie.

One object of all this travel and family bonding was to make sure we kids didn’t pick up “Northern” accents, which I did anyway through speech and debate classes and watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news. I could still pull out a Kentucky accent when needed, such as when trying to appall my sorority sisters in college.

I suppose I should start with Granny, Pete, and Willie, who lived in a small house in Lexington. Granny was my father’s mother, and Pete and Willie were dad’s siblings. Pete was actually named Edna Mae. As far as I know, the origins of the name Pete are lost in the mists of time, and no one ever called her Edna Mae unless they were mad at her.

She was, frankly, a homely woman with thick ankles, but we loved her dearly. She had a good heart and a sly sense of humor that seldom showed itself, except when we kids did something goofy, like when I go-go danced for Granny to “Winchester Cathedral.” Every year for Christmas she gave me and my sister identical presents, differing only in color. The gifts always included an Avon roll-on perfume and a box of stationery.

Granny’s house was wonderful. There was a magnolia tree and a peach tree in front, and a black walnut in back. There were touch-me-nots growing all along the front porch and we loved to pop the fuzzy little pods and scatter the seeds everywhere.

We kids had the run of the house and Granny would frequently open her coin purse and give us spare change so we could go down the street to the store to buy penny candy. Next door was a parking lot that connected to the back door of a laundromat. We would often take the shortcut to get to the Woolworth quicker for comic books and sundaes.

Granny had long, white hair – I doubt if she had ever cut it. I still remember her sitting in a chair, with her hair flowing down the back, and Pete brushing and braiding it for her, then wrapping it in a neat coil at the nape of her neck.

We kids loved the coal fire grates that heated the house for the longest time – they were replaced later with gas heaters, which weren’t nearly as much fun. Pete had one of those old popcorn poppers that was a rectangular basket with a sliding lid. We held it over the coal fire and shook it until it was full of popped corn, then emptied it into a bowl and start over.

Names are different in Kentucky. My dad, James Robert, was invariably known as Jim Bob. All names ending in A were pronounced “ie. I was surprised when I went on an ancestry site and found my grandmother listed there as Calla. We all knew her as Callie. There was also a Callie Jo in the family, who smoked cigarettes and had a questionable reputation. Naturally, I found her fascinating, as she was the only “bad girl” I had ever met up until that time.

When Pete died, I was chosen to represent the Ohio branch of the family as my father was bed-ridden with cancer at the time. When I returned, I described the funeral to him, including the car that followed the hearse and was filled with flowers. “A truck,” he insisted. I knew he was talking about what she deserved rather than my account of what actually happened. Apart from relatives, most of the people there were from the Greyhound Bus company, where she had worked all her life.

There’s lots more to tell about my other Kentucky relatives, but I think I’ll save that for another time.

That Fateful Day

When people ask how my husband and I met, I tell them the Reader’s Digest Condensed (clean) version: At the Philadelphia Folk Festival, introduced by mutual friends. Which is true, as far as it goes. But it fails to capture the essence of the experience.

I’ll never forget my first sight of Dan. He was wearing a t-shirt that said Dr. Demento (which his coworkers at the psychiatric hospital had given him) and a patch over one eye. The patch was to cover a missing glasses lens, but it gave him a certain piratical air, and I’m known to have a weakness for pirates.

We were introduced by mutual friends, who had come with Dan to the Festival. We were all in front of the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Food Tent. (If that reference isn’t familiar to you, Packer was the leader of the Donner Party of explorers, who got lost and made a meal of one another. But I digress.)

Dan and I were on committees to help us pay our way, but we were on different ones. He was on the grounds committee, which had access to any part of the festival area and helped construct stages, booths, and the like. By the time the festival started, they had done their work and were free to enjoy themselves.

I was on the camping committee, which patrolled the tented area and its borders, making sure that no one set their tents on fire by letting their campfires burn out of control. (There was also a security committee, a tickets committee, a medical committee, and there must have been a food committee who set up the food tent, but I don’t want to think about that too much.)

I was also at the Festival with a group of friends, including Uncle Phil, my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Rex, and a good friend from college. Uncle Phil was the catalyst for all that ensued, as he was the person that nearly everyone in both groups knew. We and several other friends and acquaintances had tents around a shared, large campfire, where at night we talked, drank, made music, and sang.

That night at the campfire, Dan purposely sat next to me, though I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Later, when he had to excuse himself for a moment, he leaned over and kissed me. I clearly remember thinking, “Why is this man kissing me?” (I was a little slow, or maybe both fast and slow.)

That evening Dan invited me to take a walk with him, and his all-access Grounds pass got us into Dulcimer Grove, a small, isolated venue where small, intimate concerts and workshops were given. This time when Dan kissed me I had some idea of why. We were there a long time before we rejoined the campfire.

After that, Dan and I were inseparable (which mightily pissed off a number of the friends that we were there with). Dan even got me into the Grounds Committee compound, which had the marvelous amenity of a shower. An outdoor shower, but still. It was a luxury that existed nowhere else on the Festival site, to my knowledge. Of course, since he was so nice as to offer, I availed myself of it.

By the time the Festival was over, Dan and I were a couple. My by-then-ex boyfriend left for New Jersey with my college friend. I borrowed money from everyone I knew to get busfare back to Ithaca. Dan drove me to the bus station and gave me two gifts: an enameled necklace and a bag of banana chips. I don’t know what happened to the two people Dan had been there with, except that one of them eventually forgave us.

Dan and I saw each other again the next weekend. I had invited him to a large house party. Neither one of us attended it, which, believe me, was the better choice. Most of the same people from Philly were there, and it seemed best not to stir the pot. We had to make ourselves a little party of two, occupying a friend’s attic while the friend went to the house party.

Then we went our separate ways, he to Philly and me, soon after, back to Ohio to live. We maintained our long-distance relationship with letters, phone calls, and the occasional visit. (This was in the days before cellphones and texting.) Eventually, Dan moved out to Ohio (as I knew he would) and after a spell of actual dating, we married.

We have since been back to the Philly Folk Festival a few times, most notably on our honeymoon, but we have never made it back on any of our anniversaries, as jobs and such made it impossible to get away at the right time. Maybe for our 40th anniversary, next August.

What Do You Do With Your Winnings?

You suddenly receive a chunk of money. What will you do with it? That’s a question that I have heard often. Not directed to me. I have no prospects of landing more than pocket change, unless my mystery gets published, hits the bestseller lists, and gets picked up for a television series.

But I watch a fair number of competition shows on TV, primarily on Food Network or The History Channel. I enter giveaways occasionally, when HGTV is offering a fabulous house in Rhode Island as a prize. But I never even buy lottery tickets, to which I have a philosophical objection. (I believe that they are a tool used by the upper classes to make money by fooling people into believing that they can magically join the upper classes. But I digress.)

The prizes offered in the shows I watch are seldom life-changing, usually starting at $10,000, which seems nice, but I have seen them go up to $100,000, which actually could be life-changing, if not a key into the leisure class.

What the contestant would spend the money on if he or she won is a question that invariably gets asked. I have noticed a pattern in the responses. There are a few major categories.

Travel. Contestants’ dreams of travel seem pretty realistic to me. It’s what I would spend my winnings on.

The usual fantasy trips are to take the family on a great vacation, to have a honeymoon that somehow never happened, or to visit a part of the world from which ancestors came. In the food competitions, there is also a tendency to wish for funds to travel the world (or at least part of it) sampling and learning how to cook different kinds of cuisine.

(Since we were on the subject of honeymoons (or at least I was), I also hear contestants who want to spend their prize on an engagement ring or a wedding. I know the price of diamonds and of weddings have not gone down in recent years, but $10,000 or $25,000 seems a bit high for regular folks, the ones who never appear on “Say Yes to the Dress.” An engagement ring for $25,000? I mean, come on!)

Home. I’ve heard a number of contestants say they would like to put a down payment on a new home. This time the figure seems a bit too low. But what do I know? Maybe the couple has already saved toward a house and this would put them over the roof, so to speak.

Other winners say they would renovate their kitchen (on the food shows) or their workshop (on craft- or building-type shows). This I can understand. Remodeling a kitchen or a workshop could easily eat up that kind of money, especially if new appliances or tools are required.

Business. Again, as with houses, the prizes offered don’t really seem magnanimous enough to start a business, but again, most of these lucky winners may have a fair amount put aside already. Or their dreams are more modest – to get a storefront instead of an internet bakery (a concept I’m not altogether clear on), or a food truck (I’m assuming this would also be a down payment, given that a food truck would have to cost more than a car, which you can hardly get for $10,000 anymore anyway) or the ability to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time business, which seems to me like a pipe dream, but I suppose there are people who could make it work.

Charity. Some of the potential winners have loftier goals. I’ve heard chefs say that they would start a variety of cooking programs for troubled youth. I’ve heard winners say that they would give part, or even all, their winnings, to a charity that provides funds for researching a disease or condition that a family member suffers from. Others want to donate to a church or other religious cause. Once I even saw a kid (on “Kids’ Baking Championship”) who wanted to help out a teacher who had fallen on hard times.

Me, I’d be off like a flash to Ireland with my husband. (I’ve been twice, but he’s never been). If there’s some left over, we’ll just have to arm wrestle for it. Maybe Benson, Arizona, where we once enjoyed one of our best vacations ever. Or, more likely, only as far as the IRS office.

 

 

Eating Around the World

My mother, my husband, and I (in different combinations) have had some amazing travel experiences. England. Brazil. Croatia. And, like good tourists, we largely ate and drank our way through the various countries. 

There was the trip that my mother and I took to Brazil. When we arrived at our Rio hotel, we were greeted by our guide, who offered us a complimentary local drink – a caipirinha. This is the national cocktail of Brazil, made from lime, sugar, and cachaca (a local spirit reminiscent of, but different from, rum). It’s a pretty potent combination. My mother, who would have the occasional Tom Collins or glass of Mogen David, did not care for it, so she gave it to me. I downed both hers and mine.

Then the other little old ladies who were on the tour (there were a fair number of them) had the same idea and all gave me their caipirinhas rather than let them go to waste. It’s a good thing we had arrived in the evening and had no other events planned for that night, as I sat in the hotel lobby and got thoroughly sozzled.

Mom was not with us when my husband and I went to England (though Dan’s mother was). We lunched at pubs and tried authentic fish and chips, but passed up an Australian restaurant because I insisted we weren’t in Australia. 

But the most interesting culinary attraction there was when I noticed “spotted dick” on the menu at the restaurant we had chosen. (Insert your favorite “spotted dick” joke here.) I had heard of spotted dick before, but never knew what it was, really. Apparently, it’s a dessert, because it was listed under “Puddings” on the menu. (As those of you who’ve seen Harry Potter know, “pudding” is generic British for “dessert.” It doesn’t mean actual pudding.)

Naturally, I couldn’t resist ordering it. I tried to muffle my chuckles, but no doubt the waiter was used to this sort of behavior from tourists. When he brought out the dessert, it was rather disappointingly a sort of spice cake with raisins in it, topped with a thin custard. (I think it might have been crême anglaise, but I didn’t know enough at the time to call it that.) Evidently, the raisins were the spots, though I don’t like to think what parted represented the dick. Especially with that custard sauce.

The best treat of all, though, was one my husband and I had when we were on a tour that featured Venice, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. There was interesting food and drink everywhere. In Slovenia, I ate Brussels sprouts just because they were served with the main dish, and discovered they were wonderful. (Unfortunately, I have not had them prepared the same way since. And I didn’t know how to ask for the recipe in Slovenian. I speak a little Russian, enough to order cabbage or buy books, but I didn’t think that would go over so well.  But I digress.)

In Istria (a peninsula that’s part of Croatia), a few of us from the tour stopped at a local tavern to get a hot buttered rum to ward off the chilly rain that was plaguing us that day. Dan and I, feeling a mite peckish, ordered a fish plate. We thought it might be something like a cheese plate, a small assortment of different kinds of samples.

But no. We were presented with an enormous platter featuring every kind of seafood you can imagine in vast quantities, including a huge, whole fish. Again, this was before Food Network, so I had to try to disassemble the fish without completely shredding it or leaving any treacherous bones. (I remember that I did it rather successfully, though that may just have been the rum punch talking.) Our tour-mates had to dig in to help us make a sizeable dent in all the fish, shellfish, and other marine life (think octopus), so as not to seem ungrateful.

But our best food encounter was on that same trip. In Croatia, there is a city named Split. (I was once trounced by a crossword puzzle that had the clue “Split country.” I thought of Korea or Vietnam, but neither one fit.) Near the end of the tour, Dan and I stopped in at a small restaurant to have a little something-something – not a full meal, just a nibble or a nosh.

There on the menu we saw it – a prosaic, all-American banana split! How could we possibly resist? We had to order one just so we could say, “We split a banana split in Split before we split Split. But we didn’t do the splits. We might have split our pants.” Opportunities like that don’t come along just every day.

Rearranging the Furniture in My Head

I knew a woman once who, when she was at business conventions and besieged by requests, saturated with meetings, and overwhelmed by the exhibit hall, stated that she had to retreat to her hotel room “to rearrange the furniture in my head.” I thought that was a great way to put it. We all have furniture in our heads and sometimes it’s necessary to place it in areas where we won’t trip over it and bruise ourselves. Or there may be more furniture than we need and we must jettison some of it.

Now, however, rearranging the furniture in my head has become more literal. I’m basically in the position of having to furnish an entire house, and indeed to be involved in planning the shapes as well as the contents of the rooms, since our house was destroyed by a natural disaster.

This is challenging. We loved our house the way it was, with only a couple of changes that we could envision making. We have an architect working on it and he’s made some pretty fine suggestions. He has told us that we can add amenities such as skylights and bay windows, plus making what had been a deck into a screened porch or “catio.” We’re also willing to trade some storage space to have a larger downstairs bathroom. But even if we left the floor plan basically the way it was, there are still a lot of decisions to be made.

It’s the furniture that has me puzzled. All our life, our house has been decorated in what my parents liked to call “Early Married Junk.” (We’ve been married for more than 30 years and that’s still our decor.) Now, having to pick out things that actually go together is stressing me out.

Choosing color schemes is no picnic, for example. We barely had a color scheme for our wedding, starting with off-white so the guests wouldn’t snicker. This was in the days before weddings had themes or groom’s cakes or favors for the guests or designer cocktails. We had a cake decorated in our colors and called it a wedding day.

But now it seems that every room must have a color scheme and a “look.” Boho? Country? Modern? Classic? Retro? Anything but ’50s, no matter what my husband says.

Saying goodbye to our original kitchen decor will not be a hardship. The house was designed in the ’70s and the kitchen was done in orange. Countertops so orange you could lose a pumpkin if you placed it on one of the surfaces. Psychedelic patterned indoor-outdoor orange carpeting that caused hallucinations if you stared at too long. I don’t know what we’ll settle on, but that’s not it. Generally speaking, I think carpeting in the kitchen is a Bad Idea, psychedelic orange or not. Linoleum, tile, press-n-stick “wood” – nearly anything else.

Once I tried to decorate a bedroom. I was going for a travel theme with bright, yellow-gold walls and our assorted souvenirs as accents, with jungle print or brown, rust, and gold bedding. I managed to talk my husband into light oak for the bed, but couldn’t convince him to ditch his cherry chest-on-chest. It was an antique, but also a dark, hulking presence against one wall. We had compromised on each of us decorating one half of the room’s edges. My half had a rattan teacart and etagère. His had classical paintings of naked nymphs, plus brooding African masks that seemed to follow your every move. Admittedly, they did complement the travel theme, but they were still unnerving.

Now we will have a master bedroom, two baths, two studies, a great room, and a kitchen/dinette to deal with. By the time the house is built, I may just decorate every room with padded walls. Until we actually have rooms to put things in, I’ll keep browsing decorating websites and rearranging the furniture-to-be in my head.

Camping Then and Now

There we were, bedding down on sleeping bags in our tents, the cold, hard ground only a layer of canvas or plastic away. When we sprang out the next morning, our lithe teen forms dressed in green shorts and Vibram-soled boots, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked over hill and dale and rocky trails, singing optimistic songs and breathing deep of the fresh air. We ate granola as we walked.

Later that day, we built a fire and sat upon logs, tree stumps, or little water repellent squares while our dinner cooked slowly, smoke curled around our heads, and mosquitos had their meal before we had ours. Then it was more songs, jokes, stories, and talk till it was time to pour water on the fire, make sure the ashes were cool, and return to our sleeping bags, where, after hours more chat (not the electronic kind, either) we dozed off.

We were Girl Scouts and we thought that was the only way to camp. We’d see camping trailers and pop-up campers and elaborate RVs at the edges of the campgrounds nearest the parking lot and think, “That’s not camping! Those people aren’t having the real camping experience. No tents. No sleeping on the ground. Cooking over propane.” We sneered at them (amongst ourselves, being polite little things) and swore we would never indulge in such a travesty of the outdoor experience. It ought to involve at least a little hardship, after all, or where was the challenge?

Since then we have passed the 40- and 50- and even the 60-year marks and our challenges have largely changed. The last time I slept on the ground was well over a decade ago and an outfitter had to bring the tent, because I no longer owned one. Instead of the chirps of birds and rustle of small animals, the sound of our bones creaking and our groans as we tried to raise ourselves to standing positions awakened us. The outfitter cooked the breakfast and we were truly grateful.

Now even that sort of camping, with its modicum of luxury, is beyond me. For one thing, I need an electrical outlet nearby to run my CPAP machine. For another, my ability to climb from a horizontal position on the ground to an upright posture is, to say the least, difficult, as several falls in my home have proven. Some days I can get up and some days I need help. With my luck, I would be camping on one of the latter.

Now I would welcome a pop-up camper. It may have minimalist beds, but they are off the ground. Even a camping trailer would be nice. Those tents never really kept out the rain anyway and, given the choice, I would much rather sleep under a dry blanket than in a sodden sleeping bag.

(I’m still not completely sold on the huge RVs. I think of them more as a way to see the country than as a way to camp. Though they might be good for families with children and grown-ups even older than I.)

And now we have “glamping,” an ugly portmanteau word of “glamor” and “camping” that touts luxury and style. While glamping you can sleep in comfortable lodges or huge tents fitted out with full-sized beds. With throw pillows, even, in one of the photos I’ve seen. Wikipedia says it offers “the luxuries of hotel accommodation alongside ‘the escapism and adventure recreation of camping.'” “Resort-style services” may be available as you bask in Bali or indulge in a photo safari. In other words, camping for spoiled rich people. I know the rustic-looking cabins with all the comforts of the Waldorf promise a lot, but I can’t help feeling a little like I did as a naive and sturdy Girl Scout.

That’s not camping.

 

Where the Weirdos Go

Where do the weirdos go to have fun? “Nowhere,” you may think. “They stay in their parents’ basements, turn pale from lack of sunlight, and debate the ending of the most recent Avengers movie.”

Well, you’re in for a surprise. There’s a place where geeks go to socialize, share, and occasionally even get laid. It’s the science fiction convention (aka “con”). Although there will be people dressed as Klingons and furries (look it up), many of the trappings of an SF con resemble those of any other kind of convention. Panel discussions, book signings, an art exhibit, a dealer’s room, a hospitality suite, parties, music, perhaps a dance. There also may be children’s programming, science guests, and, in the case of the con I plan to go to in May, animals from the Columbus Zoo.

Because I look to the outside observer like a fairly typical middle-aged lady, I get asked a lot by other hotel guests, “Who exactly are these people?”

“They’re mostly harmless,” I reply. (Thereby quoting from one of the classic SF novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) And that’s the truth. Even though they may wear authentic Scottish dirks, Viking swords, and lightsabers, they are indeed harmless. They are simply people who lead, as one song says, “Rich Fantasy Lives.” They are the geeks. Nerds. Outsiders. Every variety of misfit.

Including me and my husband. I’ve been going to cons ever since I was a stringer for Cincinnati magazine and was sent to cover one by my editor. There I wrote a 400-word piece and met people who would become my lifelong friends. (The editor had chosen me for the assignment because she remembered that I was a reader of science fiction when she knew me in high school. But I digress.)

The people who attend cons are not all Trekkies or get-a-lifes or people who think they’re from another planet. There are writers (like me) and scientists, but also musicians and career consultants and academics and lawyers and advertising people and zookeepers and all varieties of creative types from folklorists to woodworkers.

Why do they gather in these numbers (up to the thousands), in these hotels, in these tribes? Fellowship. Camaraderie. Stimulation. Understanding. Friendship. Shared interests. Fascinating discussions. Movies and novels and video games. Even love.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been to a con in years. I know that, unlike at a business convention, almost anything I do will be all right. I can hang with friends or sit in the lobby reading. I can join a large, raucous group for dinner or order a pizza in my room. I can attend parties where I know no one or concerts where I know everyone. I can be opinionated and argue or be quiet and learn. Generally, only overt violence and sexual harassment are disallowed.

And I can wear my NASA t-shirt, my Fahrenheit 451 t-shirt, or my Death Star/Ceci n’est pas une lune t-shirt (okay, I’m a language geek too). No biz casual for me. No booth duty while the salespeople power-lunch. The only booths will be in the art exhibit and the room selling shirts, books, CDs, and costuming supplies. (Cosplay is a big thing at this particular convention. Look it up.)

It’s true that after all the business conventions, I get a bit of anxiety around so many people. But the other attendees may too, and they will understand. After all, we are mostly misfits, from the over-intelligent to the socially awkward to the nearly completely unsocialized. But I’ll have a hotel room full of close friends (sharing rooms is a tradition) and a hotel full of potential friends.

So, as the song says, “Don’t be unkind to a wandering mind/Just say it again if we missed it./Some whispering poem/Was calling us home/To a place we know never existed.” Or exists for a weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, anyway.

 

On the Road With Serial Killers

While traveling, I’ve encountered some serial killers. Well, two. Sort of. Near misses, anyway.

The first time was kind of meta. My car broke down and a nice woman stopped to give me a ride. “I’m going to take a chance that you’re not a serial killer,” I said as I got in. “Well, I’m going to take a chance that you’re not one either,” she replied. We both figured the odds were against that and she drove me to where I could call AAA.

The second time was much creepier. I was driving down the highway, alone, on a Sunday night. It wasn’t dark and stormy, which would have been too atmospheric, but it certainly was dark. All of a sudden, my car started sputtering. From all that I’ve read about serial killers in true crime books, I knew that if my car broke down along the roadside at night, I was a sitting duck.

I nursed my car along. I passed exits with plenty of gas stations, but they were all chain operations where I was more likely to find a burrito and a doughnut than a mechanic. They may have also sold fan belts, spark plugs, and washer fluid, too. But I really didn’t know what was wrong with my car other than making funny sounds – the kind you sound dumb trying to demonstrate – and slowing down.

I took an exit.  Lo and behold! A proper gas station appeared, one that was open and wasn’t the burrito-and-doughnut sort. Sometimes I have that kind of luck, like the time a phantom gas station appeared in Arizona when, through a miscalculation, my tank was below E.

A short time later, as I was making pseudo-engine noises to the attendant, a man walked in. He was short and round and wearing rainbow-striped suspenders. Also, he had a beard. Potential serial killer. They look just like regular people, you know. That’s how they lure you in.

After he gassed up, he listened to my attempts at explaining my predicament to the clerk (who was no help at all). “Sounds like you’ve got a broken fill-in-the-blank,” the stranger said. “There’s an auto store just about a mile from here. You could get one there.”

“My car won’t run,” I said sadly.

“I could give you a lift.” There it was, the classic serial killer move – find a woman stranded on the highway and offer her a lift. Of course, the clerk could have described the man with the suspenders, his car, and maybe even his license plate. But then again, maybe not.

“I don’t have any money,” I said. Actually, I had some, though not quite five dollars. And no credit card.

“I think I have an extra fill-in-the-blank at home in my garage,” the gentleman offered. “We could get that.”

“I think I’d be more comfortable waiting here,” I said. That was code for, “If you think I’m getting in your car with you and going to your house, you’re crazier than I think you are.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said and drove off, leaving me alone with the clerk. Who, after all, might have been a serial killer. Could you dump a body into one of those enormous tanks that hold all the gas for the station? I wondered.

Before I could really work up a scenario (or figure out what to do about it), the man with the suspenders returned, which I really hadn’t expected. He installed the fill-in-the-blank and I was on my way. He never even gave me his name, which made me wonder if he had even really existed. I made it home safely, vowing never to travel again alone, or at night, or with less than five dollars in my pocket. Though of course I have, many times since. Shows you how cocky you get when you survive an encounter with a serial killer.

 

Getaway: Creepy to Castle to Country

“How far away is Massachusetts?”

“About 12 hours, maybe more.” My husband has less than a keen grasp on geography. Also, he asks questions out of order. When he asks me about Massachusetts, I know there’s a question behind the question.

“How would you like to sleep in Lizzie Borden’s house?” Ah, the real question. Dan had read that the Borden residence was now a bed and breakfast and he was pretty sure I’d be interested. After all, he’s met me. When we went to London I insisted on taking the Jack the Ripper Walk, the one led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, so I could get him to autograph my copy.

I’m not saying that I would want to do the Assassination Vacation thing like Sarah Vowell, but true crime interests me and we had been talking about a long weekend getaway.

But there was a problem. Two, actually. Apart from the fact that Massachusetts was too far to drive for a three-day weekend, there was the ambience of the Borden b-n-b, as I learned online. Far from true crime, it was being billed as paranormal. Psychic readings. Ghost cams. All that ooga-booga shit I have no use for. I was glad to abandon the idea and search for less hokey, and closer, accommodations.

The next thing Dan suggested was a castle. I had told him about the wonderful castle tours in Ireland, and he thought he remembered that there were castles – or at least replica castle hotels – within our state. So back to the Internet I went.

There are indeed castles in Ohio. None authentic, as we’ve never had an Earl of Chillicothe or Baron of Akron, but several nonetheless. Some sounded very interesting, with little, attached taverns or pubs or assorted square and round towers. The problem here was that they were out of our price range. We could afford one night. Driving somewhere, spending one night, and driving back isn’t my idea of relaxation, unless we have an interesting relative within driving distance, which we mostly don’t.

(We’re keeping some of the non-hotel castles in mind as day trips. A tour and a meal sound like a fine one-day getaway.)

By chance, the next day I got an email from a travel discounting service (all right, it was TravelZoo), advertising a 60% off rate on a stay at a working farm in Kentucky. Not an old farm, but one built in the 90s, recent enough to have Jacuzzis in some rooms and Wifi throughout.

If that sounds a lot like glamping, well it is. But the place also offers opportunities to milk cows or goats; gather eggs for breakfast; learn canning, gardening, and other farm-type activities, plus take tours of a thoroughbred horse park or bourbon distilleries and vinyards.

Two discounted nights at the farm were only a few dollars more than one night in a castle, and only three hours or so away. And it seemed a pleasant combination of rest and recreation. I emailed, got a speedy answer to my question, and booked right away, in the middle of the night, from my tablet. Now we have a voucher and just have to pick a date, perhaps around our anniversary.

There’s no crime connection, and no pseudo-castle, but there is fresh air in different surroundings, plus activities that will take me back to my childhood stays at Uncle Sam’s farm. (Yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam. I also had an actual Aunt Jemima. Yes, I know it’s funny.)

In one day our travel plans had ricocheted from creepy to medieval to rustic. We’re flexible like that.