Rome & Rental Cars: a Sweat to Remember?

Fern Brady — author and rental car ace!

NOTE: What’s your worse rental car nightmare? Fern Brady returns to RoadBroads to share hers. 

Guest blogger Fern Brady is the founder and CEO of Inklings Publishing. She’s worked as a foreign correspondent, schoolteacher, and realtor. Fern’s publishing credits include two children’s picture books, and multiple short stories and poems. Next comes her debut novel, United Vidden (Book One in her Jornian Chronicles Series). Follow Fern’s writing at: www.fernbrady.com. 

Thank you, Fern, for joining our RoadBroads team today! - Melanie & Ellen


Rome & Rental Cars: A Sweat to Remember?

After nearly missing our flight from Germany, we landed in Rome, Italy.

Ten o’clock in the morning and the four of us thrilled to a full afternoon of exploring.

All we needed was a car.

First, we had to find the car rental hub.

Winding our way through the congested airport, we lugged our five pieces of checked luggage and four carry‐ons then crossed a connecting skywalk. Entering the rental offices, we froze.

In horror. We had arrived in Donut Land.

Double doors opened up into a cramped round space. Employee offices centered the donut. Along the outside wall, individual rental car companies staffed counters crowded with passenger‐packed lines that jutted out like spokes on a wheel. I counted fifteen people in one line. They looked like us, tired travelers who craved any place but here.

At the entry, we noticed a floor mat with the room’s layout. Our car company was located, of course, on the opposite side of where we stood. We would need to make our way through every other line to get to ours.

I think it would be better if I stay here with the luggage,” I turned to my brother and father who were still trying to sort out the room’s diagram. “So we don’t have to go through these thick crowds with our stuff.

It’s time for baggage island,” I began to move our stuff to an out‐of‐the‐way corner where I could guard our luggage at my back.

My brother stared at the overcrowded space and sighed, “Good idea.”

Next to him stood his wife, Mariely. She turned to the hub.

Okay, we’ll get this done. Text us if you need something,” she said before squaring off as if ready to lead us into battle. My brother and father flanked her. The trio left. I stood there. On guard, and sweating.

It. Was. Hot. Like no A/C hot. Like dripping‐down‐everywhere sweat hot.

The lines grew. More and more people arrived. Hours ticked by. Other baggage islands began to form as passengers realized what I was doing.

I became an archipelago.

A line formed right next to me. With a child. Random, arbitrary, piercing shrieks issued from The Creature. Her parents ignored her as they tried to coordinate something with others of their party. I threw The Creature my best ‘teacher look.’ It worked for a time but had to be reissued periodically.

Two and a half hours later, we’re told we have a car.

We streamed sweat as we hauled our luggage through the bustling airport to the car pickup area. And, no, the car was not ready.

An hour later, we learned the insurance was incomplete. Runarounds ensued. My brother returned to the original counter attendant. Another told us a different story. We sweated. We steamed. We waited.

At seven p.m.—nine hours after we landed in Rome—we had a car.

A station wagon. Roomy. Cool.

We drove to the hotel then walked to dinner.

Flinging and Swinging into Spring

It is now officially Spring! I hope everyone had a nice Vernal Equinox. Did you run around outside picking flowers and dancing? I didn’t either. Have you planted all of your spring flowers and gardens? Again…me neither.

However, I have been walking. I have walked around my neighborhood, I have walked at Bayou Bend, I have walked around the grounds at Rienzi. I have observed nature and art. Yes, sometimes nature is art and sometimes art is nature. Think about it.……you’ll get it. I may not have planted any spring garden, but the fabulous people who work for the Museum of Fine Arts have put a lot of work into the Gardens at Bayou Bend and the Rienzi. As you can tell I walked among the Goddesses and Muses (great inspiration for writing) and took lots of pictures of flowers and butterflies.

For those of you who are not in the know about Houston culture, Bayou Bend is owned by the MFAH and showcases the home and gardens of the Great Dame of H Town, Miss Ima Hogg. Yes, for anyone who is not knowledgeable about Houston culture, this was a real woman (stop that giggling now!) who had lots of money and spent it on a beautiful home, the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, among other things. I can paraphrase the line from the movie Steel Magnolias and say that Miss Hogg “had more money than God” and I don’t think she wasted a penny. When she died, she left her home full of art works and antiques to the MFAH. The ongoing success of the Houston Symphony and Houston Ballet speak for themselves.

The Rienzi is another such home that is also located in River Oaks. Formerly the home of philanthropists Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III. I don’t know as much about them as I do about Miss Ima Hogg, but they also left a beautiful home full of art and antiques plus acres of beautiful gardens to the MFAH.

The exciting part about all of this walking is that I feel really good! I have successfully survived gastric sleeve surgery, losing weight and can get up and move! I am literally having a Spring Fling! My once upon a time arthritic knee is MUCH better.

I first started going on long walks when I was about 12 years old. You know, that age when just no one understands you and you almost sprain a muscle in your face from your eyes rolling so much at everything everyone tries to tell you? Just gotta love those preteen years. And yes, I was just that kind of preteen. Yes, I have matured much since those days. No…really!

Anyway, I would go for long walks around the neighborhood. There was a shopping center and an 18‐hole golf course. Lots of places to walk around and get lost in the scenery and sort out my pubescent thoughts. Mom and I both had a nice break from each other. My siblings never followed me on these outings. What’s not to love.

Besides, it doesn’t cost anything to walk. Except there is sometimes an admission fee. It is actually good for you. Except for when the refineries in Deer Park are on fire and the air is filled with smoke and benzene. Don’t forget to breathe deep!

So, I hope you have enjoyed all of these pictures of flowers and springtime. Soon enough it will be summer and hurricane season and it will be 100 degrees in the shade.……you get the idea. I am going to walk as much as possible until that time gets here!

Until next week.……

Call Me Silver‐Haired Devil?

From the road, Buc-ee’s beckoned.

Rather, my gas tank and bladder issued a joint siren call. One empty, one full, and both talking for 48 long miles.

Why did I wait so long—nearly an hour—to answer?

There’s gas stations and there’s Buc-ee’s. The Madisonville, TX store promises the most‐est in unique memories for any road traveler.

Dozens of gas pumps and restrooms.

Hundreds of drink and food offerings. Few of them good for you.

Thousands of worthless trinkets from clothes, rockers, backpacks, and the unrecognizable.

The line of cars to enter the two parking lots offered first warning.

An unruly crowd paced the parking lot I entered. Women holding children’s hands. Single men holding up their own hands, stopping traffic. TLC and Privilege butting heads with cars, both snaking around and between anything that moved. Which was everything.

What else is Buc-ee’s but a joint that moves, like a Friday night dance floor on the second round of drinks.

Inside the store, agitation spiked. Lines wiggled and squiggled as young, middle‐aged, and old jockeyed for quicker access to the need du jour. The longest lines surrounded stations for drinks, sandwiches, and candy.

Understandable. Road trips extort stomach energy and activate head nerves.

Both sets of bathrooms bore growing lines. Have you ever seen a man forced to wait to do his business? It was the antsiest column in the building. I smiled.

After years of traveling Interstate 45, I’d never seen this degree of traveler mania. Questions flooded in.

What’s wrong? Why this edgy‐nervous‐tense mood? Who lost a football game? 

That last question was valid—Texas A&M isn’t far from Madisonville. Then I remembered: Spring Break. Last weekend.

Alone in my car, I whooped, “Why, of course! How could I forget?”

Then I looked away, upward, to my rearview mirror.

I spied It.

My first gray hair. Actually, gray hairs. Plural.

What color are they? White? Gray? Silver?

Amid the splash of red and brown that threads across my crown, when did bleach join the party?

The longest white strand looks at least six inches long. That’s an easy six to nine months of hair growth. How did I not notice this earlier? Psychic blindness?

To my naked eye, these invaders loom larger than Antarctica. Soon enough, they won’t loom. They’ll rule.

Is this Mother Nature’s belated 62nd birthday present(s)?

I feel rode hard.

Make that road hard.

Surrealism and the Bowler Hat

I read with great interest Melanie’s most recent blog post about hypnagogia. In case you need a brief refresher hypnagogia refers to the state between wakefulness and sleep. It is a state where people attempt to grasp creative ideas that percolate up from the subconscious and unconscious. Melanie mentioned she keeps a journal by her bed to capture those early morning creative glimmerings.

I also have a journal by my bed. I use it to capture dreams. Is there a hard and fast difference between dreams, creative glimmers, free thoughts? Maybe or maybe not. All can be included as fodder for writing prompts, ideas for painting or collage works, etc. However, reading about this type of free form writing reminds me of Surrealism in both art and writing.

Surrealism refers to the avant‐garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Often you will see surrealist art that juxtaposes images that you would not otherwise think of going together.

Miro’and Dali are some of the more popular surrealist artists. Of course there were women surrealists that never receive as much attention as the male artists. Many people consider Frida Kahlo to have been a surrealist painter. Gertrude Abercrombie was a painter who specialized in working with moons, cats and mysterious women. What’s not to love about pictures of moons, cats and mysterious women?

I must admit one of my all time favorite surrealist artists is Rene Magritte. This gentleman painted a lot of pictures of men in bowler hats. Sometimes he painted pictures of men in bowler hats without faces. Other times there are faces of men wearing bowler hats, but the face is hidden behind an apple or a dove. He also painted groups of men in bowler hats wearing black overcoats floating in air. Are they floating up or down? That’s open to interpretation.

I have recently become fascinated by the use of bowler hats in art and literature. Traditionally a man in a bowler hat is a version of the “every hat” worn by the “every man”. Informal. Practical. Combine the bowler hat with a skeleton and you have a bit of surrealist photography.

What about women who wear bowler hats. Think of Liza Minnelli in the movie Cabaret. What good is sitting alone in your room when you can come hear the music play?

Bowler hats are not traditional headgear for the “every woman”. When a woman wears a bowler hat, is she picking up on a surrealist life style? Looking for meaning in the unconscious? Gleaming insight and inspiration from the area between waking and sleeping? Can you find writing prompts inside a bowler? A male character in a mystery novel who wears a bowler hat is a hidebound traditionalist. Yet, a woman in the same novel wearing a bowler hat is a bit quirky and unusual.

Can you find inspiration and creativity just by wearing a bowler hat? Sounds good to me!

Until next week.….…

Hypna‐what?

A single, unexpected moment offered respite — and stunning progress — in an otherwise over‐busy week filled with multiple story deadlines.

It was a dreaded, dreadful week.

Until three days ago, March 7th. A moment that changed a writer’s life.

Such moments change progress and process. 

It landed in the Thursday entry in my writing diary, subtitled “Q&A a Day for Writers: 365 Questions for Creative Exploration.”

March 7th talks about Thomas Edison and his use of hypnagogia. That’s the term some call ‘mental twilight’- the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep. Edison learned early that he could take advantage of this sleep stage by dozing in a chair with a bottle in his hand. When the bottle dropped, he woke up and immediately wrote down his thoughts.

It’s a powerful, creative way to tap into our best imaginings. The liminal space holds creativity that may frighten or escape the awakened mind.

I’ve used a modified Edison technique three mornings in a row.

With a blank journal parked on my nightstand, I open its pages wide before turning off my lamp. I double‐check the black felt tip pen, placing it in the center of the pages.

At first flutter of my awakening eyelashes, I grab the pen, roll over, and write. No screening of thoughts. No judgment. Just roll and write. There’s no flashlight, either. Some notes are messy. That’s what later transcribing repairs.  

Using these liminal jottings, I have just — as in, within the last hour — completed and submitted four short stories.

I beat the submission deadline by six hours. A lifetime first.

I submitted four short stories — all fiction — at once. A second lifetime first.

Oh, and I’ve never written a short story either. Only novels or personal essays.

Hypnagogia: you heard it first from a RoadBroad.

Warning to the eager: today’s dictation arrived at 4:14 a.m.

It’s 8 p.m. and I’m going to bed.

Art and Artists and Artworks, Oh My!

What a wonderful week!

It started off with my Dear Friend (DF) and I going out to the Cullen Performance Hall and listening to Annie Leibovitz talk about her photography while showing many examples of her work on a big screen. She is one of the artists I have made a point of following over the years. As you can see, I did not sit close enough to get a good picture of her while she spoke (yes, that is her down in the lower left corner), but what she had to say was fascinating. She discussed how she became a photographer, the places she has worked, the people she has worked with and those she has photographed. She talked about how the technical aspects of photography and the cameras have evolved since the 1970s. It was all interesting. I got a copy of her latest book, Annie Leibovitz At Work.

In the photo above, she is displaying a self‐portrait that she took in 1970 using one of her cameras. I guess today you would call it a “selfie”, but even that she does better than most folks do now with their fancy phones.

Thanks to Houston FotoFest and Brazos Bookstore for arranging this!

Then on Thursday it was another gray day. I guess I could have stayed home and worked on my writing, but what the heck.…I was ready for more ART! So DF and I jumped into his car and drove over to the Menil Collection. It used to be called the Menil Museum when there was just one building. Now there are five buildings and acres of greenspaces.

Unfortunately, they are very strict about not allowing any photographs taken inside any of the galleries. So you will just have to go and see the exhibits yourself. I was able to take pictures in the hallway so you can see some of the suffusion of light and “…natural illumination that varies with the weather, time of day and season”.

There are artworks by Magritte, Ernst, Picasso as well as art from ancient and medieval cultures. Best of all there were TWO, count them, TWO charcoal works by Georgia O’Keefe! Be still my fluttering heart!

The Menil Drawing Institute is a very interesting building. Again there is a focus on natural light and green spaces. The building also includes three courtyards that keep visitors surrounded by Mother Nature. There are benches everywhere for those who want to sit and draw or sit and meditate or sit and visit with friends or just sit.

While I love living in the middle of a large metropolitan city, I really appreciate the green spaces provided by a place like the Menil Collection.

After walking around the Menil Collection for approximately three hours, both DF and I were tired. We decided to rest and recharge by visiting a local restaurant that specializes in crepes.  It is called Sweet Paris and it is located in Highland Village. Since I am still recovering from gastric sleeve surgery, I ordered a bowl of Tomato Basil soup. DF had a Vegan Crepe. As we ate, we reviewed which pictures to include in this blog. All of these pictures were taken with my phone. I’m clearly not as talented as Annie Leibovitz, but I have fun. What a wonderful way to end a day of art and walking.

What a wonderful way to spend a gray day.

Slowly but surely I am even learning more about using a real digital camera for my personal photography. Later this month DF and I will take a photography journey through the Rienzi. Stay tuned!

Until next week.….

Stages on the Road

My past beckoned.

To the beach I returned.

Shooter & talent near the beach. Working, not looking for it.

From wet, windy, and cold Galveston Island, I said, “Reporting live from Virginia Beach.”

A longtime client had called. Their upcoming oil spill drill needed our team of roleplayers and camera crews.

The money was right. I was available. The road summoned.

A year ago, I left what I’d practiced for 30 years: providing crisis communications expertise to companies in trouble. We trained clients in all 50 U.S. states and 18 foreign countries.

Sometimes they had a big, immediate problem. Others worried about one occurring. Smart companies called proactively. Stubborn bosses crossed their fingers. I bit my tongue. 

Our clients included people mostly trying to do the right thing. They failed sometimes because humans are good at that. Companies mix up their priorities, forget who they work for, and leave the lasting damage for others to clean up.

At the beach, I learned nothing has changed. Storytelling in the business world remains the same: risk exists, problems occur. The only crisis is who’s in trouble today.

“Love Hurts” storytelling: on‐stage @ The Moth — Houston

An opposite sort of storytelling shows up on stage during Houston’s recent “Moth” night.

Simple rules: share a true story from your life. No notes. No props. 

Easy for an experienced crisis communicator. What’s a story but a tale seeded in crisis?

The night’s theme, “Love Hurts,” revives a Wyoming road trip — Trooper stops DH for speeding. I get the ticket. 

Twenty‐two storytellers sign up; ten names will be drawn.

Then I hear my name and remember the emcee’s earlier crow, “500‐plus of you came out tonight! We’re SRO!”

I walk to the stage. 

Remember lines. Remember gestures. Remember emphasis points. Remember eye contact. 

I begin. Sea of stranger eyes looking up, a long, wide, deep rectangle of black chairs. Primal Texas twang replaces broadcast voice. Knees wiggle, legs twitch.

Hands move, on their own, in all the right places. Eyes find friendly faces. Applause erupts in unexpected places.

I finish. Every line remembered.

I can do this. 

The emcee walks over, applauding; whispers, confirming: “YOU are a storyteller.”

Future and past merge onto a stage I never imagined.

Note to Reader: The words ‘shooter’ and ‘talent’ in the TV news business refer to 1) the camera person recording the story and 2) the reporter delivering it. Imprecise terms, one of which is less used nowadays. For obvious reasons.

Rainy Days and Color

The weather in Houston can be so mixed. Except for the summer. During the summer temperatures are hot and the humidity is high. The only variation involves hurricanes and tropical disturbances. Those are no fun.

Yet, this time of year the weather can be cold or warm or rainy or beautifully sunny. Just the other day I posted on Facebook about how beautiful the day was with full sunshine and comfortably cool temperatures. The rest of the country was experiencing snow, ice, more snow and then blizzards.

This week here in Houston it is rainy. It was rainy yesterday and it is still rainy today. It will be rainy for a couple of more days. Sometimes it might just be cloudy, but then it will rain again. Not tropical disturbance rainy or hurricane rainy. No flooding. No worries. Just rain.

The days become gray. Dull, gray, dreary, rainy days. It is almost as if gray is the only color in the world. Is it just my imagination or has all the color been sucked out of the cars in the parking lot? Do you see any color there?

Really?

That is why my Dear Friend (DF) and I went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week and caught the exhibition called Biophilia.

What is Biophilia? I am so glad you asked.

The artist Christopher Marley has made a career of going out into nature all over the world and finding animals, bugs, water creatures, land creatures, flying creatures and snakes. Then, by capturing the innate beauty and color that naturally exists in nature, he makes beautiful art.

In the exhibition Marley defines Biophilia as, “.….an abiding reverence and appreciation for the creations with which we share our planet.”

I didn’t take enough pictures to do justice to the colorful array of art pieces that are shown in this exhibition. You will see bright blues, yellows, greens. Then you will see some water creatures and snakes that form some of the most fascinating geometric shapes. There are birds with bright feathers and sometimes feathers without the birds.

I was reminded in the middle of this very gray day that there really is a lot of color in nature. As I study art history classes at the Glassell School of Art, I am reminded that mere mortals can only strive to reproduce the magnificent colors that we see around us in nature.

Sometimes we get close. Sometimes, if you pay attention to the details, you will see that humans can make some very interesting objects. I took this last picture when visiting at a friend’s house. The house was built in 1938 and it still has some of the original glass door knobs. With the play of light and shadows this could look like some of the creatures that I saw in Biophilia or maybe it is just a pretty picture all to itself. Humans and nature can make very good artistic partners when they try.

By the way, just in case you were wondering.….Even though the animals in Marley’s artwork are no longer living, no animals were harmed in order to create this body of work. Here’s a quote from a recent NPR story:

Marley built a network of breeders, zoos, aquariums and importers who all send him their dead. He’s very clear that he only uses reclaimed specimens that have died from natural causes or been caught as fishing bycatch, and doesn’t buy from hunters.”

Likewise I assure you that no doorknobs were harmed while I was taking pictures of them. Just in case you were wondering.

Until next week.….

A Paper Kind of Trip

When I hit the Declutter Road last week, I never expected laughter, gasps, and heart tugs.

This roller coaster ride of emotions arrived after I found a single piece of paper beneath a six‐inch pile of old memories.

It’s my first‐ever school progress report, dated October, 1963.

I quickly realized the sheet offered more than a single snapshot of a student’s education.

Cultural and societal commentary screamed here, too.

All courtesy of Mrs. Esther Ruth Gibson, my first grade teacher at Sam Houston Elementary School in Pampa, Texas.

She was “Esther Ruth.” Never simply “Esther.” It’s a double‐name Texas thing.

However, to me, she was always Mrs. Gibson. That’s small town Texas.

When Webster’s Dictionary defined ‘teacher,’ this woman modeled.

Here, her opening paragraphs offered boiler plate language on a mimeographed page (remember those purple‐staining‐machines?): “…listening and following directions …following the school routine…learning letters…how to write…begin at the left…move to the right.” 

She mentioned a “Readiness Program.” My mind flashed forward to Common Core, No Pass/No Play, and similar education reform efforts. The more things change, the more they remain the same?

Below the standard progress report, Mrs. Gibson added two paragraphs of professional educator observation. Offered in teacher‐perfect penmanship.

She nailed me at age six.

That comment about things staying the same? Mrs. Gibson identified elements of me that remain true 56 years later.

However, what most caught my attention was her sentence: “Her writing is particularly good.”

My writer self would like to believe that sentence was both prescient and true. Then. And now.

I’d also like to believe she would be proud of this blog.

After discovering Mrs. Gibson’s letter, I looked her up on‐line.

I learned she died a dozen years ago.

In 2007.

The year I turned 50.

The same age Mrs. Gibson was the year she taught me.

Death Becomes Me.……and Her!

I’m currently reading a very interesting book. It’s called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Morbid? Maybe. But interesting. So interesting that I also plan on reading another book by the same author called, From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

Many people who know me are aware that I have a bit of a history with the funeral industry. To begin with, back in Memphis, Tennessee, my maternal relatives owned a complicated array of businesses including a funeral home. My mother worked at this funeral home until she met and married my father who was a funeral director. Over the years I knew the people at this funeral home well enough that they gave me a part‐time job when I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Memphis where I majored in Social Work.

No, I was not allowed anywhere near the dearly departed. I answered a PBX machine and directed phone calls wherever they needed to go. Yes, there were a few odd phone calls along the way. No, I told the nice lady who called and asked, we don’t sell used dentures.

Did I mention this was Memphis Funeral Home. You think you have never heard of it, but you have. This was the funeral home that buried Elvis Presley. My one celebrity claim to fame. No, I never met Elvis and I did not work there while his funeral service took place. Elvis died in 1977 and I worked the PBX machine in 1978.

It was an interesting place to work. The people who work in funeral services have very unique talents. They work with the dead and grieving all day long. They counsel and they listen. It takes a special person to do this.

After graduation I moved to Houston and worked for a funeral corporation. Since I had a Social Work degree and the job placed me in the Accounting Department, I only stayed there about four months.

When I was getting my Masters degree in Social Work from the University of Houston, I had an internship for two semesters with a local hospice. Part of my qualifications included the fact that I had experience with the funeral industry and would be comfortable around death.

Later as an employee for local government, I documented the history of County Poor Farms and Cemeteries. This document can still be found within the Harris County Archives and there is a historical marker in the County Cemetery.

As a Social Worker I often worked in areas that many people find uncomfortable, but I found most comfortable. Today I find all this to be very valuable experience in my new career as a Writer.

Last June when Melanie and I made the road trip to Colorado, we visited my niece who works at a Denver Bookstore. We ate lunch at a restaurant called “Linger”. This restaurant is housed in a historical building that used to be a mortuary.

We both share an affinity for Halloween. She is her own unique and interesting person and it has been wonderful to get to know her as a 20‐something adult.

Imagine my surprise when Becca texted me to let me know that this fall she was going back to school to study Mortuary Science. I asked her if I had been a bad role model for her, but if I was then I was a darn proud bad role model!

Becca has two years of studies ahead of her, but she is very bright and very smart. I can’t wait to see how this next chapter in her life turns out. I will remain “a proud bad role model” and support her any way I can.

Until next week.….