Saturday, October 30, 2010


I decided once again to take part in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I enjoyed the last time I participated and want to see what I can come up with this time. The good thing? It's all about the quantity of words, not what you write. The goal is to reach 50,000 words by midnight on November 30. I'm eager to see if I can reach that goal again. Wish me luck!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Triple D Just Around the Corner

Caesar and I are fans of Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (aka, Triple D) and always talk about maybe one day perchance stopping by one of the eateries highlighted on the show. Little did we know that last night would make that thought a reality. As it turns out, one of the restaurants visited on the show happens to be only a few blocks from our apartment, and our friend Marci decided that was the place for my belated birthday dinner.

We hiked the few blocks to Broadway and met Marci inside the At Last Cafe. It's very nondescript on the outside, resembling the storefronts for the two beauty salons and the tailor shop next door. Two small tables sit on the sidewalk and inside, 8 more tables for two are somehow fitted into just the right spots to make it a cozy but not a crowded dining room. The rest of the small space serves as the kitchen, and for such a small place, the food that comes from that tiny kitchen is amazing.

First of all, the menu includes items like portabello mushrooms with polenta, sweetbreads, flat iron steak, brick-roasted chicken, yellow tail, and macaroni and cheese. As they called it on Triple D, " gourmet comfort food". Marci ordered the brick-roasted chicken, Caesar the thick-cut meatloaf, and I tried the center cur pork chop with apple stuffing. Oh, and a bowl of macaroni and cheese for all three of us to share as an appetizer.

The food was delicious. My pork chop was perfectly cooked and took very little effort with the knife to cleave from the bone. The stuffing was incredible, with the apples still a bit crisp and crunchy. We each tried a little bit of the others' dishes and praised everything. The shared macaroni and cheese surprised us all, tasting buttery as well as cheesy. (Caesar imagined how it would taste with a bit of bacon crumbled inside. Mmm.... Because everything's good with a little touch of bacon.) And for dessert, we split the apple crumble, licking the bowl clean, it was so good.

The big shocker: the meal wasn't that expensive. Caesar and I had paid just as much or more for the two of us at a fancier restaurant. Good food at a good price.

I think we've found a new favorite restaurant!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Horrific Shorts

With all the excitement about my short story being accepted, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite short story authors. For me, the short story is much more difficult to craft than a novel or novella because the writer has a much shorter amount of time and space to get a reader hooked and to finish the tale. Even more impressive are those who can do so in less than a two - three pages, what's known as Flash (or Sudden) fiction. Being the avid reader that I am, I own many collections and anthologies of short stories. And yes, they tend toward the horror/supernatural side of things. I can't help myself.

Ray Bradbury - probably the most prolific of short story writers, his works of both science fiction and horror are the best out there. The Martian Chronicles, R is for Rocket, S is for Space, and so many other collections -- each story grabs you and takes you on a fantastic, quick jaunts to other worlds and into our imaginations.

Ambrose Bierce - a master of the ghost story. He used his experiences in the Civil War to create some of the best, most tense stories around: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Chickamauga, and One of the Missing.

Shirley Jackson - wrote one of the single-most shocking stories I've ever read -- The Lottery. Her tales of horror and the supernatural seem to have an everyday quality to them, and her non-horror tales, such as After You, My Dear Alphonse, tend to turn an enlightening magnifying glass on society.

Algernon Blackwood - his stories are so atmospheric and detailed, building up the tension and unease slowly until the reader starts looking over his/her shoulder or jumps at any little noise. I like that he creates those feelings without having to resort to violence and blood; his stories are just plain creepy. But in a good way.

H.P. Lovecraft - stories that draw on our fears of the dark, of strange noises in the walls, stories that toy with our minds and brings characters to the brink of madness. A master of weird fiction, he created an entire new mythology of monsters and demons that still excites readers and writers today: the Cthulu mythos.

Stephen King - another prolific author of short stories (as well as novels and screenplays). His imagination is astonishing, whether its creating completely new creatures or concepts of horror, or adding to the standard creature tales. His stories are what kept my interest in reading horror and made me want to try to get a story published.

I could go on and on, but wanted to keep this a brief post and also wanted to ask you, my faithful readers, about your favorite authors or short stories. What tickles your fancy when it comes to short fiction?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
Jim Pike, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, spends his days trying to hide from the rest of the world. And what better way than to work as an assistant manager for the Botany Bay Hotel in Houston, Texas. Mostly a hotel for traveling businessmen, one weekend a year, the Botany Bay becomes the beacon for GulfCon - one of the largest Star Trek conferences in the U.S., effectively tossing Jim's chances to enjoy his quiet desk job. Just as the hotel prepares to receive the oncoming tidal wave of Trekkies, some of the hotel employees begin calling in sick, complaining of not feeling well after being bitten. Even the head of security is attacked -- by a mime, of all things.

And that's just the beginning. Those that are bitten spring back to life, violent and ravenous, but something doesn't right. They don't act like typical zombies; these can act in coordinated unison, with a particular purpose. Or maybe it's that third eye that sprouts from any conceivable spot on the body. Looking into it is almost mesmerizing.

Soon Jim is racing through the hotel with Princess Leia, Martock -- a Klingon weapons maker -- and other survivors of this terrible night, trying to find his sister somewhere on the 7th floor and lead them all to safety. . .somehow.

Night of the Living Trekkies takes the traditional story of a small group of people coming together to survive a zombie apocalypse and mixes it with heavy helpings of all things Star Trek. From the various weapons that Jim and his crew wield, such as kar'takins and yans, to the way almost everyone seamlessly makes references to the worlds of Star Trek. It even manages to lovingly poke fun at the series and fans' enthusiasm about it -- the main character's name is Jim Pike (a combination of two captains of the USS Enterprise), and the references to the red shirts thanks to the West Texas Red Tunic Club. (For those out of the loop, here's an explanation from the book:

"...the characters dressed in red tunics were always doomed. If one beamed down to a planet with Kirk and Spock, the guy in red would always, always die."

Watch a few episodes of the classic show for yourself to see if it's true.)

The frequent Star Trek in-jokes perfectly balance the gore and zombie mayhem, making Night of the Living Trekkies a fun and fast read, sure to please both zombie lovers and Trekkies alike.

Night of the Living Trekkies
by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
Quirk Books
ISBN: 978-1-59474-463-1
trade paperback, 253 pgs.

purchased book

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Last night I participated in my very first Sleepover with Caesar to babysit our friend's twins. Normally, we'd watch the kids for a few hours so Mom could have a late dinner with her boyfriend, or occasionally, Caesar would do the sleepover by himself. This time, I decided to join him for the sleepover, hoping to prepare myself for the -- hopefully -- impending time when my Brother and Sister-in-Law might bring another Carter into the family fold.

All the nervousness I felt as we approached the house quickly vanished once the twins said a loving goodnight to their Mom and trotted over to us to play in the front yard. And who knew learning how to use a rake would be so entertaining? They knocked guavas and leaves off a tree, raked them into piles, flung leaves at one another and us, and giggled and laughed until dinnertime.

We piled onto the couches to watch Ni Hao, Kai-Lan and Wow! Wow! Wubzzy!. It was amazing how enthralled they were with the shows, singing along, answering questions from the characters on the screen, dancing. It almost seemed a shame to break into their fun, but we had to make pumpkin spice cookies with cream cheese frosting. (Their Mom had promised we would make the cookies with them, and who are we to disappoint?)

Then, bath time and bed by 9PM. And they slept most of the night without incident.

Around 7:30 AM, one of the twins -- the girl -- crept into the bedroom with her blanket and two stuffed tigers. We helped her up, and she crawled between the two of us, falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. An hour later, both kids were up and dressed, and we followed them as the tricycled their way to the park to play on the swings and the slide. We had the run of the park for the first half hour, and the imagination of those kids -- a small frame of a truck with two steering wheels became a bus, taking us first to school so we could play on the playground, then to the ice cream truck where we each must have had about 10 scoops of ice cream.

Back at the house, we drew chalk fish and hippos and a buffalo on the sidewalk before heading back inside to clean up for Mom.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Good news arrived in my inbox last night! My story will be published!! Huzzah!!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

TV Wasteland


Even with the FiOS and the hundreds of channels available for viewing, we still lament the fact that very little worth watching appears on any of those channels. We do have our "must sees": Glee, Modern Family, Cougartown, Ghost Adventures, and The Amazing Race. But the rest of the time, we're either flipping through the channels, or I'm reading while some 15th-time-ran movie plays on ChillerTV in the background, or one of us is on the computer.

I've had my fill of cop shows, and legal dramas, and shows about doctors. Much of the programming on Logo doesn't fit in my lifestyle and seems to glory in stereotyping. (Except for Buffy, of course.) I'm not interested in the 100+ sports channels.

Why can't the new season of Dr. Who start? Or the much-anticipated The Walking Dead? Bring back Pushing Daisies!

I think I'll grab a book. . . .

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Review: Autumn by David Moody

October means all things creepy and crawly, ghastly and ghoulish, freaky and frightening. For me, I tend to read more horror novels and stories during this particular month. Which means more posted review of horror novels like this one:
It all happened in an instant. First, a pain in the mouth. Then the throat would swell and and bleed, and death followed within seconds. And it spread from person to person almost too quickly to be believed, leaving a handful of survivors surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands or millions, of the dead.

For the few survivors holding up inside the flimsy walls of the Whitchurch Community Center, the worst is far from over. After a few days, some of the dead begin to rise, ambling about, bumping into walls and other objects like flies against a window. Carl, Michael and Emma decide that the group would be better off away from the Center, away from such a large amount of dead and the recently re-awakened. Unable to convince others to join them, they set off in search of a more secure location, but slowly realize that no place may be safe as the re-awakened begin to show a violent awareness of those still living.

In the blink of an eye, Autumn turns the world as we know it inside out, creating a very dark and bleak story of survival, with a subtle twist to the zombie tale. Rather than passing the infection with slow-moving bites, allowing characters to prepare and to fight, this one spreads like wildfire doused with gallons of jet fuel. Everyone is caught unaware and unprepared. The too-quick devastation takes a mental toll on the characters which adds a new psychological twist to the survival story.

I like that each of the main characters is forced to deal with the sudden loss: Carl refuses to let go of the memories of his wife and young daughter; Michael realizes that he'll never again see his friends and co-workers; and Emma, tries not to deal with events by locking herself in her room and pulling the covers over her head, hoping it will all go away. They show human frailties and struggle to find the strength to continue, which for me made them more believable and realistic.

What also adds to Autumn's creep factor are the re-awakened. At first, they act like newborns, blind and not completely aware of their surroundings, but as the story moves along, they begin to learn, to be attracted to sound and to motion. It's that seeming ability to learn that makes these particular re-awakened more dangerous than other versions of the undead.

Autumn is the perfect book to get your adrenaline pumping, forcing you to stay up late and read page after page because you need to see what happens. Highly recommended!!

book received from publisher

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Little Music To Tide You Over

I have two book reviews to post -- one more from the trip to PA, and the other from the book I received last Thursday from a publisher -- then I'll be up to date. Finally.

In the meantime, I've been going through my old CDs, listening to the dusty ones which I haven't played in a while. For the drive to work this morning, I popped Swing Out Sister's Kaleidoscope World into the car's player and enjoyed the 60s-influenced jazz-pop while the rain came down.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Back to the Theater Grind

Before we left for our trip, my friend Clark surprised us with tickets to see Peter Pan as a birthday gift for when we returned. On that fateful day, however, the cold that Caesar picked up in Pennsylvania took a firm hold so he had to miss out on the adventure.

Set in a large tent just outside the Orange County Performing Arts Center, this version of Peter Pan relied on J.M.Barrie's original play from 1904. Having never read either the play or the book, I can't say for certain how close it was to Barrie's original, but I don't think he envisioned the actors flying in from the center of the ceiling or the imaginative versions of the crocodile (made with wooden coat hangers and shirts and the odd bit of clothing) or Nana (a large puppet dog fashioned from torn rags). I do believe he would have been as thrilled with this production as we were.

Upon entering the tent, we wound our way to our seats which circled the stage. A nice touch because it felt as if we were part of the story, with the actors performing in the midst of us, using every bit of the tent's insides as they could. One interesting feature was the use of a 360˚ screen that displayed much of the scenery. When Peter, Tink and the Darling children flew, the screens showed a flying view of London, the sky, the clouds; the feeling of flying along with them was fantastic. And what fun the actors seemed to have, playing pirates or hooking themselves to harnesses to fly about the space! Even Jonathan Hyde (whom you might remember as J. Bruce Ismay from Titanic), who seemed to relish the role of Captain Hook.

I can't wait until Hallowe'en when I get to take Caesar to see it!


Yesterday, we saw Sara Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play at South Coast Repertory. I'd wanted to see this show after seeing snippets of it on the most recent Tony's.

Set in the late 1880s, the story centers around Dr. Givings, his wife Catherine and a new medical device purported to aid women who are overcome with hysteria. I'm still not too sure what exactly the play was about; too many things seemed to be happening at once. Catherine having to hire a wet nurse because her newborn is losing weight instead of gaining. Sabrina Daldry undergoing treatment with the new invention because her husband feels that she's developed hysteria -- when it really seems that Sabrina needs something more in her love life. It also delves slightly into race relations and homosexuality. But it was very difficult to pinpoint the main focus of the story.

The scenes involving the new device -- one of the first electric vibrators, a large greenish box with switches and dials and a long extension cord for the plug -- offered the most laughs. It looked more like a torture device than something pleasurable, and watching the actresses facial and body reactions when they first experienced the device were hysterical. Other than that, the play felt muddled.

Like I mentioned before, quite a few story lines crisscrossing one another, a strange foreigner -- not sure whether he was French, English or Italian as his accent constantly wavered -- and a few instances of stumbled lines made it a pleasant show, but not a great show.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: Dead: The Ugly Beginning by TW Brown

One thing I enjoy about traveling by plane is the chance to read. I usually put 2-3 books in my carry-on, shoved in with my camera, extra undies and a t-shirt (you never know), a blank notebook. Once the plane takes off and the turbulence settles, I pick a book and start reading until either we land or my eyes go buggy from the poor lighting and small text. For the flights from LAX to Harrisburg, the first book I grabbed was a new zombie novel, Dead: The Ugly Beginning, and I finished it just as we touched down in Pennsylvania.
At first, Steve thought his friend Bill was pulling his leg about the attacks. Packs of zombies attacking people, just like in a George Romero flick? No way. But early the next morning, the reality sets in as his dog Pluck is attacked trying to protect him. Steve does the only thing he can think of: runs, as far and as fast as he can, stopping briefly along the way to help Thalia, a young girl from his apartment complex who watched her mother being attacked and devoured.

Meanwhile, in Norfolk, VA, a group of comic geeks quickly assesses the situation and forms a plan to get themselves to safety. Darrin, Mike, Kevin and Cary agree to gather supplies and weapons, meet up and then get away before the mayhem gets worse than it already is.

Dead: The Ugly Beginning takes place in the early days of the zombie apocalypse, focusing on the efforts of two separate groups of people: Steve and the survivors traveling down the West Coast, and the Geeks trying to find someplace safe back East. Scattered in between their stories, author TW Brown mixes in vignettes of random survival stories or attacks, with some of the characters re-appearing as the story moves forward. The zombie mayhem is fast and furious, perfect for fans of the zombie genre.

Brown also throws in a few twists that work well for me. First, this is one of the few stories that involves the zombification of animals, namely Steve's dog Pluck. The only tales involving animal zombies of any kind that I've read so far are the "Monster" trilogy from David Wellington and The Rising from Brian Keene. I hope Brown continues that in the next book in the series. The other twist comes later in the book, when it appears that two of the zombies trick a survivor. I wasn't expecting that, and it adds another dimension to what possibly goes on inside a zombie. Can they think, or do they simply act on instinct?

This is a great start to a new zombie series, and I'm looking forward to see what happens to Steve and his band of survivors.

Dead: The Ugly Beginning
by TW Brown
May December Publications
ISBN: 978-0-9845372-0-4
softcover, 295 pps.

received book from author/publisher

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Travel Food

I know, I know. How could we travel and not mention any of the food. . .with the exception of the fantastic cheese steak?

That, and chocolate. We'd both heard that much of the food in and around Hershey had at least some portion of chocolate in it. But, other than the dessert on my birthday and what we bought/sampled at the factory, we ate very little chocolate The night we arrived, the only restaurant still open was the Hershey Pantry, right in the parking lot of the hotel. I enjoyed some great fish and chips (made with fresh Haddock), and Caesar tested one of the specials: thick-cut, bacon-wrapped meatloaf. And yes, it was delicious.

Lunch the next day was baked macaroni from Chocolate World's food court, and I think we were both surprised at how good it was. A slight crunchy crust, but the cheddar cheese melted through. Dinner was good, eating at The Chocolate Avenue Grill. Sandwiches, salad, nothing too fancy but still yummy. And it seemed to be a hot spot for the locals because we had to wait a good 30 minutes for a table, and the line continued well after we left.

Saturday was Philadelphia, and the only meal for most of the day turned out to be the cheese steak. We wanted to be back in Hershey -- almost 100 miles -- before sundown so we hit the road immediately after touring the Penitentiary. Once in Hershey, we opted for Hoolihan's. This was okay: I enjoyed my chicken sandwich, but Caesar's tuna salad sandwich wasn't prepared like he asked. And the place was incredibly noisy; we almost had to shout to hear each other across the table.

At Gettysburg, we snacked on some apples and cheese from the Visitor Center, enjoying the view from Little Round Top. Food was the last thing on our minds while touring the battlefield. When it came time to decide on dinner, Caesar left it up to me, and I decided to go fancy. We headed back to Hershey and tried Harvest, the newest restaurant at the Hershey Hotel. We'd considered their Circular dining room, but neither of us brought a jacket and tie. Harvest was fancy but still casual so we could dine in the clothes were wore around Gettysburg. Caesar ordered the chicken fried steak, and I hemmed and hawed, finally choosing the hanger steak with bacon-whipped mashed potatoes. I thought the chicken fried steak was tasty (after Caesar allowed me to sample some), but the hanger steak -- marinated in birch beer, tasting like maple syrup -- and the potatoes. "Foodgasm" is the only word that comes to mind. And, to top things off, I received a piece of original recipe Reese's peanut butter pie for dessert.

I don't think I've ever eaten anything so fantastically bad for my diet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To Pennsylvania and Back: Gettysburg

On our final, full day in Pennsylvania, I decided to drive us to Gettysburg. Yes, it's true: Caesar drove most of the time. I'm not a fan of driving. I think of it as a necessary evil, getting me to work and back, to see my folks, drive us around the OC. Unless I know exactly where I'm going, down to the off-ramps on the freeway and the names of each street, I become frustrated and easily aggravated. Throw in a completely different state, and I knew we were in for trouble.

It wasn't too bad. I only started toward Pittsburgh once, thanks to the faulty directions from Google Maps. And to the highway construction around Harrisburg. We made it in one piece, with both our sanities intact so now I can say that I drove a Mini Cooper in Pennsylvania.

We took the Baltimore Pike exit from the highway instead of what Google suggested and easily found our way to the Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park. Inside the Center, we bought tickets to see the Gettysburg Cyclorama which I remembered from my first visit way back in 1978. And just like then, we stood with a dozen other folks at the center of a large room, the painting seamlessly encircling us. To create a more realistic feel, designers of some sort added rocks, cliffs, wells, and vegetation to allow the platform on which we were standing to feel a part of the battleground. We milled about trying to spot all the different areas around Gettysburg, then the light dimmed. A voice told us to image sunrise on July 13, 1863, and soon we could see the sky in the painting subtly shift colors from the blue night to the reds and oranges of morning. The voice proceeded to describe the events on that day with the sounds of troops marching softly in the distance. Then the battle began, lights flashed, canons fired, men screamed, and we found ourselves in the middle of Pickett's Charge.

Surviving the battle, we bought a self-guided audio tour of the battlegrounds and hopped in the car, using the map inside the CD cover as a guide.

I drove us toward the first marker on the audio tour, but as we entered the actual grounds, seeing hundreds of monuments set among the wheat and the plowed fields and the forests, I wanted to pull over to take pictures of everything. And I did. Or hand Caesar my camera and tell him to snap a picture. I did that, too, which I think finally got on Caesar's nerves because he asked me to switch places so he could drive the rest of the tour.

Reading about the battle in books or watching Ken Burns' amazing documentary, doesn't provide quite the same experience as driving through the actual fields. How immense the area is. How diverse the landscape, wheat and corn fields, surrounded buy hills and forests and rocky outcroppings. One of my favorite views was from the observation tower at Oak Ridge, where the accompanying picture was taken. The fields seem to stretch into the horizon, meeting with the sky. And to think of the guns and canons, the men and horses, that covered the entire grounds -- it's mind boggling.

The entire tour is 24 miles, and we thought we'd be done in an hour, hour and a half. However, with all the stopping, getting out of the car for many of the monuments, driving slowly while listening to the CD, I think we spent a good 4-5 hours taking everything in. The monuments impressed me the most, honoring each regiment or battalion, each state and each side of the battle. And they were literally everywhere: along the road, slightly hidden in the forest, standing on the rock face. I even spotted one from an observation tower by itself in the middle of a field.

We wandered around Little Round top and the Devil's Den -- two Union strongholds -- for at least 45 minutes. The Devil's Den was one of the bloodiest areas of the battle: a collection of rocks forming nature mini-caves, perfect for hiding and surprising unsuspecting soldiers. We probably could have stayed much longer, but the wind picked up so we headed toward the last part of the tour, the Soldier's National Cemetery.

After the war, so many bodies were left in the open or hastily thrown into a hole and covered in dirt, that a cemetery for all the Union (thanks for the correction, Lem!) soldiers of this battle was built, to offer them proper burial. Walking tombstones, the numbered markers for unknown soldiers, and markers with names and ranks, it's so many things: sad, amazing, heartbreaking, peaceful, respectful. And very quiet. We whispered while walking through the cemetery, as did the other visitors. It felt wrong to speak any louder.

By the time we finished the tour, we had to head back to Hershey for one last dinner before packing up and leaving.

Monday, October 11, 2010

To Pennsylvania and Back: Eastern State Penitentiary

Driving into Philadelphia for the day, we planned on touring the typical tourist spots, eat some cheesesteak, soak up some colonial history. But our plans changed once the women we chatted with in line at Independence Hall mentioned the Penitentiary.

I'm a fan of those shows about ghost hunting, in which a group of people equipped with night-vision cameras, thermal cameras, digital recorders and more, spend the night in a place known for supernatural activity. Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel is probably one of my favorites, and I remember during their first season, the trio of investigators was locked overnight in the oldest prison in the US: the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) located in Philadelphia.

We knew it was somewhere near the city, but the thought of actually touring it never crossed our minds when planning the trip. I thought it was too far outside the city proper, much too far for a quick trip on our only day in the area. And when we checked with the visitors' center, the ranger showed us how close the penitentiary was to Poe's house. It didn't take us much time to agree that ESP would be our last stop.

From the bit of history we picked up, the penitentiary was built around 1829 by the The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons on farmland that was at that time outside Philadelphia. Bizarre doesn't quite describe what it felt like to see this -- fortress -- inside the city limits, those imposing black and gray walls towering over every other building in the area. And from the outside, it felt intimidating. But that was nothing until we walked up the steps from the guards' area into the main prison yard.

Caesar stood about 15 feet from the inner base of the wall. Talk about feeling small! But it wasn't until we finished listening to the first recording on our audio tour that the enormity of the prison took hold. We couldn't hear a sound from the other side of the walls. No cars, buses, none of the traffic from the Benjamin Franklin Expressway. No laughing or shouting from the people eating at the many restaurants right across the street from the entrance. Just the quiet whisper of the breeze blowing through the yard and the crunching footsteps of the other visitors. We could see some of the skyscrapers downtown, but imagine back in the 1800s when buildings weren't that tall yet. That sense of being isolated from the world was probably something The Society wanted to instill in the prisoners.

The audio tour steered us through a one of the main single-storied cell blocks, giving us the opportunity to peer into and, in some cases, step into, the cells. Peeling paint, chunks of plaster and brick piled onto the floors, rusting bed frames, broken toilets, emptied metal dressers. Most of the doors were original, with large metal wheels to slide them open and shut. The wood was either dark brown or painted a flaking sea green; the back of some cells had smaller doors or the outlines of where the doors once were but had been cemented closed. We spent quite a while in this first block, listening to some of the history from the narrator and a few inmates, and working our way toward the center of the cell blocks.

From the center room, corridors trailed off like the many arms of an octopus. One or two had been closed off for security because of how run down and dangerous they were to walk through. We stuck to part of the audio tour, and found ourselves in a two-story cell block. The recording mentioned that these blocks were added later in order to make room for more prisoners. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to check out cells on the second floor, but based on the flimsiness of the railings, I didn't mind.

We walked through all the cell blocks we could, at one point finding a lone, decrepit barber's chair in one of the cells. The red vinyl was ripped at the seams with rust stains and stuffing bleeding onto the floor. Another path led us to death row, and we eventually discovered Al Capone's cell.

Eastern State Penitentiary was such an amazing place. And yes, I checked each of my pictures to see if anything otherworldly had appeared.

No such luck.

History of Eastern State Penitentiary taken from ESPs Six Page History.

Coming Out Story

This is a re-post of my coming out that I wrote in 2003 -- yes, I've been blogging that long. With today being National Coming Out Day, I felt like sharing how I inadvertently came out to my parents. My travels to Pennsylvania will continue tomorrow:

Back in 1994-95, I was still living at home, a recent college graduate trying to earn enough money to move out of my parent's house. I had a pretty good job handling Workers' Copmensation claims for a staffing agency. One day, a co-worker asked me point blank if I were gay. When I stammered and blushed, he took me aside and told me about the local Gay and Lesbian Center. They had helped him when he was just coming out; maybe they would be able to help me sort though everything going through my head. He gave me their number, and I called before I left work. They offered a "Coming Out Group" which met every Sunday, if I wanted to join.

That first group had about 25 people, mostly teenagers. (A few of us were in our 20s, but we were definitely outnumbered.) We talked about coming out to friends and family and heard horror stories about them being thrown out of the house, about putting up with verbal abuse from family and so-called friends, about the silence that some family members gave them. I remained silent, feeling scared, wondering if my family would act the same way. Hoping that they wouldn't. More confused and more scared than when I first arrived.

But, I continued with the group. Once a week for almost a year and a half. During this time, one of the leaders of the Coming Out group asked me to dinner. I was surprised. I had noticed him when I first joined the group, but thought he was out of my league. He was a little over six feet tall, blue eyes, beautiful smile and a gym body; I was -- and still am, to a small degree -- slightly overweight, wore glasses, and rarely smiled. He was of the type that either already had a boyfriend or had dozens of men throwing themselves at him, so I never really considered him. But, he asked me to dinner. And, I accepted.

It was after one of our dates, after he dropped me off at my parents', that I "came out" to them. It wasn't my decision to, as I was waiting for the right time. This wasn't it, but fate stepped in with other plans. I headed for my bedroom and was taking off my coat when my Dad walked in, carrying something rolled in his hands. We said a few words to each other, with me watching him tighten his grip on the thing in his hands. "What you got there?" I asked. He unrolled a copies of Out and Frontiers, said that my Mom had found them at the bottom of my trash can. She was in their bedroom crying, and he wanted to know if it were true. This was something that I had been struggling with ever since I knew for sure that I was gay, and I wanted to tell them in my time, when I was ready, when I thought they were ready. I have since realized that in some circumstances, screw planning and deal with things as they come. So I told him that, yes, I am gay. He didn't cry or shout or threaten me or anything that I expected. Instead, he said "Let's go talk with your Mother." Oh boy, I thought, and I followed him into their bedroom. The three of us talked for a good 3-4 hours. I told them everything: the Center, the co-worker, the Coming Out group, even about the man I had just seen that night. Instead of doing what I expected, what I remembered from others in group, they wanted to know if I was happy. I told them that I was. And that was that. I'm sure they sat up talking for another few hours after I left the room.

I have never regretted that day. My parents have been two of the most supportive people I could ever imagine. Okay, they don't go to P-FLAG meetings or march in Pride Parades, but I never asked nor expected them to. They love me for who I am, not for what I am. That's all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Review: The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman
When Henry paints, he drifts off somewhere, allowing the images to take over and to form on the blank canvases in front of him. But the images aren't of bright landscapes or portraits of fashionable people; his artwork displays disturbing images of a young woman fending off a demon that inches closer and closer with each painting. They come from a dark place inside Henry, stemming from something that happened when he was a child, when his father told him to paint against the darkness.

Now, Henry finds himself alone in his old stone farmhouse. His wife took their son to visit her parents after she and Henry argued about the paintings. A winter storm is quickly approaching, and the furnace in the cellar makes a terrible sound. Henry needs to change the water before something terrible happens. But the furnace isn't the only thing in the cellar, and descending the steps into the darkness forces him to face what really happened when he was a child.

With Henry as a child, the events involving his father at a local high school trigger the need to create, helping him to work his way through the anger, the frustration and the fear of what happened. As an adult, Henry is able to channel that into a successful career as an painter. In that respect, I found this tale intriguing.

At times, though, I had trouble connecting the two interwoven stories: Henry's childhood and his present. They seemed to be telling two different tales, each which worked well for me on their own. Not until almost the conclusion of the child Henry's tale was I able to make the connection. And even then, certain events from the past left me wondering what they were about: the tree house, the skeleton, the cross, the rabbits with the red eyes. Within the context of that story, they worked well, but seemed to have no bearing on his present circumstances.

The Painted Darkness weaves an interesting tale of psychological horror, showing how we can take the pain and hurt from the past and mold it into something better. It's not perfect, but it does make for a good read.

The Painted Darkness
by Brian James Freeman
Cemetery Dance Publications
ISBN: 978-1-58767-208-8
Softcover, 173 pps.

book received from the publisher via LibraryThing

Saturday, October 09, 2010

To Pennsylvania and Back: Philadelphia

After the continental breakfast provided by the hotel on Saturday, we asked directions to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and, within 20 minutes, were speeding along toward Philadelphia. Now, I had my doubts about the turnpike. Toll Roads in California are too short and too expensive, usually exceedingly overcrowded, not much to look except for desert, dirt and many homes. The turnpike was kind of a revelation. The speed limit may have been 65, but we were passed many time -- once even by a granny zipping along at perhaps 100 mph. The drivers were courteous, too. Everyone kept to the slow lane unless they were passing, and if cars were about to merge from an on ramp, everyone moved over to give them space. And no state troopers, cops, highway patrol anywhere during the entire drive. That would never fly in California. And the scenery: either miles of corn fields or pastures or the dense forest hiding homes and any other buildings that happened to be around.

We easily found the off ramp we needed once we escaped from the traffic in Philadelphia. Signs easily pointed us toward Independence Square and the visitor center. From there, we walked up into the center, checked the maps for all the historic touristy things we wanted to see, as well as get a time to tour Independence Hall, and set out for the first stop: the Liberty Bell.

The line didn't wind too far from the doors to the building and moved quickly so within a few minutes and after Caesar's bag being thoroughly checked by security, we perused the exhibits and history of the bell. A cane made with wood from the ship which carried the bell, a cufflink and pocket watch fob containing bits of the actual bell, pictures and stories of the bell's travels throughout the US. And then, the Liberty Bell itself. Cameras clicked as visitors posed as close as possible to the long vertical crack running down the bell's surface. We walked to around to the back of the bell, where no one else was, and I snapped a pic of the wording surrounding the top of the bell. I think some type of sporting event was going on in Philadelphia because teams from Kazakhstan and Russia, with patches for Tae Kwon-Do and Jiujistu on their jackets, wandered around like happy tourists alongside everyone else.

Outside the building, we finally noticed all the construction. Temporary barriers of orange and white, chainlink fences surrounding areas where sites were being excavated or restored. And of course, scaffolding hiding the tower of Independence Hall. It figures. But we weren't about to let that stop us. We had roughly 90 minutes before our designated tour time so we wandered about, finding Christ Church Cemetery and Benjamin Franklin's grave, Betsy Ross' house, great colonial architecture like the row houses in the picture, statues, cobblestone streets. Impressive to know that many of those buildings were built during the 1700s, still standing, still being used and lived in. I like that sense of history and being able to live within it.

Wandering back to Independence Hall, we waited in line, chatting with the women in front of us who were visiting for the Dragon Boat Festival. The heavy rains had postponed it, though, so they were using the free time to see Philadelphia. And they told us about a place near the Philadelphia Museum of Art that neither Caesar nor I had thought of visiting: Eastern State Penitentiary. (But that's for the next post.)

Soon we entered a building for a brief history of the Hall and the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our range then ushered us next door into the actual Hall. I'm not sure how to describe the feeling: there we were, standing in the exact rooms where the future of the United States was decided and created. A small group of men decided that rule by King George wasn't acceptable, that they wanted to be able to govern themselves instead of following rules and laws which didn't benefit them or their families, sparking a revolution. The only sounds besides the ranger's voice were hushed, awed murmurs from the group and the constant clicking of cameras.

All the good feelings stayed with us after leaving Independence Hall, along with the rumbling of hunger from out bellies. We took the advice from a few of my co-workers and the directions from the ranger, walked along 4th St. until we reached South St. and our dining destination: Jim's Steaks. Of course we had to try real Philly Cheesesteak. How can you visit the City of Brotherly Love and not?! I went somewhat traditional with mine, having cheese whiz and grilled onions on my sandwich, along with a Dr. Brown's Diet Black Chery Soda. And it was GOOD.

We wandered around for a few more minutes, trying to find a quick way to get to Edgar Allen Poe's house which, on the map, didn't appear too far away. Back at the visitor center, we asked the rangers about the house, wanting the best route to walk there. Horrified looks crossed the faces of both rangers. They stumbled over themselves saying it would be better to drive there because the neighborhood probably wasn't one for walking.

So we drove by it, me snapping pictures from the car as we passed. The area wasn't run down, but with people staring at us out their windows as we slowed and passed, kids stopping playing ball or jump rope to watch us, I felt uneasy.

Which was surprising considering our next stop was the Penitentiary.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

To Pennsylvania and Back, Pt. 2
After an hour or two at the caverns, we decided to head back to Hershey for a tour of the factory. After all, that's one of the reasons for the trip: the chocolate. We discovered that the factory was no longer running tours; however, they offered the next best thing: Hershey's Chocolate World. Next to the factory, Milton Hershey had designed and built a park for his employees to enjoy their lunch breaks. Back then, the park consisted of ponds, places to sit and relax, plenty of trees for shade and flowers for enjoying; nowadays, the park serves as home to 9 roller coasters, a merry-go-round, ferris wheel, a large sports stadium, a zoo, and Chocolate World.

Chocolate World is like Disneyland for chocolate lovers. Walking beneath the welcoming chocolate figures, we stepped into a gigantic lobby with neon highlighting each of the attractions. Directly in front of us was a bright yellow marquee selling tickets for both a 3D movie about the story of chocolate and a tasting tour. To the right of that was the gateway to one of the largest chocolate stores ever imagined, with dozens of folks hefting large gift bags of Reese's, Hershey Kisses, Twizzlers, t-shirts, mugs, and other mementoes and bypassing the few folks heading up the ramp towards a Fantasyland-styled ride about how chocolate is made. We ventured up the ramp first and enjoyed the little trip through chocolate, complete with singing cows and the aroma of warmed chocolate wafting through the corridors. Like any good theme-park attraction, the exit forced us into the gift shop where we spent an hour marveling at the different brands under the Hershey name as well as the 5-lb. solid milk chocolate bars and 2-foot long Twizzlers, among other monster creations. Believe it or not, neither of us bought anything, deciding it best to wait until the last day of our trip to buy and to ship any goodies. (I wound up shipping 8 lbs. of chocolate home at the end of the trip. Yes, 8 POUNDS.)

We took the Trolley Tour through Hershey, hitting all the major parts of the town and learning quite a bit about Milton Hershey, the factory and the Milton Hershey School, and ended the day with a stroll around Hershey, checking out what we could of the closed amusement park, the city, the buildings, the Hershey Kiss streetlights. (One such light is reflected in the windows in the accompanying picture.) Many of the older buildings, including the administrative part of the factory, were created using limestone the Hershey uncovered while digging the foundation for the factory. Instead of letting it go to waste, he erected low-cost housing for his workers, an ingenious serious of short walls with high points of limestone that drew the warmth of the ground up through them to melt snow and keep the walls clear, and even built a mansion for his wife Catherine. Which only cost about $100,000 at the time. Considering that Hershey was as wealthy as the Astors, he could have afforded a multi-million dollar mansion, but opted for something less ornate and auspicious.

By the end of the day, we were surprisingly exhausted. We dined at a popular little restaurant called the Chocolate Avenue Grill then fell asleep almost immediately upon hitting the bed in the hotel room.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

To Pennsylvania and Back, Pt. 1

We arrived home last night from our extended weekend/birthday extravaganza to the wilds of Pennsylvania. Much smoother returning home than getting to the East Coast. Our luggage didn't make the connector in Chicago, the rental car agency "upgraded" us to a Mini Cooper, and we caught the tail end of a major storm front so driving the 11 miles from Harrisburg to Hershey while trying to figure out the controls of the car wasn't a great way to start the vacation.

But we arrived safely at the hotel and enjoyed a good night's sleep.

The next morning, our luggage was delivered to our room so we were able to start the day with fresh clothes and smiles of relief. Being in Hershey, you'd think our first stop of the day would be the big factory. We couldn't miss it even in the rain, but something piqued our interest on the drive into town -- a large white billboard with the words Indian Echo Caverns -- so we made that the beginning of our vacation.

The Indian Echo Caverns are located in Hummelstown, a few miles West of Hershey on the Swatara Creek. They don't extend too far beneath Hummelstown (so far as the excavations have gone), but each of the caverns we walked through was enormous, filled with stalactites and stalagmites, crystallized limestone formations, and constantly dripping water from the recent rains. The Susquehanna Indians lived in the caverns at one time, then the locals began their excavations using nothing but candlelight to maneuver the slippery floors and rock formations. Our guide John shut off the lights, leaving us in almost complete darkness, to reinforce just what the caverns were like way back then.

And yes, a few bats call the caverns home, but we were fortunate not to run into them.

After about an hour enjoying the caverns, we finally headed toward one of our main destinations: Hershey's Chocolate World.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Big Day
Today of all days, I reach that magic number: 40. I'm still in shock. How did this happen? What will my friends think? And worst of all, what happens now??