Archive for Slices of Life

Autumn Colors, Roadside Dinosaurs, Thoughts for the Day

Here are more memories of Levi’s tenth birthday on November 5. I took him, Asher, Judah, and one of their pals out west to Dinosaur Land. Dinosaur Land is a traditional roadside attraction, about fifty years old, that has both “old style” dinos from the 1960s and “new style” dinos, sculpted by Virginia artist extraordinaire, Professor Mark Cline.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’d recently bought a “new, old-stock” memory card for my ten-year old Olympus digital camera (whose card had given up the ghost). I hadn’t taken any photos since the spring, when the card had died. Amazon had some 50 Meg cards in stock (which I later realized was even TINIER than the card I’d purchased ten years ago!). But it still held about 90 photos, so I was back in business. My goal for the morning (aside from celebrating Levi’s special day) was to capture shots of the dinos with fall foliage in the background. This first one is of an Apatosaurus (or, as they used to be known, Brontosaurus). Looking good for an old guy, I think! The fall colors set off his skin tones so nicely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I believe this next picture is of an Allosaurus (I forgot to take notes while taking the pictures). I took a couple dozen of these over an hour and a half, and I’ll be sharing them over the coming weeks, as the mood strikes me.

Here’s an update on my mental/medical status. These past couple of days, I’ve been feeling/doing a bit better. I just started taking a mood stabilizer, in addition to my anti-depressant and panic attack-reducing medications. I believe the new medication is helping me to suffer fewer wide mood swings. This morning, rather than waking up with a “ball of furious cats of anxiety” jumping on my head, face, and neck, I woke up thinking what Peter Pan might call “lovely thoughts.” I spent my first waking hour reflecting on how many of my closest relationships I have had an opportunity to improve since being released from the hospital the Monday after Thanksgiving (December 2). My best moments in other times of crisis have been thoughts of what my recent experience could or had changed for the better. This, now, is no exception. In the last week, my relationships with my angel of a wife, Dara; my brother, Ric (who visited my family); my dear high school friends, Maury Feinsilber and Larry Leibowitz, who also came to visit; my mother-in-law, Phyllis Levinson, who has made her initial visit to Virginia just a day ago to be with me and with Levi; and with many family and friends I’ve spoken with over the phone (Paul Jerome, Charlie Pellegrino, my sister, Robyn, Adam Castro, and my father, Dick Fox)… all of these relationships have been deepened by these dear people sharing time with me (and my family) during our time of awful trouble.

Today I also reached an important milestone for my improvement: for the first time since being out of the hospital, I drove my Kia Rondo. Until now, I’ve been driven by friends or by my mother-in-law. But today I wanted SO much to try, to see if I could drive safely, that my therapist gave me permission (after I’d described my emotional and physical state) to do so, after I had practiced in the parking lot. I was so PROUD of myself — I drove several miles and navigated without any problem at all! Next week, when I begin doing half days of group therapy at an outpatient clinic in Fredericksburg, which is about forty minutes from my home, I plan to drive myself (my first day with either my mother in law or my wife in the passenger seat). I am excited and optimistic, for one goal I NEED to master before January 2, when I plan to return to work at US ICE in downtown Washington, is driving myself to the Manassas Train Station each morning and back home in the afternoon. I’ll be working a reduced schedule at first (I think), and driving will make it possible.

Thank you to all who have followed my blog recently and who have left such heartfelt, affecting comments for me. I’ve tried to answer them all. I love each and every one of you, and I SO look forward to making more of my books (both written and soon to be written) available for you in all the popular formats.

I’ll post more “Autumn Color Dinos” photos in the coming days. Please continue to come back and look!

A Reminder of Recent Good Times in Shenandoah

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So many terrible things have been happening to me and my family since mid-November; some of them I’ve described in a recent post, written a few days after I was released from the hospital. I am a new “devotee” or “fan” of cognitive therapy, the art of trying to change one’s mood by changing one’s thoughts. Although this morning I am in a reasonably good state, I want to do something to help ensure that I stay there. Unfortunately, at this time in my life, I never know WHICH Andy Fox I am going to wake up being, or which one I will end up being after eating breakfast or taking a shower. My mind, thank God, is sharp virtually all of the time, but my mood is very unpredictable. So I am resigned to “the wonders of chemistry” for the time being (and I truly pray my doctors put me to rights very soon, by early January, when I plan to resume a good part of my previous normal schedule).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So this post is a fond look back at a recent very good afternoon spent in Shenandoah National Park, on Skyline Drive. I drove my three boys and a young friend out there for the day, as well as a visit to Dinosaur Land (which I’ll cover in an upcoming post, God willing). I wanted my boys to experience what remained of the changing fall foliage in the Shenandoah Valley, before all the leaves hit the ground. It was Levi’s tenth birthday (November 5), and Shenandoah National Park was one of the places he selected to go to celebrate his big day. This was a couple of weeks before the sh_t hit the fan, so to speak; although the signs were already looming. So this is a reminisce of one of the more recent happy days I spent with my family.

Three Little Bears

Three Little Bears

This was also the day we were fortunate enough to spot three deer standing near one of the park stations and later came across three baby bears up in a tree, eating berries (with their mother lurking on the ground, close by). The fall foliage was no longer at its peak (that had passed perhaps a week before), but some of these views are still quite lovely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I hope you enjoy looking at these snapshot memories as much as I am enjoying posting them. God bless you all, and thank you for your continuing support of me and my family during our months of distress and need.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Have Been Sick in Hospital; Very Sorry To All Friends

I am very, very sorry to all my friends and readers who look at my website. I have not put up any posts in over three weeks. The reason is that I have experienced a nervous breakdown and spent a week in a hospital during Thanksgiving week. I have never been in an inpatient mental treatment facility before in my life. Had some of the hardest days I’ve ever experienced, but overall it was a positive experience. I committed myself, because I did not want to experience a breakdown at home in front of my children and wife.

The reasons for my nervous breakdown included longstanding extended family conflict and cutoff in communications, and my oldest son’s worsening autism and Asperger’s symptoms. He was having many, frequent loud crying fits in school and other places due to very low frustration threshold. At school, due to bureaucratic regulations, administrators refused to give my son an IEP (Individual Extra-Help Plan) or an adult shadow in class to help him with frustration by answering questions quickly so he would not panic. They refused because he is at grade-level for academic achievement. Their “solution” was to shut him up in a printer closet by himself whenever he suffered a fit, with a monitor standing outside. Other children, including Levi’s younger brother, Asher, could hear him crying and screaming in this room; Asher said Levi was in the dark. Teacher would let Levi out when fit subsided after 20 minutes or so. Never told Dara or me about this printer room isolation; we found out from third parties who are friends. Later I experienced one of Levi’s hour long fits in public when I had little son Judah with me. It was terrible; made me feel like I had been in a car accident but body had not yet experienced extent of physical injuries. Early next week I experienced my first panic attack at work — was afraid blood pressure had spiked and was having a stroke or a heart attack. Nurse took my blood pressure; was normal! But immediately started crying and screaming about Levi. A week later, after bad reaction to one medication, I admitted myself to hospital.

New medication I am on for anxiety makes me very slumberous/comatose and feels a little like I suffered a benign stroke. Talking and writing are difficult; must do both very slowly, with much concentration. Cannot operate car or “heavy machinery.” Even walking Romeo, my big dog, exhausts me with effort of concentration. So many projects are being delayed until medication can be altered; I cannot stay on what I am on now because it is addictive long term, and besides, it does not seem right for me, although it does help control my panic attacks. This is the first time I am typing since leaving the hospital, although I hand wrote a journal there.

Here’s what’s going on with MonstraCity Press. Fire on Iron is out in Kindle and I think is out in Smashwords formats now. We have received proof copy of paperback book from Createspace and are having my sister-in-law proofread it. It should be available for order soon. My next Jules Duchon Fat White Vampire novel, Fat White Vampire Otaku, is completely written but not yet edited and formatted by Dara. We had planned for the paperback to be available for order during December, but now this will be delayed by a few months, maybe two months. I am very sorry to my friend Marita Jaeger at Boutique du Vampyre down in New Orleans, because she had on her website that Jules Duchon fans among her customers could advance order Fat White Vampire Otaku for Christmas. Now it will be February, 2014 at the earliest. I will soon return to working on the second “Midnight’s Inferno: the August Micholson Chronicles” book, Hellfire and Damnation, as soon as I can write fiction again; maybe in a month. It is the direct sequel to Fire on Iron. I still hope to have that one come out in April, 2014, as originally planned. The book which was supposed to come out in February, 2014, The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club, will be rescheduled for sometime in the summer; it connects up with Fat White Vampire Otaku.

I am very, very sorry to disappoint my readers and friends. I truly love you all. God Bless each one of you. And please pray for me and my family. Thank you all very, very much. I love you.

Fox Family Fall Fun

Fatman, accompanied by the Legion of Junior Super-Villains

Fatman, accompanied by the Legion of Junior Super-Villains

Ah, fall! My favorite season of the year. After sweating through the summer, arriving at the office with my shirt stuck to my back and perspiration dripping down from behind my ears, I always welcome that first hint of fall coolness, which, in Northern Virginia, generally arrives sometime around the middle of September. (Back in New Orleans, it generally didn’t hit until after Thanksgiving, and in Miami, it might never arrive at all.)

Potty racing with Levi and Asher

Potty racing with Levi and Asher

A fun aspect of the season in this region is all of the fall festivals and pumpkin patches that sprout up between September and Halloween. Every garden center and nursery with a bit of extra land throws up a bunch of seasonal decorations and a bounce house or two for the kids (the better to drag in their parents). Some nurseries really go whole hog. My family’s favorite pumpkin patch/mini amusement park features half a dozen bounce houses and inflatable slides, a Nerf gun combat zone (featuring compressed air-powered Nerf rifles, pretty bad-ass), and, most distinctively, potty racing. Yes, potty racing. Actual toilets have been fitted with go cart motors and steering tillers. You sit on the throne just like you would in the privacy of your own bathroom. Just be careful — they’re tippy around corners!

With visiting writer Maury Feinsilber at a pumpkin patch

With visiting writer Maury Feinsilber at a pumpkin patch

Another fantastic attraction is Shenandoah National Park, famous for its 120 mile-long Skyline Drive, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains. I tried taking the boys and our friend Maury to the park at the height of the fall color, but the line of cars poking out from the park’s entrance looked like the line at Disneyworld during Christmas break, so we took a pass. However, the boys and I headed back a week later, on Levi’s tenth birthday, to have a look at what color still remained. It was an overcast day, so we didn’t get to see the full brilliance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

However, we spotted tons of wildlife! Three deer posed for us alongside one of the visitor centers.

Even more excitingly, we saw an entire family of bears. We pulled over when we passed a gaggle of cars all parked next to a particular tree. The boys and I got out of the car, looked up, and saw a trio of bear cubs in the highest branches, eating berries. A woman next to us warned that another bear was coming up towards the road from the woods below. This turned out to be the momma bear, so we all scooted back into our cars. Goldilocks was nowhere to be found — or was she? Maybe she was the lady who warned us back into our car?

Three Little Bears

Three Little Bears

Sick-ation! (With Bonus Zombie Plague)

How I felt my entire vacation

It had been two summers since my boys had last seen their cousins Josh and Ben, my brother Ric’s kids. Too much time; the kids change so much in just six months. If we let too much time go by, all five childhoods would slip by us, and we would lose the chance to have them form childhood cousin friendships.

I worry about such things. Call me sentimental.

The last time, Ric and Leslie, their sons, and my sister Robyn had driven from Tampa up to Manassas to stay with us. I knew I couldn’t manage a reciprocal drive down to Tampa. Talk about a bridge too far… last year, the boys barely survived our six-hour car drive up to New York (they still have the imprints of my choking hands imbedded in their necks). So Ric and Leslie, recognizing my conundrum, were kind enough to suggest meeting half-way. Ric took a look at the map. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina looked like it would fit the bill nicely.

Of course, as fate would have it, three days before we left, I came down with a bad sinus infection. Two days before we left, my right ear felt like it might, just might, be getting infected; I applied some topical antibiotic cream before going to sleep. Unfortunately, the cream encouraged the accumulation of wax, which, by the time I left for work on Wednesday, completely clogged up my ear and left me half-deaf. My work neighborhood in downtown DC includes a CVS Drug Store, so I went and purchased a small medicine chest’s worth of ear declogging remedies. None of them worked, or at least they didn’t work quickly enough. That night, though, I was able to flush out several big, gooey chunks of wax with a bulb syringe. Able to hear again, I hoped this was the end of my ear-related tsuris.

Unfortunately, such was not to be the case. I woke up knowing I’d developed an ear infection. I also knew I’d simply have to tough it out. We’d pre-paid our hotel bill, cancellation wasn’t an option, and, besides, my family and Ric’s family had been planning this trip for months. I consoled myself by saying at least I wasn’t getting on an airplane. Or going deep-sea diving.

The drive down to Myrtle Beach was less agonizing than I’d feared it might be. Having my twenty-year-old stepdaughter Natalie in the car with us as a third adult helped, as it evened the odds up. On the drive down, Natalie, who has started a small business with a girlfriend making beaded bikinis and other articles of clothing made of beads, worked on a bikini top for my wife Dara (which, she boasted, was the largest article of women’s wear she’d yet attempted). The worst incident on the drive south was Natalie getting car sick and having to jump out of our van in front of a small town Ford dealership, where a young salesman assumed she’d come to look at a Mustang or Focus. He rushed over to begin his sales pitch, and got to her side just in time for her to barf, her expulsion barely missing his shoes and the tires of a used Crown Victoria.

By the time we hit Myrtle Beach (which my boys thought looked absolutely AWESOME!), my ear was throbbing like one of Peter Lorre’s eyeballs in The Raven. I deposited my family at our hotel and headed straight for an urgent care clinic. The doctor poo-pooed my concerns about my ear. She said the redness was due to my having irrigated the ear the night before, and she insisted the pain I was experiencing was due to inflammation of my jaw joints (even though I told her I don’t grind my teeth or eat anything like hard candy). She prescribed me some ear drops and told me to take large doses of ibuprofin. I knew it wasn’t going to work. But you can’t argue with a doctor, especially not with one who is a stranger.

That night, I let my brother get in the pool with my kids and his, as I didn’t feel up to it. The next morning, Friday, I felt even worse — the drops hadn’t done a bit of good — but I decided to tough it out and take the boys to the beach and the pool. The beach was a trial; I was losing my voice, and as any parent of young children will tell you, losing your voice is equivalent to having every last drop of parental authority leeched out of you. Without your voice to project righteous fear into your offspring, your only fallback is to physically lay hands upon your wayward children. Easier said than done in the pounding surf, while you are feeling as energetic as a sack of congealing cement. I didn’t let me kids stay in the waves for very long. The combination of their lack of common sense with my lack of energy and voice made disaster a near certainty, so I let discretion take precedence over valor and hustled them into an indoor pool, where my lack of a voice wasn’t so much a disability.

The next morning the throbbing in my right ear had become a pounding. I dragged myself back to the urgent care clinic. A different lady doctor saw me. I couldn’t place her accent; she was from some Eastern European country. She didn’t have to look at my affected ear for very long to make her determination.

“Oh,” she said, “this is BAD. Very BAD. Must prescribe for you big antibiotic. Stronger than what we have here. MUCH stronger. I phone in to CVS for you.”

She was true to her word. Those pills could’ve choked a mastodon. Still, given how my ear was feeling, I was more than happy to force the first pill down my throat.

The families had agreed that we would take a break from the hot sun and find some indoor activity for the day. We settled on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. This was a pretty pure specimen of the genus “tourist trap;” but we were tourists, and we were willing to be trapped, so long as we were trapped somewhere with air-conditioning. The museum’s biggest attraction was a life-sized wax figure of the Lizardman, a gentleman who has subjected himself to a series of body modifying surgeries and massive tattooings in order to transform himself into a Cockney version of one of The Alligator People. I preferred a tiny display of intricate paintings done on butterfly wings. However, by the time we reached a display of medieval torture devices, including a mechanism for pouring boiling wax into a prisoner’s ear, I was feeling rather tortured myself, and I had the family drop me back at the hotel room so I could hide beneath the blankets.

I convalesced by watching a pair of Netflix movies on my laptop. I’d long wanted to see Woody’s Allen’s first film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which had been quite groundbreaking back in the mid-sixties. Unfortunately for my enjoyment of the film, popular culture (particularly children’s cartoon shows, with which I am intimately familiar) has so thoroughly absorbed the ethos of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? that the film’s zany gags just aren’t funny anymore. However, I did enjoy the grade B Japanese gangster movie aesthetics a good deal, especially the cars, the sports coats, and the strippers. I tried watching Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange next, but I didn’t have the energy to keep up with Alex and his Droogs and turned it off just before Alex was scheduled to be reconditioned.

The next day, Sunday, was our last full day of vacation, so I forced myself out of bed and down to the pool and beach with the boys and my extended family. The antibiotics had corralled the infection a bit, so I was feeling a tiny bit stronger. Fortunately, the boys were more interested in digging tunnels in the sand than in conquering the surf, so I wasn’t forced to act as lifeguard and was able to enjoy the steady breeze while sitting in a folding chair at the water’s edge.

That evening, after dinner, Ric and Leslie very kindly offered to take my boys off Dara’s and my hands and treat them to a round of mini-golf at the Atlantica Golf Palace next door to the restaurant. Ric emailed Dara and me the photo below of our boys and his. Apparently, my infection has spread to all five young men, transforming them into flesh-craving zombies. As you can see from the photo, they are advancing hungrily upon my brother, brandishing their golf clubs in menacing fashion, preparing to beat in his skull and feast upon his brains. If I don’t make it back from Myrtle Beach, you will know that the infection has spread beyond my family to the thousands of other families crowding the beach for the July Fourth holiday week. Thousands of families who will soon return to hundreds of communities around the country, bringing this zombie plague with them… perhaps to a community near YOU…

My sons and nephews, zombified, ready to bash in some heads with golf clubs and feast on brains

Another Ex-Celebrity Fall From Grace Story… That Isn’t One

I don’t generally go in for the commonplace Schadenfreude of lapping up accounts of celebrities’ falls from grace, either into alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, poverty, or gross obesity (well, okay, you’ve got me on that last one… I simply can’t pass up a good National Enquirer spread on the spreading middles, thighs, and bottoms of the formerly stick-thin celebrity class; but that’s just one of my little things, as any reader of Fat White Vampire Blues would recognize). I’ve mostly avoided following the saga of Charlie Sheen’s meltdowns, and the Winona Ryders (shoplifting), Hugh Grants (hookers), Mel Gibsons (alcoholism, girlfriend abuse, anti-Semitism), and Mackenzie Phillipses (the kitchen sink) of the world don’t tend to grab my interest (unless they get fat).

However, a couple of days ago, one such story of a former celebrity’s descent from the heights to a supposed hell did catch my eye (and it had nothing to do with significant weight gain). The New York Post’s somewhat infamous Page Six picked up on a National Enquirer story about one of the stars of the hit 1970s and 1980s sitcom Happy Days:

“These are not ‘Happy Days’ for Joanie Cunningham actress Erin Moran.

“She’s broke, living in an Indiana trailer park and looking haggard well beyond her 51 years, according to the National Enquirer.

“Moran and husband Steve Fleischmann, 45, are reportedly living hand-to-mouth at the Berkshire Pointe Mobile Home Park in New Salisbury, Ind., where they’re said to be caring for his ailing mom.

“It’s a long fall for the actress, best known as Ron Howard’s wisecracking little sister on one of America’s most beloved sitcoms.

“She appeared in 236 episodes of Happy Days between 1974 and 1984 before doing her short-lived spin-off Joanie Loves Chachi.” …

The reason this story caught my eye was that I once knew the mother of one of Erin Moran’s costars on Happy Days. Lynda Goodfriend played Lori Beth Allen, Richie Cunningham’s girlfriend and later his wife on the show. Lynda’s mother, Mrs. Goodfriend, was the school librarian at Thomas Jefferson Junior High, where I attended seventh through ninth grades from 1976 through 1979. Being a book lover (and wanting to stay as far away as possible from members of the school’s large community of thugs and bullies), I spent a lot of time in the library and got to talk with Mrs. Goodfriend quite a bit. Her daughter joined the cast of Happy Days in 1977, when I was in eighth grade. Mrs. Goodfriend spoke with enormous pride about her daughter, not so much because she had joined the cast of TV’s most popular sitcom, but because she had managed to beat the odds – she was making a living from the arts, a field where so many thousands strived but so few earned any money at all. I’ll always be grateful to Mrs. Goodfriend, who lived up to her name for me and provided a safe haven at a school where I felt hunted and harassed.

So that’s why I bothered clicking on the link to the story about Erin Moran. But there was more to the story than the typical “actress gets older, falls from favor, can’t find work, loses home in foreclosure, ends up living in a trailer park” narrative. There was this:

“Despite these tough times, pals admire Moran’s dedication to her sick mother-in-law.

“’She and Steve moved in with his ailing mother at the trailer park a few weeks back. Erin is like an angel to her mother-in-law. She cooks and cleans for her and takes care of her personal hygiene,’ the family pal observed.”

The story goes on, in tabloid fashion, to obsess on Erin Moran’s prematurely aged appearance and the great gap in her lifestyles between her pinnacle as the young star of a hit TV sitcom and her supposed nadir in the trailer park. It doesn’t quote a word from Erin Moran herself.

And that made me wonder: what if Erin Moran is happy doing what she’s doing now? What if she finds caring for her ailing mother-in-law rewarding? Perhaps the writer didn’t obtain any quotes from Erin herself because what she would have said would have ruined the story’s conventional narrative?

I worked fifteen years for the Louisiana Office of Public Health. One of the administrative assistants in my office was an older woman named Mary. She had worked for the State of Louisiana for more than thirty-five years. When I met her, she was in her fifties, but she looked a good fifteen to twenty years older. She was gruff and initially off-putting, but she had a wicked sense of humor, and she got to be one of my favorite coworkers (she was very popular in the office, always helpful and cheerful). After having worked with her for a few years, she shared a little bit about her personal life with me. She had lost her husband a number of years before, and virtually all of her time at home was taken up with caring for her son, who was both mentally retarded and profoundly handicapped, confined to either bed or a wheelchair. She never complained about this; the stories she chose to share were about the laughs she shared with her son and the ways he found to show his love for her.

I remember, as a young guy in my mid-twenties, feeling sorry for her. Her life seemed to me to be a cage that she couldn’t escape. I thought she’d been dealt a truly devastating hand of cards. I admired her toughness, though, and wondered if I’d ever be able to show the same strength and resilience in a similar situation.

From the perspective of an older, more experienced person, now I can see that Mary had a choice of how to view herself, and I suspect her choice made all the difference for her. She could have chosen to see herself as a victim of fate and circumstances. Had she done so, she would have been a much different woman than the one I and my other coworkers knew; she probably would have become an alcoholic or perhaps a suicide. However, Mary was a religious woman, a Catholic. I believe she chose to see herself as a vessel of God’s loving-kindness, and she chose to focus on whatever evidence she could see of God’s design in the relationship between herself and her son. Yes, her life was hard; one look at the wrinkles on her face told you that. But she plumbed meaning from her life’s hardships and treasured the smallest glints of joy her son could provide. That sustained her.

Our culture used to routinely celebrate people like Mary and the quotidian sacrifices they made. Now I’m afraid we tend to view them more as unfortunates, as victims, as people to be pitied and perhaps assisted through expansions of government programs.

I wonder whether Erin Moran, former TV star, is a woman like my old coworker Mary. If she is, there is a far, far richer story there for a journalist to tell than the “rise and fall” celebrity narrative we’ve come to know so well.

But I suppose that kind of a story wouldn’t be appropriate for Page Six.

Happy 9th Anniversary to My Wonderful Wife!

Dara and Priscilla

Nine years ago today, Dara Lorn Levinson and I stood under the chupa together at Congregation Shir Chadash in Metairie, Louisiana. And what a nine years we’ve had together since! It’s been a real adventure. We’ve had three marvelous boys together, with all that has entailed – worrying about their health, taking them to the hospital (not too often, thank God), doing our best to help with their speech delays (now none of them ever stay quiet), encouraging them in their interests, trying to ensure they attend good schools, and getting them to go to sleep each night at a somewhat reasonable hour (more often than not sharing a bed with at least one of them, if not all three). We’ve seen our daughter Natalie through her roller coaster ups and downs and have been so very proud of her as she has made a brave adjustment to life on her own. We’ve gone through Hurricane Katrina and being “exiled” from home for two months, had our nerves frayed by the loss of Dara’s job and my chore of having to find new ones, and made the big jump from New Orleans to Northern Virginia when circumstances told us we had to. We’ve adopted a few cats (sometimes inadvertently) and buried a few others. We’ve enjoyed the seasons when I had books published and endured the seasons when I’ve been frustrated by a lack of publishing. We’ve suffered through stomach flus and head colds and high blood pressure and bouts of carpel tunnel syndrome together, doing our best to keep each other cheerful.

Nearly twelve years ago, we “met cute” on the Internet – I was fed up with JDate.com, frustrated by a lack of responses, and had decided to let my paid membership lapse; Dara had just joined. On my final day of eligibility, I decided to do one last search, just for the heck of it. I came across Dara’s self-description, so new that she hadn’t yet had time to upload a photo of herself. It wasn’t a glowing self-description, I remember. It was honest and down-to-earth and pretty funny. Something about it really appealed to me, so, hours before my membership would expire, I fired off a JDate invitation to her, asking her to look at my profile and email me. She didn’t take long at all to get back to me. We had our first date the night before Halloween at Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana. Dara later told me she knew from the start that she wanted to hang onto me. Having been through a shattering divorce just three years earlier, I was extremely cautious. But she persevered, never losing faith that I would come around to seeing things her way, sooner or later.

Honey, you were right! Thank you so much for never giving up. You are the heart of our family. The boys and I would be lost at sea without you; we’d be Gilligan and Skipper and the Professor and the Millionaire without Ginger or Mary Ann. These past nine years have been the best I’ve ever had.

swimming pool at Memphis' Heartbreak Hotel, site of our first trip together

Nebula Awards Weekend

An unfortunately dim photo (L to R) of Judi Castro, Levi, Judah, Adam-Troy Castro, Scott Edelman, and Asher

What I Saw at the Nebula Awards Weekend; or, the Semi-Bummed Out Observations and Kvetchings of an Underpublished Writer, Who is Ultimately Rescued From Melancholia by the Fruits of His Loins (part XXVIII or thereabouts in an occasional series)

What a difference a year makes… or not. SFWA’s Nebula Awards Weekend was held in the Washington, DC area two years in a row, not far from where I live. Last year my attendance got me all pumped up with enthusiasm and fresh ambition; I kicked off what I thought would be a promising collaboration with Ridan Publications and vowed to restart my website. This year? Not so productive; a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me, with my emoticons shifting from pleasant anticipation to pervasive melancholia to a warm, nourishing appreciation of my kids (and later, as per usual, getting fed up with them and wanting them out of my hair for an hour or two).

Oh, I wasn’t on the same emotional roller coaster, certainly, that I’m sure many of the award nominees were (my friend Adam-Troy Castro was nominated in two categories this year, I believe his sixth and seventh nominations, but, once again, did not walk away with one of the coveted Lucite blocks). I was on the periphery, only putting in my appearances because the awards weekend was being held virtually in my backyard and friends were attending who I wanted to see. My roller coaster was more like one of those miniaturized coasters that occupies the kiddy corner of most carnival midways, the one that you need to be taller than Popeye to ride. It doesn’t go very fast, doesn’t rise very high, and it always brings you back around to wherever you started from, then grinds to a noisy halt.

I’d originally only planned to attend the mass book signing on Friday night, since my father was supposed to be flying in from San Diego Thursday night to spend a long weekend with us. Part of the reason for his visit was so that he could celebrate his 80th birthday with me, Dara, and his three grandsons. Getting my father on an airplane is a tricky business; he doesn’t like to fly, and all of the headaches of flying that have accumulated since September 11, 2001 have only made matters worse. Thursday afternoon, his flight was canceled by mechanical problems, after he’d been waiting in the airport for over three hours. He caught me on my cell phone before I headed to Dulles International Airport, and he said he’d try to reschedule to come in the following night on the same flight. That would still allow me to attend the shared book signing at the Nebs in Crystal City, Virginia, so long as I headed straight for Dulles right after the signing. He called me back to let me know he’d been able to get a seat on the Friday afternoon flight. Since I’d already secured Friday off from work, I made plans to attend a full day of Nebula Awards Weekend events before picking him up.

My Friday got off to a rocky start. Trying to make a 10 AM panel discussion, I battled traffic on I-95 heading towards Washington, DC, got befuddled by my Google Maps directions to the hotel, skipped one parking garage that I considered horrendously overpriced, parked (because I was now running late) at another garage that was even more expensive, and then got completely turned around and walked a mile out of my way toward the wrong hotel before being redirected by a bellhop toward the Hyatt Regency. I arrived at my meeting a bit of a sweaty mess, but Dr. Alice Armstrong’s presentation on artificial intelligence was enlightening and interesting. Then I walked over to the SFWA book vendor, both to browse and to make sure some of my books were sitting on the tables. Big negative on that. The manager very kindly apologized and said that the box from IPG (Independent Publishers Group) had never arrived, so he had no books from either Tachyon Publications or Golden Gryphon Press to offer. Kathy Morrow, who was volunteering at the register, offered to take any books I had with me on consignment. I’d brought along a sample/display copy of each of my books, so I took her up on her considerate gesture.

Lunch at a local deli ended up being one of those happily serendipitous affairs wherein one’s friends and acquaintances pop up every time one turns around. I ended up lunching with Jamie Todd Rubin (frequent contributor to Analog and blogger on Golden Age science fiction), Alethia Kontis (author of AlphaOops! The Day Z Went First, AlphaOops! H is for Halloween, and the recently published YA fantasy Enchanted), and two members of the James River Writers Group. After lunch, Alethia and I hurried back to the “Improving Your Website” workshop, which I’d attended last year (when my old website was long defunct and had been colonized by a porn store, and I hadn’t yet started my new WordPress site). Utilizing me (as they did last year) as a humorous object lesson, the facilitators emphasized the importance of continuing to pay annual fees to domain registry services by demonstrating how allowing one’s domain name registry to lapse allows all sorts of opportunistic businesses to claim jump one’s old web address. Last year, www.andrewfoxbooks.com had been a porn site; this year, we discovered that the site’s registry had lapsed yet again, and the new owners were using the my former web address to sell condominiums in Japan. This represented a social promotion for me, it seemed; maybe come next year, my name will be selling commemorative dinner plates featuring the authorized likenesses of the stars of James Cameron’s Titanic. My new website, by the way, got a clean bill of health from the workshop’s facilitators, whom I thanked for having lit a fire under my tuchis last year.

Judah, Levi, and Asher with the NASA display

My wife left me a message while I was in the workshop. My father wouldn’t be coming, after all; his afternoon of waiting in the airport had drained him, and he’d decided he just wasn’t up for a repeat and for then sitting on an aircraft for five hours. I couldn’t blame him, certainly not at his age, but I was very disappointed. I hadn’t fully realized how much I’d been looking forward to his visit and celebrating his birthday until I learned he wouldn’t be coming. He has been one of the few relatives who has regularly come to visit my kids, and I’ve been anxious to see their ties grow stronger. I’d planned a very full weekend for us and gotten my boys all revved up. I think I ended up at least as disappointed as any of them.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I decided to catch one more panel discussion before the mass signing, the one called “Tragedy is Easy,” discussing the use of humor in science fiction. The panel was loaded with heavy hitters — Connie Willis, James Morrow, James Patrick Kelly, and SFWA President John Scalzi. Illustrating, perhaps, that the mechanics of comedy can be difficult to analyze, even for such a distinguished collection of practitioners, much of the panel consisted of exchanges of bon mots, rather than the program teaching “Comedy Writing for Advanced Writers” that had been advertised. The best exchange of the panel came when the subject of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy arose. James Patrick Kelly compared the impact of that book to the impact of Star Wars. Just as Star Wars in 1977 had precipitated an “extinction event” for the run of post-apocalyptic science fiction films which had preceded it (films like Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, and Zardoz), so did the overwhelming success of Hitchhiker’s Guide wipe out virtually all subsequent editorial interest in any form of humor in science fiction not written in the British music hall tradition. (And perhaps that helps to explain the trajectory of my career in the field.)

Then came the signing. Ask most writers: group signings of almost any size or venue are slightly humiliating at best, mortifying at worst. The first mass signing I participated in was at Comic Con International in 2004, just after Bride of the Fat White Vampire came out. Del Rey had invited me. They had also invited China Mieville, whose The Iron Council came out at the same time. I sat next to China, who could not have been nicer. His line remained two dozen deep throughout the signing. I had no line at all. I think one person wandered over to talk with me. If we had been movies at a multiplex, China would have been Avatar and I would have been Jerry Lewis’ magnum opus The Day the Clown Cried. The best one can do when participating in an event of this sort is to consider it a social venue and squeeze in as much fun conversation with your fellow sufferers as possible.

Friday night, I at least had the good fortune to be sitting with Adam-Troy and Judi Castro. Adam, as I mentioned above, had been nominated for two Nebula Awards and had also just embarked on what promises (we all hope) to be a super-duper successful middle grade horror-fantasy series that is slated to receive big-time support from its publisher. Adam and Judi are dear friends; when Dara, Levi, Asher, and I were stuck down in South Florida after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Adam and Judi collected clothes and books and toys for my two baby sons (Levi was 21 months and Asher was 6 months old), and they even found us a Cozy Coupe play car that the boys adored. I hadn’t seen the Castros in a number of years, so we had lots of catching up to do. Their presence saved me from being a complete grump, between my father’s canceling his visit and my vague sense of being a beggar at a banquet. (One’s sense of being Charlie Brown at Halloween time — “I got a Hershey’s bar!” “I got a bag of candy corn!” “I got a rock…” — is all relative, it turns out; during the signing, a couple of my pals with recent book publications under their belts and better deals on deck, who’d been merrily signing away throughout the evening, conferred with each other regarding who among the assembled writers had attracted the longest autograph lines. Another friend in the biz once told me that he’d heard that Ursula K. Le Guin would never read the People and Publishing column in Locus because she found it too painful to learn about the advances and deals other writers were receiving.) Anyway, after the signing was through, I wandered back out to the book selling area to see whether any of my sample copies had sold. I gathered all three and trudged home with them. And here I’d had the audacity to worry about IPG’s failure to deliver a carton of my books. That’ll learn ya…

The next day I decided to take Levi, Asher, and Judah back to Crystal City with me. The Castros had hoped to see the boys the previous night (I’d been planning to have the whole gang with me prior to my father’s travel plans changing). Also, Gordon Van Gelder and I had been trading fatherly gibes on FaceBook about fixing up his beautiful six-year-old daughter Zoe with one of my boys (who range in age from five to eight), and Zoe had seen our exchange and had been looking forward to meeting my crew. Gordon and Zoe had showed up at my table at the signing, expecting to see Levi, Asher, and Judah, and I’d had no boys to share and had felt like a heel for disappointing such a vivacious young lady. So I shlepped the boys out of the house, tried (unsuccessfully) to burn off some of their excess energy by letting them jump in bounce houses for an hour at the Prince William County Healthy Families Expo, drove them up I-95 to Crystal City, and fed them lunch at Subway before taking them into the Hyatt Regency. We ran into my good friend Mark Sarney, SFWA’s newest member (he’d joined two days earlier), then wandered over to the NASA table where a presenter (who was actually Colonel E. Michael Fincke, a retired astronaut, but I didn’t learn that until after the boys had talked with him, darn it) was handing out fistfuls of cool free stuff, photos of nebulae and galaxies and holographic postcards of parts of the International Space Station. Adam and Judi Castro came down from their room and met the kids, whom they hadn’t seen since 2005 (and they’d never met Judah before). When the boys became restless (as boys will tend to do), Judi suggested that we ride the hotel’s glass elevator, which provided panoramic vistas of Crystal City and parts of Washington, DC. That amused the boys and stanched the complaints of, “I’m bored!

Then Adam mentioned that there was a SFWA hospitality suite up on the 18th floor, and my boys have been to enough science fiction conventions that their eyes instantly light up when they hear the words, “hospitality suite.” So back up we rode. Jackpot! The H.S. had cheese, crackers, grapes, Diet Coke, juice boxes, mini chocolate bars, and a bowl filled with malted milk balls — all the basic food groups necessary to bridge the insufferable stretch between my boys’ lunch and dinner times. Plus, the view out the suite’s windows was even better than the view from the glass elevator.

Judah, Zoe Van Gelder, Asher, and Levi in the SFWA hospitality suite

Gordon Van Gelder gave me a call to let me know that his wife Barbara and daughter Zoe had gotten back from their sightseeing in Washington. They joined us in the hospitality suite. Even though I was supposed to get Levi to a birthday party back in Woodbridge for 5 PM, I decided to stick around for a while and let the kids get to know each other. Zoe was a little shy at first, but after ten minutes or so the four kids formed themselves into a little gang and took over the suite, commandeering the couches closest to the windows so they could lean over the window sills and stare at the big world outside the windows. Judah entertained (at least some of) the adults with his renditions of Japanese kaiju monster roars. Levi worked on one of his street map pictures and asked the Castros if he could consider them his “fake grandparents” (they graciously said yes). Asher, my social butterfly, talked with Zoe and pointed out interesting landmarks eighteen stories below (“Look! There’s the swimming pool, see?”). I talked shop with Gordon, which I enjoyed greatly (Gordon, apart from being one of SF’s most distinguished editors, is very charming), although I gradually grew more and more guilty about making Levi late for his birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Finally, it was time to go. The kids had gotten along so well that I felt my typical pangs of “Darn! I wish they lived closer!” As soon as we got back down to the lobby, Judah, my five-year-old, announced, “I have a girlfriend now!” He repeated this assertion all the way back to the car and until we got back onto I-95 and headed south, at which point his brothers managed to hush him by insisting that if he said it one more time, they would both vomit. I told them this wasn’t a nice thing to say to their younger brother, who was only expressing honest affection (if in an irritatingly repetitive way). Judah decided to get the last word in by insisting that Zoe was HIS girlfriend, not Asher’s. Asher said disdainfully that Zoe was his friend, not his girlfriend. Which seemed to satisfy Judah. Who later reported to his mother, “I am in love now!”

One thing about having three young boys… I find it impossible to stay bummed out for very long. They simply won’t allow it. Exhausted from them? Yes. Pushed to wit’s end with them? Sometimes. But blue and melancholy? My boys, God bless them, are kryptonite to the blues.

Visit to Harpers Ferry, WV (part 2)

Potomac River north of the site of Harpers Ferry Armory

Return to Part 1

Detail of the B & O Railroad bridge crossing the Potomac

One of the most fun things to do during a visit to Harpers Ferry is to walk across the historic B & O Railroad bridge to the Maryland side. The National Parks Service constructed a pedestrian walkway next to the railroad tracks, and the walkway is actually a part of the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through Harpers Ferry (one of very few towns bisected by the Trail). The walk provides a panoramic view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the Lower Town section of Harpers Ferry, the cliffs of Maryland Heights, and fascinating ruins of an old highway bridge, now colonized by nesting birds of prey. Rafters and kayakers paddle their way around these crumbling support stanchions, mute testimony to the raw, brute power of rivers at flood stage.

Ruins of the old Bollman highway bridge crossing the Potomac, destroyed by floods in 1924 and 1936

While walking above the Potomac River, you get an eagle’s eye view of the remains of the Bollman highway bridge. This bridge was destroyed twice in a dozen years by floods – the first time in 1924, when the bridge lost three of its spans but was subsequently repaired, and again in 1936, when its destruction was so thorough that all plans of repairing it were abandoned.

Harpers Ferry railway tunnel entrance

The railway tunnel through Maryland Heights was completed in 1931. Between forty and fifty CSX freight trains pass through this tunnel daily, in addition to Amtrak passenger trains and the MARC commuter train. Wouldn’t this make a great setting for some kind of action, suspense, or espionage movie? I could imagine Alfred Hitchcock doing some great things with this setting.

Railroad tunnel on the Maryland side of the Potomac

At the base of Maryland Heights, hikers will find the now waterless Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal and its towpath, which were constructed in 1833 and which were Harpers Ferry’s first transportation connection with Washington, DC, preceding the beginning of railway service by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad by one year. Like just about everything else in the Harpers Ferry area, the C & O Canal was battered by floods. The flood of 1877 damaged the canal severely, and the flood of 1924 ended its operation for good. Today, hikers can follow the old canal for 184.5 miles, south from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Georgetown Visitors Center in Washington, DC.

Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal

Visit to Harpers Ferry, WV (part 1)

Canada geese on a shoal in the Shenandoah

A "gargoyle", part of the remains of an old mill, overlooks the Shenandoah River

Several weeks ago my family and I visited a place that should be on the destination list of any day-tripper in the Mid-Atlantic region with an interest in American history and/or spectacular scenery – Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This nearly 250-year-old town, whose compact 0.6 square mile is split between a National Historical Park and a Historic District, is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where three states meet: Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. It was the site of one of two original United States Armories, of John Brown’s antislavery raid in 1859, and of a major Civil War battle which resulted in the surrender of a larger number United States troops than at any time in history, prior to the surrender on the Bataan Peninsula in 1942. The town changed hands eight times during the Civil War, which resulted in the destruction of much of its considerable industrial infrastructure. That infrastructure was subsequently almost completely obliterated by the great flood of 1870, only one of numerous ruinous floods which swept through the area during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Shells on a Shenandoah River beach

Parking in the Lower Town area of Harpers Ferry, site of the John Brown Monument, the remains of the Federal Armory and Arsenal, the Amtrak station, and restaurants and attractions, is very limited, so most visitors will want to pay the $10 admission fee to the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which boasts ample parking located a mile and a half away, beyond Virginius Island and up Bolivar Heights. Every fifteen minutes, a comfortable bus ferries visitors to a stop just outside Lower Town, near the northern tip of Virginius Island, which sits in the Shenandoah River.

No one lives on Virginius Island now. The last inhabitants fled after the record flood of 1936. What remain on Virginius Island are the ruins of numerous nineteenth century mills and factories, all of which took advantage of the power provided by the Shenandoah River. The National Parks Service is currently engaged in archeological excavations (which, ironically, suffered severe setbacks during two floods in December, 1996) to preserve the ruins and to interpret the economic, industrial, and residential life of the thirteen-acre island.

Levi, Judah, and me standing beneath an archway of an old mill

This is gorgeous spot in which to spend an hour or two of quiet contemplation (not that I was able to have too much of that, needing to keep an eye on three boys). On the far side of the Shenandoah River from the island are the Loudoun Heights of Virginia, beautiful tree-lined hills teeming with birds. Several sets of mild rapids dot the river adjacent to the island, and one doesn’t have to stand on its shore for very long before seeing kayakers or rafters. The sandy shore of the river is sprinkled with colorful clam shells, and various types of ducks and geese frequently land on the river’s shoals and small islands. The sounds of traffic from the road on the Virginia side are muted and add to, rather than detract from, one’s contemplative mood.

Firehouse that served as John Brown's "fort"

Virginius Island, the former industrial district of Harpers Ferry, is a short walk from Lower Town. Part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Lower Town features a book store, a museum of nineteenth century industry, and reproductions of Civil War era clothing and sundries shops. It is also the site of the John Brown Memorial and the fire engine house, originally next door to the Federal Armory, which Brown and his followers took refuge in while under siege by a contingent of U.S. Marines temporarily commanded by future Confederal General Robert E. Lee (then a lieutenant colonel and, although on leave, the senior officer closest to Harpers Ferry when Brown attacked the Armory).

Lower Town section of Harpers Ferry

During the late nineteenth century, after war and floods had displaced or destroyed most of the town’s heavy industry, Harpers Ferry became a fashionable summer resort for several decades, hosting many prominent visitors from Washington, DC and Baltimore, including President Woodrow Wilson. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad operated an amusement park, called Island Park, on a piece of land that jutted out into the Potomac River. However, the Great Depression and the great flood of March 18-19, 1936, when the rivers crested at 36.5 feet at Harpers Ferry, the all-time record, ended the resort trade in the town.

The site of the old U.S. Armory and Arsenal, destroyed during the Civil War, is located between the Harpers Ferry Amtrak Station and a pair of railroad bridges, including the historic B & O Railroad Potomac River Crossing. On the far side of the Potomac from the old armory lies Maryland Heights. The Heights are pierced by a railroad tunnel, and a cliff face of naked shale still holds an early twentieth century advertisement for borated toilet powder (whatever the heck that was!).

Rocky bluff across the Potomac from Lower Town

More photos to come!

The Passover-Easter Discussion in a Jewish Geek Household

___________________________________________________________

One thing you can pretty much count on as a Jewish parent of young children in America is questions before Christmas along the lines of, “Can we put up lights for Christmas?” Similarly, before Easter you can expect to hear, “Can we decorate eggs for Easter?” Here’s how the discussion went this year.

*****************************************************

Asher (7 years old): Daddy, I want to decorate eggs for Easter. Can I?

Andy (47 years old): Uh, Asher, you know our holiday is Passover, right?

Asher: Sure, I know that! But can I decorate some eggs for Easter?

Andy: Actually, Easter isn’t about the Easter Bunny and decorating eggs. I mean, it is, a little, but it’s mainly a very important religious holiday for Christians.

Asher: Okay. But can I decorate some eggs for Easter?

Andy: I’ll think about it. Maybe one.

Levi (8 years old, interested in religion): Dad, what’s Easter all about?

Andy: Do you know who Jesus was? Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’s birthday. Easter is a celebration of, uh, his death and resurrection.

Levi: Resurrection? What’s that?

Andy: Umm, let’s step back just a little. Jesus was a Jewish man who lived about two thousand years ago in what is now Israel. He was a teacher, a kind of rabbi, and he was very gifted at it and become very popular. In fact, he became so popular that some of his followers thought he was the Messiah.

Levi: What’s a “messiah?”

Andy: In Jewish thinking, the Messiah is a descendant of King David who will bring all the Jews back to the Holy Land, reestablish the State of Israel, and usher in a time when all the peoples of the world will live in peace. Anyway, getting back to the Easter story, what happened to Jesus was the Romans, who controlled the Kingdom of Judea at the time, executed Jesus because they were afraid he would start a revolt among the Jews against their rule. The way they executed him was called crucifixion. They built a cross out of two big wooden planks, and they nailed him to the cross. They pounded spikes through his hands and his feet. Then they didn’t let him eat anything. He died from the nails and from hunger and thirst.

Asher: Did it hurt?

Andy: Yes.

Levi: What happened then?

Andy: Well, this is the part where we get to resurrection. Some of Jesus’s followers said they saw him rise from his grave two days after he was buried, and then he went up to Heaven to join God. Actually, according to Christians, he was a part of God, but that gets really complicated, and I don’t want to go into it now. “Resurrection” means coming back to life after you are dead. That’s what Easter celebrates.

Levi (eyes growing wide): So Jesus was a zombie?

Andy: Uhh, no…

Carnival Time: Dreamland Amusements and Sellner Manufacturing

Anchors Away, the one-of-a-kind amusement ride from Sellner Manufacturing

This past Sunday, I took my three boys to a local carnival, set up in the big parking lot behind the Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, Virginia. The carnival was running a “threatening weather special” on unlimited rides bracelets, and between the special and a set of $5 off coupons, I was able to buy each boy a bracelet for $15 apiece, which seemed reasonable (especially given that buying ride tickets would mean spending $3 or $4 per ride per child, which would very quickly eviscerate my wallet).

When I was a kid, I was a tremendous fan of carnival rides. I begged my parents to take me to any neighborhood or church carnival I heard about, and I’d squeeze in as many rides on the Zipper, the Octopus/Spider, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Rock-N-Roll as I could.

My longest continual carnival ride came in high school, when my theater club, the Pioneer Players, raised funds for our trip to the State Thespian Competition by hiring out all the members of our club as extras on the set of the low-budget horror film, The Funhouse, directed by Tobe Hooper and filmed in North Miami in 1981. Nearly all of the film takes place on a carnival midway, and the filmmakers needed hundreds of extras to ride the rides and play games and walk around eating corndogs and fried dough. (The filming took place on the grounds of the old Ivan Tors Studio on 125th Street in North Miami, where Flipper and other TV shows had been produced.) My job turned out to be riding the Sizzler, which twists and twirls you around and around and around. Turned out I had to ride the Sizzler for more than five hours straight, from about 9 PM to 2 AM. On a very chilly night (for North Miami, that is… it was probably in the 50s). Good thing I had a strong stomach back then. I doubt I could handle the Sizzler for five minutes straight at my age now, much less for five hours. The producers called things to a halt a little before 2 AM and invited all us extras into a chow tent for some hot chocolate and hamburgers. By that time I was very hungry and VERY cold (not to mention very tired), so I appreciated their largess.

Anyway, my kids are about as nuts for carnival rides as I once was. So I felt really good about being able to buy them unlimited rides bracelets, which meant I wouldn’t have to carefully ration their rides, like I had during every other trip to a carnival we’ve made as a family. My surprise of the afternoon was how good I ended up feeling about the workers on the midway. There is a widespread stereotype of carnival workers (“carnies”) being, well, skeevy, greasy, ill-mannered, and generally unpleasant. I won’t say that I’ve never had the displeasure of interacting with carnival workers who lived down to the stereotype. However, that didn’t occur at this carnival, operated by Dreamland Amusements. The workers I had the pleasure to interact with were friendly, helpful, and attentive to my anxiety that my kids should be properly strapped and buckled into rides (I almost had a panic attack when I saw that Judah, my five-year-old, had wrapped the bumper car seat belt around his neck after climbing in next to his older brother Levi, but the operator assured me he would sort Judah out, and he did).

One employee was especially friendly, talkative, and helpful. He operated a ride called Anchors Away, a pair of pirate ships that swung on half-moon-shaped tracks, giving the riders a cascading back-and-forth swinging ride (there’s a photo of the ride at the top of this post). All three boys initially rode Anchors Away together. The operator, a man in his sixties, surprised me by showing genuine enthusiasm for children, a quality I don’t typically see in this sort of setting – he laughed with them and encouraged them to raise their arms into the air while the ride swung them back and forth. At first, I wasn’t sure that Judah was enjoying himself. He had a very disconcerted expression the first couple of swings. But then he raised his arms like his brothers were doing, and by the end of the ride he was smiling and laughing. They all asked to ride it again, and since they had ride bracelets, I said, “Sure! Why not?” But when his two older brothers said they wanted to go next door to ride the Sky Hawk, a ride too advanced for Judah, Judah said he wanted to stay and ride Anchors Away some more.

He ended up riding it eight times in a row, and he would’ve kept right on riding it if I had let him. Once, when there were no other children or adults in line with him, the operator even let him ride it all by himself. The operator told me that recently, at a State Fair in Tampa, Florida, a mother had let her little girl, about Judah’s age, ride Anchors Away all day long. I noticed a sign hanging from the guard railing surrounding the ride. It gave a brief history of this particular Anchors Away ride, one-of-a-kind. The ride had been designed by Bruce Sellner, president of Sellner Manufacturing of Faribault, Minnesota, in the mid-1990s. Mr. Sellner had intended for Anchors Away to become a new mainstay of Sellner Manufacturing. However, he passed away shortly after designing the ride and seeing the first one built, and the company decided that it would build and sell only that initial unit. (Did they do this as a memorial for Bruce Sellner? It seems like a better memorial would’ve been to keep building more units of the last ride design he had championed. But maybe his family members who took over the business after his death decided the business model for making more of them no longer stood.) The one and only Anchors Away was sold to a West Coast carnival company, which owned it until last year, when Dreamland Amusements bought it. The sign announced that Dreamland Amusements was proud to bring the only Anchors Away to carnival-goers on the East Coast for the first time.

I wish more carnivals would do this sort of thing – publicize what is unique about their rides and attractions. I’m sure individual rides must take on lives and histories of their own, considering that many of them travel around the country for decades. The rides at Dreamland Amusements range in age from at least my age (I was born in 1964) to less than a year old (they purchased their one-truck Himalaya ride, manufactured by Wisdom Rides, in 2011, and their Dizzy Dragons kiddy ride is also pretty new). The oldest ride I saw probably dates to the mid-1960s; it was a kiddy automobile racing ride, with miniature cars mounted on a turntable. I can pretty much date it to around 1965 or 1966 because all of the cars were either first generation Ford Mustangs (first built in 1964) or early 1960s Corvette Mako Shark concept cars (the concept car precursors to the second generation Stingray Corvettes that came out in 1968). That modest little ride has seen quite a lot of use; how many thousands of kids have sat inside those miniature Mustangs and Corvettes and twirled their steering wheels over the past forty-five years? It is a little staggering to think how many times the ride has been put together and taken apart during its career, considering that it gets disassembled at the end of each show, mounted in pieces on a truck, then reassembled at the next show a week or two later. I’ll bet the long-time carnival workers get pretty attached to and sentimental about the rides they work with, considering that they take them apart and put them together probably between twenty and thirty times each year, then spend long hours operating them in-between.

The Water Toboggan, Sellner Manufacturing's first amusement ride

A happy landing on Sellner's Water Tobaggan

The day after taking the kids to the carnival, I looked up the history of Sellner Manufacturing, the makers of the one and only Anchors Away. The company got started way back in 1923 by Herbert W. Sellner (grandfather of Bruce Sellner, who invented Anchors Away). The first ride Herbert manufactured was the Water-Toboggan Slide, designed for swimming parks on lakes. Boy, does that look like it was fun! Check out these photos. Can you imagine riding a toboggan down that long, tall, steep slide, then skimming a hundred feet across the surface of a lake? What a thrill that must’ve been!

But Sellner Manufacturing’s biggest success and greatest claim to fame rolled out a few years later, in 1926, when Herbert Sellmer invented the Tilt-A-Whirl. They manufactured hundreds of the original design, and they continue to build updated models today (Sellner Manufacturing, a family-owned company for most of its existence, was purchased by Larson International in 2011).

Sellner's Tilt-A-Whirl ride in the 1940s

Take a look at this photo of a Tilt-A-Whirl from the 1940s. I’ll bet lots of readers my age or even a little younger will recognize the design. I rode Tilt-A-Whirls exactly like the one in the photo throughout the 1970s, and I’ll bet if I were to rent a copy of The Funhouse from Netflicks, I’d see one of the old-style Tilt-A-Whirls spinning on that haunted midway where I rode a Sizzler for five hours straight.

Just for comparison’s sake, here’s a photo of a modern-day Tilt-A-Whirl, a custom designed Mardi Gras version Sellner Manufacturing built for New Orleans’ City Park Story Land after Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of the park’s original amusement rides.

Virgin-Eyed in San Francisco

Music-themed mural in North Beach

As I mentioned in my first blog post on visiting San Francisco, I think one of the greatest pleasures the modern world offers is the opportunity to visit a great city for the first time and to see it with virgin eyes. If one has the chance to wander somewhat aimlessly and drink in the sights of a new city at one’s leisure, one should grab that chance.

I didn’t have a tremendous amount of leisure time during my business trip to San Francisco, but I did my best to make the most of the time I had. After my Tuesday at the office supporting computer training, I headed back to my hotel, changed my clothes, rested a short while, and then headed through Chinatown on my way to hop aboard a Hyde Street cable car.

Very spooky cocktail lounge; would fit right into Mount MonstraCity

I loved Chinatown. I loved the ticky-tacky street vistas of Chinatown, with the chains of red lanterns strung from storefront to storefront across the narrow roadways. I loved seeing neon signs in both Mandarin Chinese and English. I loved this creepy cocktail lounge, made to look like the entrance to a cave… a dragon’s lair. Oddly enough, I was in the middle of reading a collection of Agents of Atlas comics, which is partially set in a subterranean city hidden half a mile beneath San Francisco, guarded by a dragon, and the surface entrance to the city is accessed through… a creepy cocktail lounge in Chinatown.

Mural on front of Chinatown Head Start, thanking the children for being helpful to their elders at a senior citizens' center

I stopped to look at the cut-out photos of children adorning a mural on the front wall of a Chinatown Head Start center. An inscription near the bottom of the mural thanked the center’s children for being especially helpful to their elders at a nearby senior citizen’s center. I liked that; it wasn’t something I was likely to run into back in Manassas. Half a block away, elderly men and women practiced their tai chi in the early morning in a park I could view from the nineteenth floor of my hotel, a park where children, maybe those same children from the Head Start center, played on slides and climbing bars. It was refreshing to see such disparate generations freely intermingling. A porter at my hotel told me the elderly are out there in the park doing their tai chi every single morning, no matter the weather.

I just love this guy for some reason

Shopping was fun. One store I wandered into was a typical teeshirts-and-souvenirs joint in the front and a men’s clothing store in the back. The men’s clothing portion was only open on Wednesdays. I made a note to come back the following day, Wednesday, so I could shop for a sport coat. For sitting in the display window was a mannequin straight out of the Lincoln Road of my Miami Beach youth, mid-1960s vintage, wearing a checkered sport coat I would kill for. Plus, the mannequin had a rather endearing look on his face – a look of mischievous embarrassment, as though he’d just farted on an elevator. Oh, how I wanted his coat! Which was on sale! For $78.95! But, alas, when I returned to the shop the next day to speak with the proprietor, I discovered that he only stocked jackets and suits in short sizes. I wear a regular, so I was out of luck.

A Hyde Street cable car waited for me at the edge of Chinatown. Some sort of accident a block north had kept the cable car and two behind it sitting immobile for fifteen minutes or so. The car I boarded was crowded with a group of tourists from France. One of the French women was quite incensed that the cable car would not move. She berated the operator and demanded that she and her entire party receive a refund of their fares (six bucks a head, not an inconsiderable sum), saying they would be late for their dinner engagement. One does not board a cable car, I believe, if one is in a hurry; one flags down a cab. The operator said he could not refund her money, at which point she continued to berate him, at which point he exited the cable car to go talk with the operator of the car stalled to our rear.

Street scene in Chinatown

After I had sat on the cable car for about ten minutes (not in any hurry to get anywhere myself, enjoying being able to absorb the details of the surrounding neighborhood), the accident ahead was cleared, and the cable car began to move. What a shambling, clanking, vibrating, crashing, wonderful mechanical monstrosity! By way of comparison, the electric streetcars I remember riding in New Orleans were paragons of smoothness and quiet. This beast, however, had the feel of an old-time roller coaster, a carnival ride of World War One vintage, albeit a roller coaster that operated in slow motion. I couldn’t hear the conversations of the French tourists, even though they were sitting only feet away from me. All I could hear was CLANK-CLANK-CLANK-CLANK-CLANK! During part of my ride, I sat next to the brake man, who operated three levers as long as his torso. His job was a physically exhausting one – he could hardly have worked harder had his task required him to jump out in front of the cable car on steep descents and lean his back against its prow with his heels dug into the pavement in order to slow it down. The way he leaned back with all his weight tugging on the levers, his gloved hands gripping the wooden handles so tightly that the veins on the backs of his hands must have bulged like blue wires, reminded me of the scenes of manual laborers continually adjusting the hands of gigantic clocks in the underground factory of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. On the steepest part of the route, the part where we passed by Coit Tower, all the houses to my right and left looked weirdly askew, tilted at angles twenty or thirty degrees out of true, like buildings and rooms inside a fun house. This wasn’t public transportation – this was a thrill ride, one that just happened to wind through other people’s very pricey neighborhoods. I could just hear my boys shouting (had I brought them along), “Again! Again! Let’s ride it AGAIN!”

I’d told myself I would ride to the end, get off, walk around whichever neighborhood the car let me off in, then get back on and ride back to the Financial District. My ride ended at the edge of the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The weather was whip-windy and cool, on the verge of cold. I hadn’t dressed especially warmly, wearing a light sweater and a sport coat, but I figured I’d stay adequately warm if I walked briskly enough. The lateness of the hour on a Tuesday evening and the biting wind combined to keep most pedestrians inside, in one of the seafood restaurants or hotels that lined the waterfront. One of the only persons I passed on the sidewalk was a man who had dressed his three dogs like clowns and asked me to pay him to have my photo taken with them. (I didn’t oblige him.)

Then I heard an odd sound echoing down the empty waterfront street. A kind of barking – but not that of dogs – and honking – but not that of car horns. I followed the noise, remembering that I’d read somewhere that a colony of sea lions had taken up residence somewhere on the San Francisco waterfront. Sure enough, when I came to the end of a deserted wharf, I found them, even though they blended completely into the darkness (the moon was almost full, so I was able to just barely see the silhouettes of the sea lions when they slid over one another and scootched themselves about). The clamor they were capable of making was terrific — imagine a “free jazz” concert of dozens and dozens of tenor and bass saxophones, French horns, tubas, and trombones, mixed in with raucous belches, bleetings, honkings, snarls, sneezes, bleatings, and lots and lots of panting and slapping of wet flippers against wet hides. Knowing my wife Dara was a big-time animal-lover, even though it was midnight back in Virginia, I called her up on my cell phone. “Sorry to wake you, hon, but I knew you’d want to hear this!” And I held my phone out over the water.

She wasn’t angry with me. That’s how marvelously unearthly, weird, and wonderful those hundred or so sea lions sounded in the darkness.

Streetcar on the Fisherman's Wharf route

On my walk back to the cable car line (after listening to the sea lions for three-quarters of an hour), I came across one of the other gems of the city’s historic public transportation system. San Francisco has collected dozens and dozens of vintage electric streetcars from transit systems all over the nation and all around the world. I followed one car for several blocks which had spent the first few decades of its life in Chicago. Here’s a terrific site which gives histories and details for all of the historic streetcars which have been restored by San Francisco’s Municipal Railway system and which run through historic San Francisco neighborhoods every day. Here’s a page giving all the details on the Chicago-sourced streetcar I followed for a few blocks in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. The entire San Francisco mass transit system can be thought of as a living, working museum. For those of a nostalgic bent or for fans of street railways, it’s worth a visit all on its own.

Jack Kerouac Lane, which connects North Beach and Chinatown--no right turns, Jack!

After I returned to the Financial District, a little after 10 PM, I spent an hour or so wandering around North Beach, the historically Italian neighborhood right next to Chinatown. There’s a little alley a block long that runs between City Lights Books and Café Vesuvio and that connects the edge of North Beach with the edge of Chinatown. Formerly named Adler, it has been renamed Jack Kerouac Lane. If one approaches it from the Chinatown side, one is confronted with a big No Right Turns sign just beneath Jack Kerouac’s name. In the last decade of his life, after he had published all of his major work, when he was living with his elderly mother in Florida and heading for an early death from cirrhosis of the liver, Kerouac vocally disapproved of many of his Beat compatriots’ embrace of the 1960s counterculture and the anti-war movement, seeing this as anti-American and against the love of country he had shown in writing On the Road, which he viewed as an ecstatic celebration of America. During one of their last meetings, Alan Ginsberg wrapped an American flag around Kerouac’s shoulders in an ironic gesture. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of Kerouac’s old friends in San Francisco arranged matters to have that No Right Turns sign installed beneath Jack’s name.

Oh, how I wish I could've taken this photo at night, with all the neon aglow...

If you’re a fan of neon signage (as I am), North Beach has some of the most spectacular examples in San Francisco. Many of those examples, it turns out, are connected to strip joints. I wandered block after block of Broadway, attracted to glowing neon like a fluttering moth, only to find myself, as a solitary middle-aged man wandering the blue district at 11 PM, on the receiving end of the sales patter of every strip club barker in North Beach. One rather clever fellow fixated on the white collar of my shirt, saying his joint was running “white collar drink specials.” An hour earlier, when I’d been gritting my teeth against the wind near Fisherman’s Wharf, walking back to the cable car, a woman had mistaken me for a priest and asked me to pray for her.

I finished my evening stroll at City Lights Books, which remains open until midnight. I was their last customer. I browsed through a book of polemics on the state of jazz and picked up a copy of An Olaf Stapleton Reader, a collection of the great man’s essays, speeches, short fiction, and excerpts from his novels (published by one of my alma maters, Syracuse University Press). I debated taking the book next door to Café Vesuvio and seeing if they still had any coffee brewing, but I decided I was too tired (and I knew I had to get up early to support computer training the next morning). Even the most wonderful evenings out must eventually come to an end.

Enjoying the heck out of a cappuccino at the Caffe Trieste

My last morning in San Francisco, I woke up early to make sure I’d have time to have a leisurely coffee and light breakfast at Caffe Trieste, one of the older coffeehouses I’d seen during my nighttime wanderings through North Beach. Caffe Trieste’s North Beach location was established in 1956, and it claims to be the oldest espresso-serving coffeehouse on the West Coast. I didn’t order an espresso, but their cappuccino was first-rate, at least as good as any I’ve had in New Orleans or New York. I sat outside at one of the four small tables in front of the café’s windows and asked one of the three gentlemen sitting next to me to take my picture. Turned out the three fellows were all sanitation workers who work a route that includes North Beach, and they stop at Caffe Trieste most mornings. Great guys with great stories about maneuvering their sanitation truck through San Francisco’s tight, steep, winding streets. They don’t have an easy job, but they seem to like it well enough; one of them, Dave, has been doing it for almost twenty-five years, and the three of them know all the local characters in North Beach.

My sanitation buddies at the Caffe Trieste--Rick, Morris, and Dave

Here’s a short list of food and coffee spots in North Beach, Chinatown, and the Financial District which I patronized and can highly recommend.

Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant
839 Kearney Street, San Francisco
(415) 956-7868
(This unassuming little restaurant was only a block from my hotel and featured a gigantic vegetarian Chinese menu. I loved the food there so much that, after my dinner there on Monday night, I ate lunch there on Tuesday and Wednesday.)

Tricolore Caffe
590 Washington Street, San Francisco
(415) 391-0509
(Located across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid, this little café is a great breakfast and lunch spot. Their coffee is very good and very inexpensive, with free refills, and their pastries are out-of-this-world good. Michael, the owner, moved to San Francisco from Italy as a teenager. Like me, he is a big fan of Italian writer Primo Levi.)

Caffe Trieste—North Beach
601 Vallejo Street, San Francisco
(415) 392-6739

Surrendering to Reading Glasses

Well, I’ve crossed a Rubicon, I suppose. After many, many months of putting it off, telling myself the eye strain wasn’t too bad, and willing my arms to grow just a bit longer, I finally walked into Walgreen’s and bought myself a pair of reading glasses.

I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer this past week in San Francisco, when, after a six-hour flight, I spent a couple of hours browsing in City Light Books and nearly fried my eyeballs. I read through their jazz books and eclectic science fiction section until I simply couldn’t focus on the print anymore. I tried chalking it up to exhaustion after the flight, or maybe to my eyes being sensitive to some West Coast pollen I hadn’t encountered before. My eyes were still throbbing the next morning. My second browsing visit to City Lights wasn’t quite as painful, but it wasn’t great, either. Then, this morning, after I dropped my boys off at Sunday school and went to a nearby Starbuck’s to read for a while (Philip Jose Farmer’s Flesh, which I’ll be sure to blog about) before heading back to join them for their Purim carnival, I just wasn’t able to concentrate on the prose. Reading had become a physical ordeal. My arms were too short to box with Philip Jose Farmer. When I left the Starbuck’s, I headed straight to Walgreen’s.

Why did I put off an obvious physical need for so long? It’s not so complicated. Oh, there’s my slightly wounded pride… but, hey, being able to put off wearing reading glasses until the age of 47 isn’t exactly an unconditional surrender to the weaknesses of middle age; I put up a decent fight. And I’ve still got most of my (original) hair. No, my unwillingness to buy a pair of reading glasses had much more to do with, not my loss of youth, but my memories of youth. Specifically, my memories of junior high school. The only other time in my life I’ve worn reading glasses was during seventh through tenth grades. The worst years of my life, by far. The reading glasses weren’t the cause of my misery. But I associate them with endless humiliation, degradation, and self-loathing. I was enormously happy when my vision self-corrected and the optometrist told me I could stop wearing glasses.

Oh, well. Time to man up. I love to read. It is one of my greatest pleasures. Reading once again with reading glasses sitting on my nose feels like taking a shower wearing galoshes. But I suppose the oddness will eventually wear off, and slipping the reading glasses out of their case will come to feel as natural as drinking my first cup of coffee in the morning or pulling on socks. Just so long as I don’t have to have braces put back on my teeth or spend another hour, ever, at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School…

(By the way, since we’re on the subject of encroaching middle age, this past week I bought a copy for a friend of my all-time favorite depiction of how the diminishments of middle age might affect a superhero, Robert Mayer’s absolutely wonderful novel Superfolks, now back in print.)

Eclectic Taste in Films

As a member of the Loyola University English Department’s Advisory Board, I receive many news announcements from my alma mater. I was sad to see this announcement of Professor Peggy McCormack’s untimely passing. I never had the pleasure of taking one of Professor McCormack’s classes, but I was an avid attendee of the Loyola Film Buffs Institute’s film screening series. I got my first exposure to such classics as Rashamon, The Seventh Seal, and Nights of Cambiria in the little auditorium on the third floor of Bobet Hall.

Usually, notices of memorial events don’t generate a smile or a laugh. This one did. See if you agree.

Tribute to Professor Peggy McCormack

Peggy McCormack, Ph.D., Loyola University Professor of English

Dear Loyola Community,

Professor McCormack who was a vivacious contributor to Loyola’s campus life for several decades passed away unexpectedly on Mardi Gras day 2012.

As a senior professor in the Department of English and a longtime director of Loyola University’s Film Buffs Program, she left a deep and cherished imprint on the lives of many students. She will be dearly missed.

To celebrate her legacy and to commemorate the inspiring friendships that she shared with many of her students, Film Buffs will show two of her all-time favorite films on March 9: Sunset Boulevard and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

%d bloggers like this: