The Perfect Storm: A Vacation Travelogue (Part 3)

Saturday afternoon: I’m now on the Amtrak Thruway bus from Orlando to Tampa, a two-hour trip in a lovely bus with air conditioning, Wi-Fi, comfy seats, and even a few tables.

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I decide to forgo the 11-inch laptop (too bulky) and even the Amazon Fire tablet (still too bulky) in my carry-on bag and use my non-phone phone as a tiny tablet during the bus ride. How convenient is this! I haven’t used my phone to check email in ages, but it should still be easier than lugging out the other two devices for such a short trip.

As I’m swiping my fingers around trying to type a coherent email on this tiny screen, I realize that my phone never would have slid so far down between that seat cushion and the frame if I hadn’t decided a day earlier to take off the bulky red plastic case. It had made sense at the time because the slimmer non-cased phone would fit in the small cross-body bag I had packed for port days on the ship.

But if I’d left the case on, the bright red plastic would have been easily seen when the attendant and I first looked for the phone when I boarded. Without its case, the phone was slim enough to slip all the way down near the floor, and the metal and black phone blended in perfectly with the metal seat frame. The perfect storm had continued.

In the next two hours on the bus, I check Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and I keep writing emails—to Wayne, to my mom, to my friends—telling them all happily that I’ve found the phone and that all should be well once Wayne unsuspends the account. I keep checking to see if the phone is working, but by the time we reach Tampa in late afternoon, my phone is still just a miniature internet device and cannot text or call anyone.

That’s no big deal, though, because I’ll be meeting Wayne soon when he lands, gets the airport shuttle, and picks me up here at the Tampa station. There is no free Wi-Fi here, so I buy 24 hours of Wi-Fi for $5. I wonder why no one has answered any of my emails from the bus ride, only to see all of them sitting in the mail program’s Outbox, unsent. One of the settings must be wrong, or I’ve changed the password and now have forgotten what I’ve changed it to.

Wayne’s somewhere between Pittsburgh and Tampa, and I have no clue whether he’s able to read my emails—the ones I’m sending from the tablet now. Once he lands, I start getting emails from him. Little do I know they’re arriving in the wrong order. Usually, this isn’t a big deal. Usually.

Meanwhile, this station is about to close for the night.

I email this to Wayne: “Right now I’m on the back side of the station because there is nowhere to sit out front. The guard inside will let me know when I can no longer sit here.”

Wayne: “Did you ever think to ask to use someone’s phone?”

By the time I see this email, the station has closed and I’m standing out front in the dark, alone with all my luggage and two other men I don’t know. There are several random cabs in front of me, also with men inside. A six-foot-four hulk of a man like Wayne will never understand why a five-foot-two middle-aged woman with all her worldly possessions will not ask a random male stranger if she can use his phone. Plus, who was I supposed to call? After all, I was merely standing here waiting for Wayne and the hotel shuttle to pick me up.

My reply: “To do what? I’m trying to avoid a cab fare …”

We’d had several conversations in recent days about making sure my name was also on the hotel reservation, so that I could at least call their shuttle and then sit in their lobby with my things if I arrived too far ahead of Wayne. He had insisted I could call for their shuttle on my own without them knowing I was on the reservation.

“You’re my wife. Of course you’re included.”

I explained to him that protocol and legal issues might not include a wife automatically. I asked him to envision a domestic squabble scenario where an insane estranged wife stalked her husband to his hotel and begged to be let into his room. The hotel would be right to hesitate to let her in, or to let her use the shuttle to get to the hotel in the first place. He never understood what I was trying to say. Engineer-brains aren’t always as logical as one would expect. And writer-brains are way too good at thinking up worst-case scenarios.

So I’m standing out here in the dark waiting for him and that shuttle. It’s about 6:30 p.m., right when Wayne is supposed to land. I email him again, asking when he thinks he’ll be here.

“I won’t be picked up at the airport till 8:00.”

Then I get this email: “I’m trying to activate your old phone. So far, no go. On hold, wait time is minimum 1 hour and 40 minutes. I am at the hotel shuttle door at the airport. What does the shuttle look like?”

Wait … what? I ask him how the heck I would know what the shuttle looks like. In my frustration—as I watch those other men get picked up by relatives or Ubers—I look out at the ONE remaining cab at the curb in front of me.

If you’ve read my book Train of Thought, you’ll know why I dashed to the curb and grabbed that cab. Here I was again, in the dark, outside a closed train station, without a phone or data plan with which to contact a cab or Uber. I needed this cab.

For $10 plus a $5 tip, I get an odd cab ride to the hotel. I say odd because these days anybody can be a cab driver as long as he has a GPS. This guy is staring at that screen so much he almost misses the hotel—which I’m pointing at right in front of us as I yell, “It’s right HERE!”

The sign is the size of New Jersey. But he’s looking at a tiny phone screen the size of, well, a very, very tiny portion of New Jersey.

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I try not to rethink that $5 tip.

At the front desk, I ask if I can hang out in their lobby till my husband arrives from the airport on their shuttle. The concierge immediately brightens and says, “Wayne Parker! Yes! We talked to him. He said your phone’s not working. We’re picking him up at 8:00. How … how … how did you get here?” And he looks out at the curb as the cab pulls away. I explain the cab, the empty station, and the shuttle issue. Another member of the hotel staff appears and is talking about Wayne, too. Seems he’s a pretty popular guy here with the night shift. Huh.

I’m delighted, though, that he’s talked to them on my behalf already because they give me a key to our room (once I’ve put the charges on my credit card, not his—I suspect this was his plan all along). We’re on the 14th floor … and if you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with more than a dozen floors, you’ll know that we weren’t really on the 14th floor. We were on the 13th floor, but superstition prevents them from calling it the 13th floor. Sure enough, in the elevator, there is no button for the 13th floor.

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I relax in our room on the “14th” floor, try not to think of Stephen King movies starring John Cusack, and await Wayne’s arrival about two hours later. I shower and freshen up and feel like our vacation is really beginning now that we’re both in the same city, and then, finally, the same hotel.

When he arrives and I tell him about my adventures with the station and the cab, he asks, “Why didn’t you take the shuttle?” I start my well-worn speech about estranged wives and legal issues when he breaks in to tell me he’d emailed me hours earlier to tell me he’d called the hotel and asked them to send a shuttle to pick me up. So that’s why he asked me what the shuttle looked like!

That email—sent when I was still in the Tampa station—said simply, “Shuttle will be there in 15 to 30 minutes.”

I finally received that email a week later.

His next statement would normally be a delight: “Carnival called me this afternoon right before I left for the airport, asking if I wanted to upgrade to a suite with a larger balcony and VIP check-in.”

I laugh, because we’d spent almost nothing getting down here and are usually thrifty, frugal cruise-goers … until he says, “And I said yes.”

I giggle with delight—a suite and VIP check-in!—and then he adds, “For an extra $600.”

Now this doesn’t feel like such a good idea.
And the perfect storm continues to agree with me.

Next installment: A comedy of errors should be funny, right?

 

The Perfect Storm: A Vacation Travelogue (Part 2)

Friday evening. I’ve made it through the coach-seat, coffee-spilling adventure, and I’ve done the responsible thing and had Wayne suspend the phone service on my lost phone. Nothing to do now except try to enjoy the ride. I’ll be on this train from Philadelphia to Orlando, where tomorrow I’ll get on an Amtrak Thruway bus to my destination in Tampa. There I’ll meet up with Wayne, who is flying down tomorrow afternoon. We’ll stay in a hotel overnight and get on the cruise ship on Sunday. Seems straightforward enough. What could go wrong now?

I settle into my Viewliner roomette, which has one noticeable difference from the Superliner roomettes I traveled in last year: there is a toilet right in the roomette. At first blush, this seems like a marvelous idea: a bathroom all to yourself. At second blush, you realize you’ll really blush if you’re sharing this roomette with a friend—apparently a very close friend, at least by the end of the trip. The toilet is just sitting there next to one of the two facing roomette seats.

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It’s not all weird and awkward, though. The toilet doubles as one of the steps up to the top berth. You know, as long as you remember to put the lid down. (Men, I’m lookin’ at you.) As I think about the logistics of using this toilet, I realize there’s another perk of traveling alone.

I head to the dining car, although I keep forgetting which direction it’s in from my roomette. I’m relieved they have a lit-up sign at the front of the sleeper car that says, “Dining Car This Way.” (I think in small print underneath that it also says, “You Stupid Idiot with No Sense of Direction.”) I’m not afraid of being seated with strangers, because I now have mad dining car skillz since my cross-country train trip in 2017.

I have dinner with a nice couple heading home to North Carolina after a visit to New York City. I’m excited to have a captive audience to show off photos of my new grandson, King Arthur, on my pho— Oh, shit. Never mind, I tell them. I’ve lost my phone and they’ll have to endure me trying to describe him instead. Something gets lost in the translation and I give up.

The good news is that the waiter has already brought my Diet Pepsi and I’ve poured it into the short, squat clear plastic cup and have added the ridiculously long, clear plastic straw. (Clearly we are not in California or we would all be felons because of these straws.)

The other good news is that the waiter is now bringing my delicious, rare steak dinner, cooked to order, served on our table, which has a real tablecloth and real flatware. I do not envy airplane travelers at this moment. I’d show you a picture of the beautiful table and steak dinner, but … yeah, um, no phone.

The bad news is that the waiter does not see the clear cup and the ridiculously long, clear plastic straw … and knocks over the entire Diet Pepsi, which soaks into the real tablecloth before I can finish describing King Arthur’s bald head to my dinner companions. We all say a pleasant “No, thank you” to the dessert and head back to our sleeper cars.

A Viewliner roomette differs in one more way from a Superliner: the upper berth has windows. Everyone on the Amtrak Unlimited forums seems to recommend sleeping in the upper bunk and leaving the bottom set up as seats if you’re alone, especially if you are short and can still sit underneath the lowered bunk. I decide that this is a fun idea and ask the room attendant to make up the upper bunk so I can leave my huge luggage on the other seat overnight.

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It’s reassuring to sleep on a moving train with this convenient “seat belt” attachment so you don’t careen into the toilet below.

dscn1819-1.jpgI took this shot while standing on the (closed) toilet, looking down at the seats and table still set up under my top bunk.

After a night of interrupted sleep from the tossing and turning of the train, and several mountain-climbs up and down from the bunk because of my tiny bladder, I brush my teeth and wash up in the tiny folding sink, which is actually a clever arrangement. No drain in the bowl: the water disappears when you fold the sink up.

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I fold the sink back up and try not to overthink the obvious firing of the engineer who designed this toilet-sink-electrical outlet arrangement …

dscn1822Because what could go wrong?

I’ve got my luggage all ready, I’ve had a marvelous hot breakfast in the dining car, and we’re getting ready to pull into the Orlando station. My room attendant helps me get my gargantuan suitcase down the corridor and near the door at the front of the sleeper car. I’m gathering my purse and carry-on and wool winter coat (which really feels ridiculous down here in Orlando) when I spy something unusual wedged between the seat and the metal frame of the seat. It’s my phone!

We’ve now stopped completely and folks are dashing for the exits. I need to get off here so I call the attendant and tell him my phone’s stuck down near the floor between the cushion and frame. I can’t seem to reach down to get it, so he hits the floor on his knees and thrusts his hand under the seat to poke the phone upward where I can reach it.

They’re announcing a last call for Orlando, so I grab the phone, shove a $20 tip in the attendant’s hand, and jump off the train. (Mind the gap!)

Before I lose the train’s Wi-Fi, I grab my Amazon Fire tablet, open an email and write triumphantly to Wayne, “Uncancel! Found phone!” Well, that’s what I think I’ve typed. I don’t realize at the time that autocorrect has changed it to “Uncancel! Find phone!”

And although Wayne is flying to Tampa in a few hours, he’s still back in Pittsburgh, having no idea what my email means, as he’s driving back from the Xfinity store where he has already bought me a new phone…

…Which has therefore completely bumped my old phone out of their system.

Next installment: Unlimited Texting is useless if your phone ain’t a phone anymore.

 

The Perfect Storm: A Vacation Travelogue (Part 1)

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By the time our Caribbean cruise included a showing of The Perfect Storm in our stateroom, I could have told you it was going to be THAT kind of vacation. We’d gone on a similar cruise a few years earlier, and even though they’d played Titanic during that week, we’d managed to have a lovely time anyway. So why did this week have to be so different? It was literally the same itinerary.

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This time, though, most of the week felt like a comedy of errors. Light on the comedy part, and heavy on the errors. Wayne flew to the port in Tampa from Pittsburgh, but I opted to take the train. I’d earned a boatload of Amtrak Rewards points (yes, a boatload—nobody says “a trainload”) on last year’s cross-country train trip. Might as well use ’em. Plus, I hate flying. Win-win, right? Maybe.

On the way to Philadelphia (where I’d board a sleeper car southward to Tampa), I bought a breakfast sandwich and coffee and nimbly carried them back to my coach seat. Then I noticed I’d spilled coffee all over my jacket as the train lurched while I walked from the café car. Nice going. Nimbly, my ass.

I climbed aboard the Silver Meteor after a short layover in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, with its uncomfortable “mod” furniture in their first-class Club Acela lounge.

20181230_112805(“Captain Kirk, I’m heading for the bridge…”)

As I settled into my comfy roomette and the train pulled away from the station, I couldn’t find my phone. I was sure it had been in my purse when I left the lounge to head to the train, but that pocket on my purse was now uncustomarily unzipped. The sleeping car attendant and I searched for it high and low (mostly low—I’m short and I hadn’t put any luggage on the top bunk).

You’d think it’d be impossible to lose a phone in a room the size of a shoebox. Apparently not. I panicked and realized I must have left it in the lounge. The lounge back in Philly.

Philly, the city we had just left behind us.

The attendant called the Club Acela lounge on his cell phone (since we couldn’t use mine), and I talked to the staff there. There was no sign of my phone where I’d been sitting. And literally no one had accompanied me or touched me or even gotten all up in my personal space as I’d trudged from the lounge onto the train. Now I wondered if I had dropped it onto the tracks in that small gap between the train and the platform.

Mind the gap. Ugh.

I grabbed my Amazon Fire tablet, latched onto the train’s Wi-Fi (which was, to my amazement, working properly), and dashed off an email to Wayne, begging him to suspend my phone’s account so no one could run up data charges. God bless him, he did this immediately.

Now my only worry was whether I’d embedded passwords into any of the apps on the phone. I sat in my roomette for the next hour changing passwords on every account I could think of.

On social media, in the meantime, folks were trying to be helpful, offering suggestions for finding the phone, and the perfect storm began.

1. Have someone call your phone so it’ll ring.
Nice try, but I had turned the sound completely off overnight so random texts or notifications wouldn’t wake me up. I’d had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the train on time, and I needed every second of sleep I could get.

2. Ping your phone from your Google account with “Google, find my phone.”
Another nice try, but I had just untethered my phone from all things Google a week earlier, after reading one too many stories of people realizing their phones were tracking their every movement and then showing them ads for things on Facebook they had discussed with people on their phones. Google is Big Brother, and it must be stopped. So, I stopped it.

3. Use the Find My Phone app on your laptop or tablet.
This works only with iPhones. Guess who owns an LG X-Charge phone? Well, no, guess who used to own an LG X-Charge phone?

I wasn’t sure how stupid I should feel about these things (answer: pretty stupid), but the phrase “perfect storm” kept running through my mind. Little did I know how much that phrase was going to follow me for the rest of that week.

Next installment: Be careful what you wish for: Linda finds her phone

The Magic of Mail

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Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

Yesterday I received my first piece of legit fan mail. I mean, an actual handwritten letter from someone I did not previously have any contact or association with. She wrote because she had read a copy of Train of Thought and it reminded her of her own Amtrak trip years ago. And she had to write to tell me all about it.

It’s a delightful letter, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading every line of its four pages. (I may or may not have already reread it a few times.) It’s humbling to think a perfect stranger not only read my book but felt compelled to dig out matching stationery, stamps, and a pen and write to me all about her own train adventure. In this day and age, who does that? Well, besides this woman. And me, when I write back to her (using a typewriter, of course).

Typewriter enthusiast and occasional actor Tom Hanks agrees with me. In California Typewriter, he admits that, if someone takes seven seconds to send him a thank-you email, he’ll delete it. But if someone takes seventy seconds to type him a real, paper thank-you note, he’ll keep that thing forever.

He’s right. Through LinkedIn, I recently I got back in touch with a friend from elementary school. She’d moved away when we were kids, and we wrote letters back and forth till our first year of college.  A few weeks ago, I sat up late one night and reread every single one of her letters to me from the 1970s. I was laughing and crying and reliving those fun, naïve days. I then snapped a picture for her of all of those letters spread across my desk. She was amazed. Next I’m going to scan each one so she can have as much nostalgic fun rereading them as I did.

The fun of receiving personal mail never gets old. It’s why I eat the cost of a few stamps sending Christmas cards to people who live just a few miles—or even just a few blocks—from my house. There’s something about opening that mailbox and seeing your name on an envelope that doesn’t have the electric bill inside. Something that says, “Hey, I thought about you today…”

The bigger tie-in? It’s simple. Tom Hanks is onto something here. Make the world a little smaller while you still can. If you want to truly touch someone’s life in a quiet but unmistakable way, write a letter. Use stationery. Get out an envelope. Buy a stamp. Then wait for the magic to happen.

What sorts of personal mail or letters have you kept over the years?

 

Vote for Secret Agent Manny!

Hey, gang! Do something for me, wouldja? Vote for Secret Agent Manny to win in the Mystery/Thriller category for the 50 Best Indie Books of 2018. Thanks to Readfree.ly for holding this contest!

VOTE HERE!

Thanks so much for taking a few minutes out of your crazy schedules to do a big favor for this pathetic little humorist, novelist, and scapegoat.

You guys are awesome. I love what I do, and I love taking you all along for the ride.

Secret Agent Manny

Random Grocery Lists

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I admit I have one weird habit. (Okay, maybe more than one. Let’s not quibble.)

When I’m grocery shopping, I like to find a previous shopper’s grocery list in the shopping cart I’m using. I grab the list and bring it home. I try to imagine what situation at home forced them to make a list with these particular items on it.

Now, before you gripe, yes, I realize there is usually not  a direct line of cause-and-effect between the items on a random grocery list and whatever is going on at home. Heck, my own grocery lists are two columns wide, are ordered by aisle as found in the store, and make up more than a week’s worth of items that are running low.

But those short lists seem to mean something. Like, someone was in the middle of a project and realized they needed a few things to keep going. So, they wisely jotted down what they still needed and made a quick dash to the store… so quick that they left the list in the cart and hurried back to their cars.

In the past month I’ve found two of these little lists. What stories do these lists tell?

LIST 1:

quart milk
Sobee – 6
Corn – Sun.
Smucker’s: Natural creamy PB
     Smooth
Couple of Benefuls

LIST 2:

Soft Scrub
Clorox toilet
Jelly
Milk
Cereal
Baking soda

There’s a simple reason I grab these little lists when I find them. I’m going to continue taking random grocery lists until I get one that looks like it came from a serial killer (“axe, chainsaw, bleach, large plastic tote, latex gloves“). Because writers see stories everywhere. Do you?

 

NaNoWriMo 2018: And so it begins…

Somehow, today starts my fifteenth year of participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Somehow, I’ve completed the previous fourteen and won. Somehow, two of those books have become available to the public (here and here).

Will this fifteenth attempt turn into something Amazon-worthy? Only time will tell. But if Day One is any indication, I’m excited to see what happens this month. Wherever this new story takes me, I’ll be traveling there with my IBM Selectric II typewriter for the first draft, with my trusty NaNo Rhino cheering me on as a mascot. (I’d call him a muse, but he’s a bit of a jerk and doesn’t always like to help me solve plot dilemmas. He’s too busy eating leftover Halloween candy. Jerk.)

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Why a typewriter, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. (Actually, no, I’m not. I get tired of this question after the 237th time.) I use a typewriter because sometimes—just sometimes—you need to see the paper move. Physically move. And you need a device that makes it impossible to self-edit along the way. During NaNoWriMo—during any first-draft stage—you need to move forward, always forward.

Don’t look back! That’s what I hear when I listen to the hummmmmming of my Selectrics. They’re marvelous beasts for typing for long periods of time. I often have to tear myself away from the keyboard because it’s such a delight to use. Give me a Selectric keyboard over any computer keyboard any day.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, leave a comment and tell me what your process looks like. Mine involves not only the Selectrics and the rhino mascot, but also copious amounts of caffeine, a lot of ’90s alternative music in the background, and a heavy reliance on voicemail.