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.

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.

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.

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.

Flick ‘n Fling at the Courthouse

When people take pictures of your shoes, it’s time to write about them.

Especially when Photo Time occurs at the courthouse.

We three women sat next to each other, awaiting the outcome of round one: would we be picked for jury duty? Bailiff updates droned on through rounds two and three. We began to chat.

After a few minutes, the woman sitting two places to my left eyeballed the shoes I’d worn on this road trip:

Both women erupted in surprise when I mentioned the paint job was mine. A cacophony of non‐stop questions and amazement followed. While secretly delighted, I finally said, “they’re only shoes.”

The first woman asked to take a picture. For her daughter, she said. The other, sitting next to me, noticed the faux gemstones.

I explained the white dots are not gems, only sticky white dots. Stand‐ins for old stones that disappeared who knows where, when or how. 

The picture‐taker leaned in and whispered, “so, how do you DIY shoes?” 

Why are you whispering? I wondered. Are these creations too weird? Am I?

I paused before the directions rolled like warm honey off my tongue. My fingers followed along in an artful sign language.

Easy‐breezy: shoe paint, leather shoes, and your fingers. Only four: index, middle, and ring fingers plus a thumb. All you do is flick and fling!”

I giggled at the ad‐lib, morphing it into Flick ‘n Fling Fun. then added, “Best part? No one in the universe will ever own shoes like yours. Who wants to be like everyone else?”

My two new friends nodded in agreement. Our shared middle‐to‐senior ages encouraged that collective attitude. We talked more nitty‐gritty details of painting shoes. Finally, we exchanged our names.

Sheila.

Melanie.

And Melanie.

Jury duty with a namesake.

Who also wished her mother had named her Scarlett.

Who parked two places away in the parking lot; who sat two spaces away in the courthouse.

Four synchronicities for the price of one.

Who says jury duty is a chore?

And, no, none of us was picked.

Lava on the Road, Story on the Page

Only weeks ago, I resolved to find magic in this New Year. It landed last night, courtesy of an unexpected gift.

The weekend crisis du jour sent DH and I on the road. A new lamp shade beckoned.

We arrived home with that and a bonus: a Lava Lamp for my writing studio.

In the store, the colorful box screamed, “All this color! You know you want me!” Curious, is it not, that all the box’s colors match my novel characters? Can you identify the six shades?

Looming larger, this toy offers a different kind of road trip—straight down memory lane. But in my 70’s teen days, I never owned a Lava Lamp.

Having one up‐close, I’ve realized a Lava lamp is essentially an electric candle, sans wick, parked inside a glass bottle. It works when a glob of bottled wax gets heated, rises then dances inside glass under illuminated by a tiny light bulb.

Lava Embryo With Legs speaks of new life, new creation, new start. And unable to stand.

This mutant look compliments reality. Nothing’s ever perfect as it’s born.

All applicable for what’s been an ongoing funky new year. Maybe now as we begin week number five, it’s full‐on reboot time? Isn’t that what last week’s Full Moon with a Wolf SuperBlood twist teased? Saying goodbye to the past and moving forward with gusto, finally free?

An hour after plug‐in, Lava Embryo With Legs grows up, sprouting a semi‐carpet of background grass.

Technically, my inner feminist says this should be Lava Woman. I squinted to identify relevant body parts.

It becames that: It. Or SkullScoliosisRump. Alien doesn’t fit because this image resembles no creature I’ve seen in the best (and worst) sci‐fi flicks.

Still, it’s perfect, mimicking change with scary precision. Is change ever easy to figure out?

Two hours in, an entire new world arises: Lava Universe?

This unfolding lava world reminds me of watching last week’s eclipse. Shadows and colors changing on the moon as a memorable lunar evening reveals itself. We changed, too, watching, absorbing.

As I unplugged Lava Lamp three hours later (and DH already in bed), the meaning of the night roared in.

We writers do all this as we pen the stories that call us to the page (or the computer).

Like solid wax in a cold lava lamp, Story remains static, unborn, unchanging. But give Story enough heat, time, and attention, and it rises to new life, changing shape, spawning tales, and building the form that was always inside. Waiting.

More than a half century ago, Michelangelo wrote: “The greatest artist has no conception which a single block of white marble does not potentially contain within its mass but only a hand obedient to the mind can penetrate to this image.” 

Substitute a few words and you’ll find a writer’s truth: “The greatest writer has no conception which a single page* does not potentially contain within its mass but only a hand obedient to the mind can penetrate to this image.”

We’re not working alone.

The Story is already inside us, awaiting heat, time, attention.

Like a lowly little lava lamp.

*Substitute computer screen, piece of paper, notebook, etc.

*NOTE: The Michelangelo quote is verbatim from 1501, thus verbiage rings/reads somewhat stiff and awkward to 21st century ears/eyes.

3 Days, 3 Roads, 3 Adventures

Tuesday. Drove to Hermann Park with Dear Friend (DF). We wanted to spend some time outside on a beautiful cool day with art, squirrels and ducks. This particular park is a wonderful place to go for a walk. There are concrete paths, gravel paths, and lots of grass to walk on. There are also many trees, benches and picnic tables. DF and I walked and sat and walked and sat some more. We absorbed as much of the park as we could and committed it to memory. I took pictures with a real camera (as opposed to the camera on my phone).

This particular sculpture was a topic of discussion last year when I took the Women In Art class at the Glassell. The artist who created this piece was sculptor, Hannah Stewart. The title of the work is Atropos Key and is located on top of the hill at Miller Theater.

Since it was a weekday, there were not too many people. Foot traffic did pick up during the lunch hour with several people escaping an office setting to commune with nature. Some folks just walked and others sat on benches and visited with the ducks. Some folks walked alone, some in pairs and others in small groups. The squirrels kept an eye on everyone who wandered through.

Wednesday. DF was in the hospital getting ready for some surgery. Nothing major or life threatening, but necessary. Sometimes a road trip involves being wheeled around a hospital (or accompanying someone who is being wheeled around a hospital). From admitting room, to pre‐op holding room, to operating room, to recovery room, to hospital bedroom. I spent the day either by his bedside or sitting in the waiting room. Surgery was scheduled for 11:30 a.m., but he was not wheeled into the operating room until 1:00 p.m. He pulled through the surgery like a champ. Only a 5 hour wait in the recovery room before DF is moved to a private room. Once I was assured he was comfortable in his room and tucked in for the night, I left with the promise to return the next day to transport him home. Nurses checked on him every hour.

Both before and after surgery, we spent time in curtained cubicles where we caught some strange snippets of conversations.

A doctor said, “Your wound is safe. You could put WD40 on it and it still wouldn’t get infected. You won’t have any problem with a shower.”

A nurse said to a co‐worker, “No, it’s an hour and a half. Do not try to add another 1/2 hour to my life.”

A nurse said towards the end of the shift to someone we could not see,“I don’t like coffee. I don’t like the way it looks. I don’t like the way it smells. I don’t like the way it tastes. I don’t even like the look of coffee beans. Coffee is not my friend.

Thursday. DF and I had hoped for a hospital discharge by 11:00 a.m. No such luck. There were no more road trips around the hospital. Lots of waiting in the room. The nurse continued to visit every hour. Finally by 3:00 p.m. DF was sitting in a wheelchair on his way to the front door of the hospital.

Once out in the sunshine, we drove off in my car. We went to a drug store for meds and then to Brasil’s for an early dinner. I drove slowly through tree lined neighborhoods. Classical music played on the radio. Now life began to return to what can be considered normal.

Until next week.….

Howling at the Moon

Copyright Valerie Gache, AFP, Getty Images

Oh, but to be a RoadBroad eyeballing this moon view at the Temple of Apollo in Corinth, Greece! 

That red‐orange orb, captured earlier today, is a Super Blood Wolf Moon. The same image, sans the Temple, will rise across North America at 11:16 p.m., Houston time. Add an hour for the Yankees. Subtract two for the Westies.

With clear skies and cold temperatures forecast, it promises a memorable night of sky viewing. Lasting an hour long, it’s the last of its kind until 2021.

The description “super blood” comes not from astronomers but from copywriters. Two reasons why:

Who wants to say “total lunar eclipse” when the moon’s orange‐red color looks like, well, blood?

Super’ slides in because the moon looks 14 percent larger than normal. It’s closer to Earth than usual for an eclipse. But it’s not actually bigger.

Ancient peoples dubbed the first full moon of the year as Wolf Moon. All that wolf howling in January. Why? High mating season for wolves. In the cold?

All these factoids led DH, the astronomy buff, to inform me that we won’t need his telescope for lunar viewing tonight. This big, bright, wolf moon requires only binoculars. Good. Easier maneuvering out the back window. Warmer, too.

Staying up after midnight might be problematic. Make that ‘will be.’

This Wolf Moon correlates perfectly with the man I married. He’s a real‐life Wolf. But my love doesn’t howl. Not in January. And never in public.

But I almost howled last week when a knock‐me‐flat cold did just that. Onset came less than 24 hours after a career‐rejuvenating writing intensive. Did the virus have something to do with completing a novel outline, consolidating 31 chapter opens/closes, locking down 11 character descriptions, and setting a first‐draft completion date—all in only four days?

The question brings me to the real point of this entire blog post about tonight’s moon.

Full moons offer completion. End of a cycle, stage, or phase. Pick your word. Astrologers say full moons are a perfect time to celebrate growth, note progress, and reflect on how far you’ve come.

Now cold‐recovered, I’m celebrating, noting, and reflecting.

And through the magic promised on this blog on January 1st, I’m starting over.

Happy New Year, January 20th.

Three months from Final‐First‐Draft Day.

Here we go…again.

Second chances always offer my best results.

Magic, Not Resolutions

We say it once every 365 days.

Happy New Year!

What we forget is what else is true every January 1st.

It’s also Happy New Day!

And Happy New Week!

And Happy New Month!

Four times to thrill at a new start.

Next year, we’ll add a fifth: Happy New Decade!

It wasn’t that long ago that some of us celebrated Happy New Century and tag‐teamed with Happy New Millennium, too.

Why do we make only one of these happy proclamations then repeat it year after year, too? Are we numb to what the words really mean? Or could mean?

Photo copyright Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX.

Odd questions follow an otherworldly afternoon.

DH and I experienced the profound New Year’s Day Crystal Bowl Meditation at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Neither words nor a singular photo can ever fully encompass this sacred space.

Multiply the mysticism by imagining people of all ages and types sitting on every bench with others camped on the floor on yoga mats and meditation cushions. Others crowd in quietly, filling the space at insistence to hear soul‐speaking chimes.

Dana Shamas of Bayou Bliss Yoga offered gentle guidance as harmonies rang out from crystal bowls arranged in the chapel’s center. From the chimes came a year’s intention for release, recovery, resilience, and renewal.

An hour later, DH and I emerged to the glory that is Barnett Newman’s incomparable Broken Obelisk. The reflection of Newman’s sculpture in the Rothko’s pool is only part of its charm.

The art honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, ironically, our nation will honor two weeks from today.

Synchronicity roars. 

Today also marks the New Year’s Day birth of Irish writer Maria Edgeworth in 1768. Praised by Jane Austen, the British‐born Edgeworth was noted for her ground‐breaking innovation to the novel form. She also issued an ahead‐of‐her‐time clarion call for women’s rights and children’s education plus pithy and comedic social and political observations.

Edgeworth penned the novel Ormond, a title only one letter removed from my already unusual surname.

Synchronicity returns. 

How did I not know of this woman writer before? She’s so prescient that quotes from her 1795 Letters for Literary Ladies were recycled by 1960‐era feminists in America.

Edgeworth also penned this quote: “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” 

Comforting words on this New Year’s Day. A sort of centering prayer.

As are the words of noted American author Neil Gaiman: “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness.…I hope you read some fine books…Don’t forget to write…and I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”

I’ll merge the wisdom of Edgeworth and Gaiman to craft my own vision for the new year: caring moments in 12 gentle months laced with magical dreams and self‐surprises, topped off with a dollop of healthy madness, all in service of full‐time storytelling and a life fully lived every day.

Four intentions of projects to embody, complete, and present by this time next New Year’s Day.

You heard it here first.

What’s your vision to surprise yourself?

Writing Chain

Prayer Chain, she called it.

I heard Writer Chain.

How could I not?

Look at its pieces—orange beads, angel wing, spiral, open hand.

Each, aspects of me.

The number four prominent—bead colors, bead types.

Divine Mother rising.

I bought Mary Jane White’s lovely bead work at Kay Kemp’s Holiday Marketplace in the Houston Heights. Upon returning to my writing studio, I laid the chain on my writing desk as you see it here—tucked in a circle and cradled in orange crepe paper as it was handed to me.

Words have flooded out of me since. More, better words than in months. Long‐percolating ideas and stories breathe with new life. Novel scenes possess a depth and weight unimagined at conception. Even scribbles from a novel initiated 15 years ago sparkle with invigorating possibility.

Best: feedback gathered on that writing stuns. (Note to reader: I share these comments begging your advance forgiveness for any perceived narcissism.) Some direct quotes: wow, what are you doing differently? Your writing has improved so much. Your stories flow so well; you’ve really crossed some kind of hurdle. How did you do this? 

I credit the Writer Chain.

Wonder invites pondering: what does chain mean? Words of pain—going dark and negative, a place I often reside—spring forth. Prison, gang, bindings, suffering. Then, Nelson Mandela.

To every yin, there’s yang. Mandela sought, and found, other meaning in his chains. Light to dark.

Perhaps chains serve as bindings, or links, to connect us, one to another. In uncovering those connections, we listen and interpret then discover what might move us forward. Uncover to discover.

Are these links, or chains, the key source for inspiration and progress in our journeys as writers, artists, human beings? How do we connect all the links we find?

Is this ultimately the Circle of Life?

The Lion King, courtesy Elton John’s songwriting wisdom, roars as the season encourages rumination.

I hope the chains, the links, in your life offer you similar inspiration and forward movement. Open your eyes and unclasp your hands. You’ll see chains and links illuminating your path. Little gifts surrounding you, awaiting uncovering.

On your desk. Under a tree.

Maybe take a quick, short road trip.

Only a half hour after I got into my car, I discovered Writer Chain.

I’m forever changed by a piece of art lying on a table awaiting my discovery. With my writing practice now unexpectedly richer than before, my life, too, stands enriched by a marketplace reunion with four wonderful artists—Kay, Mary Jane, Virginia, and Sharon. Thank you, friends.

A final thought for this almost‐over season:

Nothing reveals the truth like six little words on a t‐shirt.