Virginia

And as a housecrasher, he has really poor manners

We’ve just moved. We closed on a house last weekend, and we moved all our stuff over this weekend.  It’s a local move, but it’s a move from a two-bedroom flat to a three-bedroom house, so we’re very happy with it.

Today, in addition to Moving Day, was also Girl’s third birthday.

And it was the first match of the new season for Boy’s soccer team.  In fact, the movers were still bringing stuff into our house when it was time to leave for the match, so Lisa took him on her own while Girl and I hung out at the house.  After the movers finished and left, it was just the two of us.  She was in the basement watching TV while I was doing a little unpacking on one of the upper levels.

She came running up to me.  “There’s an alligator downstairs!  Dad, there’s an alligator downstairs!”

Of course my immediate assumption was that she was playing pretend, but I gave her a second glance when I realised how genuinely frightened she looked.  “Can you show me where the alligator is?” I asked.

She looked at me like I was a moron.  “No.”

So I headed down to the basement.  And stopped at the top of the stairs, when I saw a little guy who looked very much like this on the bottom step.  Her alligator.

I went to get a couple of cups to trap and release the thing, but it had vanished by the time I got back–presumably into the AC vent that’s right next to where it was scurrying around.  So I told Girl it had gone, but she wouldn’t return to the basement without me holding her hand.  My luck, she’ll be the one who finds it again in three days.

I’d actually seen one of these lizards (very possibly the same one) crawling across our front doorstep last night, and I took note of it because I’ve lived on the banks of the Potomac River for eight years now, and this was the first time I’ve seen a lizard like that around here.  Like a little, creepy-crawly piece of Florida running around my yard.

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Two to the fifth

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Ian, with your birthday falling on a Saturday this year, and with it being only two weeks until the end of the Premier League season, it must have been great to get to spend all morning and early afternoon watching the football.

Well, no.  Saturday was my birthday, and there was indeed lots of Premier League football on, but I didn’t watch any of it.  You see, my sister and her husband will be moving into the area this summer, which means they need to go househunting.  And since it’s tough to househunt in Northern Virginia from their current location in America’s wangFlorida, she decided to send me househunting on Saturday morning instead.  I figured that’s a small price to pay for unlimited free babysitting anytime I want.

Finding Claire a house around here has also kickstarted our own discussions about buying a house ourselves.  Lisa has been saying for years that she wanted to buy a house, but I’d pretty much come to the conclusion that what she really wanted was to complain about how she wants to buy a house.  But she insists that’s not true–so we’re about to start looking in earnest.  I told her that if we do move, though, we need to replace our standard-def television with an HD model.  Not for an improved Media Experience, but because I was looking at the twenty-pound HD TV in our bedroom, and thinking how much easier it would be to move that than it will be the eighty-pound standard-def in the living room.  I don’t ever want to have to move that thing again.

So anyway.  We spent the morning househunting, then went home so I could receive my birthday presents.  Girl got me a pair of Cookie Monster boxer shorts with COOKIE LOVER printed across my arse.  Boy got me a Star Wars-themed edition of the board game Trouble that makes R2-D2 sound effects when you pop that bubble-thing that rolls the dice for you.  And Lisa got me an HD TV.

Yup.  A high-definition television.

And the best part was that it was free because she won it in a raffle.  Last weekend, we’d had our conversation about how I want to replace the eighty-pound standard-def TV with an HD model.  On Wednesday, Lisa spent all day playing in a golf tournament for work.  At the tournament, she got raffle ticked 204, but lost it somewhere.  Then one of her colleagues found ticket 200 on the ground, and gave it to her since she’d lost her proper ticket.  And ticket 200 won the grand prize, the HD TV.  All Lisa’s friends told her she shouldn’t tell me that she didn’t pay for it, as that would make it less special or something, I guess?  Whatever–they clearly don’t know either of us at all.  It being free makes it way more special than it could have been otherwise.

So then, since I’m a dad and since someone in the household–whether me or anyone else–had received a major piece of electronics as a gift, I spent the next hour hooking it up, before it was time to miss the last Premier League match of the day so that we could go to Boy’s soccer match.  Granted, four-a-side U-6 soccer isn’t quite Premier League football, but I suppose you can’t beat a match that has twelve goals in 32 minutes of play.  (Literally can’t beat it, as it finished a 6-6 draw.)

Then we headed to Best Buy, to pick up some HDMI cables and a Blu-Ray player.  The HD TV has only one composite hookup, meaning, as I reasonably explained to Lisa, that we can’t hook both the Wii and the DVD player up to it at the same time, so we’ve replaced the DVD player with a Blu-Ray player, which we can hook up to the new TV by one of its three HDMI ports.

I got back out to the car with all that stuff and found Lisa asleep in the driver’s seat and Boy asleep behind her, so rather than wake them, I got Girl out of the car and walked with her up the road to the used bookshop.  There I discovered that they’ve eliminated their Biography section in favour of an expansion of Romance, and I picked Lisa up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey (happy birthday to her).  Then we headed back to the car.

Where we discovered that Lisa had kept the air conditioning and the radio on the whole time she’d been asleep, so when she tried to start the car, the battery had died completely.  Lisa therefore popped the hood and stood next to the car, and, since she’s a woman, within two minutes someone had pulled up next to her asking if we needed a jump.  Actually, a startlingly good looking 25-year-old man in a gleaming silver BMW had pulled up next to her and asked if she needed a jump.

So we got the car going again, but we needed to drive around for a while rather than going home.  We therefore elected to drive down to Fredericksburg, 35 miles away; that way, we could go to either Sonic or Steak and Shake for dinner.  Actually, it was my birthday, so we stopped at both Sonic and Steak and Shake.  I also popped into the comic book shop next door to Sonic, as I always do, and looked at their selection of Doctor Who toys and t-shirts.  They had some nice stuff, as they always do, and it was exorbitantly priced, as it always is.  Particularly hard to resist was the Lego Cyberman playset, which Boy would have loved, but it was $80 for what was maybe a $30 Lego set (and that’s even accounting for the fact that Lego sets generally cost about half again what they’re worth to begin with).

And then we were home, and I was sticking HDMI cables into our new TV to connect it with the cable box and the Blu Ray player.  All in all, not the best birthday I’ve ever had, but a lively and eventful one.  And one that brought with a new HD television!  Followed by the discovery that the new HD television was free!  So in the end, I can’t complain.

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Leaving on a jet plane

For family reasons, I found out on Monday that I needed to be in Sunderland, in the North East of England, this morning (Friday), so I booked a flight. That’s when the problems started.

First, of course, there was the earthquake. This might not seem directly connected to my flight, but it was certainly the start of a whole lot of weirdness around my efforts to get to Sunderland.

Then there was the attempt to book a train from London to Durham (the city where my aunt and uncle were staying, just south of Sunderland). For whatever reason, the East Coast train service website flat out refused to accept my credit card. I don’t know why. But the misunderstand cost a serious amount of money–it meant that instead of an advance ticket at £49, I was going to have to wait till I actually got to the train station, when I’d have to purchase a same-day ticket at £109.

My outward-bound itinerary Wednesday night involved a flight from Reagan National in Washington to Chicago, then forty-five minutes later a flight from Chicago to Heathrow in London. Both flights were with American Airlines, but the second one was “purchased through” Iberia Airlines. (Both American and Iberia are part of One World, British Airways’ airline empire. The sun never sets.) The package as a whole was purchased through Expedia, so I’m not sure why I was divided between two airlines when I was only flying on one.

By the time I’d got to Reagan National, I’d actually already been on mass transit for three hours–the trip to Lisa’s work (to drop the kids off) involves two bus rides and a Metro train ride. And then at the airport, I discovered I could only check in for the first leg of my journey. American couldn’t check me into the second (American) flight, because it went through Iberia (who are, once again, part of the same company as American). I had to check in at the gate once we’d arrived in Chicago.

Plane arrives; we board. The plane was less than a third full–probably substantially less than a third full, which was empty enough for the flight attendants to be laughing and joking about it. We pulled away from the gate bang on time.

And sat there. For half hour. Waiting. At which point the pilot informed us that our flight plan had changed; we’d have to make a detour around some weather between us and Chicago, and we did not have enough fuel for this longer journey. So we had to return to the gate to refuel, and we’d be “a little late into Chicago.”

If I’d checked into my second flight, I wouldn’t have worried. I’d have assumed that, with our flight delayed 45 minutes, my second flight would have been held up fifteen minutes so I could get to it. I now suspect that’s somewhat naïve of me.

But it didn’t matter at the time, as I hadn’t checked into my second flight. I was going to be late to Chicago, and there wasn’t even a record in the system that I was en route to get to the Iberia plane. So I spoke to the ticketing agent when we got back to the gate.

She couldn’t help me. My choices were to fly to Chicago and get booked on a new London flight once I got there, or get off the plane at Reagan then and there, and get rebooked for the morning. Either way, I wasn’t arriving in London until 10.45pm Thursday night. Then I’d still have to get from Heathrow to King’s Cross (which are on diametrically opposite sides of London), then catch a three-hour train to Durham.

That really wasn’t acceptable. If I hadn’t already spent nine hundred nonrefundable dollars on the airfare for this trip, I’d have given up then and there.

Then the agent offered me a lifeline. In an hour and twenty minutes, a direct British Airways flight was leaving from Dulles Airport, on the far side of Washington from Reagan National, for Heathrow. She booked me onto that flight.

What followed was a desperate dash across Northern Virginia, with times of frenzied racing punctuated by frustrating, interminable waits. I ran through Reagan National down to the taxi stand, where I found what was pretty much the longest line for cabs I’ve ever seen, which inched slowly forward over the course of about ten minutes.

Finally I had a taxi. I told the driver I was trying to make a 10.10 flight from Dulles, and he took off. He should have seriously been pulled over. (At one point a police car briefly flashed its blue lights ahead of us, at something unconnected to do with us, and the cabbie, alerted to the police presence, slammed on his breaks.) But we made the trip from Reagan to Dulles–a forty-five-minute to one-hour trip–in half an hour.

That trip cost me $80 (including the thirty per cent tip). It was a reminder that I was heading for a few days in a country where the cabs actually charge reasonable rates–seriously, about one tenth to one fifth what they charge in the United States.

So I ran inside the Dulles departure terminal. And found the British Airways and American Airlines counters dark and abandoned. I approached a security guard–I knew he wouldn’t be able to help me, but he was the only authority figure I could see. He suggested trying the British Airways lost luggage office on the floor below.

I went downstairs. The lost luggage office, also, was closed. I headed back upstairs, where I found the BA and AA ticketing agents leaving for the night. I told them I needed to check-in, and was told I was too late.

“A half-hour ago, I was at Reagan,” I said. “They just sent me over here because of a cancelled flight.”

The BA ticketing agent regarded me thoughtfully. The two American Airlines agents with her would clearly have said no.

“You don’t have any baggage to check?”

“Not a thing.”

And she checked me in. Bless her.

Then I headed over to the security checkpoint. It was now 9.35. My boarding pass said the gate closed at 9.55. The TSA agent checking IDs realised how little time I had and wished me luck. The TSA agent who then popped up out of nowhere as I headed toward the baggage inspection line, on the other hand, and insisting on “double-checking” my pass and ID, seemed genuinely amused at inconveniencing me.

I’m serious about that. This isn’t me feeling frustrated and desperate to get to my plane and ascribing malice to someone who just doing their job. It amused her to delay me.

Then I got into my second baggage-scan line of the evening, which took a damn long time but, of course, had no way of doing anything else. It was 9.46 by the time I cleared security and headed down to the shuttle taking people from the Arrivals and Departures building to the departure terminals.

A shuttle was just leaving. I didn’t managed to catch it, and I had to wait for the next one. It was 9.51 by the time I got off the shuttle at the Dulles departure terminal. I ran up the four flights of escalators to the departure gates, though I was so tired by the time I reached the third one that I almost rode the last two on my hands and knees.

(Try running up a flight of escalators the next time you’re at the bottom of one. They’re considerably steeper than normal stairs. Then try it while carrying two fully-packed pieces of luggage.)

As I shuffled, heavily winded, along the terminal towards my gate, the wall clock read 9.52. But I was certain I wasn’t going to make it. I had been sure I wouldn’t make it when I arrived at Dulles to find the BA and AA desks shut down for the night, and I was sure again now.

And, indeed, when I got to the gate, I found its doors shut. But I also found all the flight’s passengers sat at the gate waiting to board–prepping the plane had been delayed, and it hadn’t started boarding yet. Never had I been so happy to see a flight delayed.

So I made my flight. And, having found a ridiculously cheap two-legged, American flight at such short notice, I was essentially upgraded for free (well, for $80, paid to the cab driver) to a nonstop British Airways flight. Instead of sitting at O’Hare waiting for my eight-hour second flight to lift off, I was receiving a free glass of wine with dinner on my six-hour flight. We landed at 10.20, over an hour before my original flight had been due to land.

Which meant that I was on a train to Durham by 1.30, though it did still cost me £109. (Two days ago, when an advanced standard ticket was £49, an advanced first-class ticket was only £112.)

(I had actually brooked with Lisa the idea of travelling first-class on the train when still trying to book in advance. “No,” she said.

“But I get free food,” I said.

“No.”

“But I get free alcohol,” I said.

“Hmm … well, maybe.”)

And here I am, Friday night (actually now early Saturday morning, at least here in England, if not in the United States), with my family duties fulfilled. Of course, I’m supposed to fly back Sunday afternoon, this time on bloody Iberia for both legs. So there’s a pretty decent chance either my first leg, into New York, or my second, into Washington, will be cancelled.

Though, come on, Mother Nature, a hurricane? I’m a Floridian. You can’t scare me with a hurricane. But you threw an earthquake at me, and then bad weather over Chicago. Neither one of those stopped me from travelling intercontinentally. I’m pretty much laughing at you right now. Wouldn’t you really like to show me who’s boss? Like, say, Icelandic volcano levels of wanting to show me who’s boss? That Icelandic volcano erupts Saturday night, I could be stuck in London for days. Weeks.

Wouldn’t that show me?

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The day Spring dies

The past two months have been beautiful. Today, the truth of that has inspired me to whinge.

Apart from a four-day heat wave in the middle, for eight weeks the high temperature has been somewhere between fifty and seventy degrees Fahrenheit every day. I have spent most of every day sat out on the balcony–recently, I’ve spent that time writing.

And out here on the balcony is where I’d like to spend every day. Whether it’s this specific balcony, or the porch behind our apartment in Gainesville where I wrote A Traitor’s Loyalty, or the solarium at my aunt’s house in West Berkshire. It’s … good for me. It’s good for my state of mind; it’s very good for my writing productivity.

Today, though, that all changes. Today spring ends, and summer begins. Today’s forecast high is 84 degrees; tomorrow, it’s 88. On Sunday it’s 91. The sweltering heat is about to chase me back inside, where my choices will be either to sit in the living room at one of those collapsible TV-dinner tables while a pair of small children use me as their personal Swiss Alp, or to retreat to my desk in our bedroom–after carefully clearing from it the parts to my half-assembled model Spitfire–where I would have no way to keep an eye on the kids.

Clearly, when I’m a rich and famous author, or Lisa is a rich and famous … um … lab analyst, we’ll have to spend our summers in England. May through August in England; springs and autumns in Northern Virginia. And the winter in–oh, I don’t know–San Diego.

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Shanghai
Words last two days: 1173
Words total: 18,564

Time spent writing: Noon-2pm; 3.30-6pm
Reason for stopping: Went out for a walk; quota
Darling: Her voice bubbled and fizzed over the telephone line.
Words that boggled Word: fiancé
New words today: pocketbook, gilt, artillery, baseball

Snow

Boy in the falling snowWe’ve had some snow the past couple of weeks.

Of course, the area had already had a massive storm this winter, in December–an unseasonably early time for the DC area to get snow. We missed it because we were in Florida, but at the time it was the seventh-biggest snowfall DC had ever received. Now it’s the eighth.

The snows started two weeks ago, while my mother was staying with us. I don’t remember what it was–five or six inches, I think. Something that seemed impressive at the time, but now would probably just elicit a short burst of slightly hysterical-sounding laughter from the people around here. My mother’s lived in Florida for fifteen years now, so she was a bit excited to go out in the snow with Boy and me. I don’t know where he heard about making snow angels, but that was pretty much all Boy wanted to do when we went out into the snow. Though after a while of that, we ended up doing some sledding, too.

Boy making a snow angelAnd for about a week, that was it. The snow, as it always does around here, started melting pretty quickly.

Then came Super Bowl weekend.

It started snowing Friday morning, but didn’t get heavy till mid-afternoon. There are few things I love more than sitting inside watching the snow fall all day, especially since Lisa was able to get home for the weekend before it started really disrupting the roads.

The snow kept falling.

About 8.30, the power went out. It was right after Boy had gone to bed, and though he was supposed to be lying in the dark going to sleep anyway, the loss of power nevertheless freaked him out enough that that became not an option, at least for a little while.

Boy, late at night, during the snowAfter we moved the milk and the contents of the freezer onto the balcony to keep them cold, I got all bundled up and went outside to see how extensive the outage was. It encompassed our whole half of the apartment complex, but as the snow was now a good foot deep and tough to walk through, I didn’t venture out of the complex to see if it had affected the rest of the street.

But what I saw outside was amazing. Everything was draped in a perfect, pristine blanket of white. Nothing had been ploughed, nothing had been walked in. And, at what had by now become 9.30 at night, it was as bright as five o’clock in the afternoon outside, presumably from the untouched snow reflecting up at the pale grey sky. It was so bright that, as you can see from the photograph of Boy to your right, I didn’t even need a flash on my camera. (Click on the picture to see more photos I took that night at Dropshots.) And so, since it was so bright and Boy was still bouncing off the walls, I got him all dressed and at ten o’clock at night, we went sledding. The snow was still coming down.

It was still coming down, heavily, when we got up on Saturday morning. The birds didn’t seem to know what to make of it.


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Boy trying to wade through the snowI’d guess the snow was about two feet by this point. It was really fine, powdery stuff. Boy sank down to his waist and had a tough time wading through it. We couldn’t even go sledding anymore, as we’d just sink right into the snow.

It was still snowing when it got dark that night, though it had stopped by the time we got up the next morning. Which meant it was time for me to go out and shovel Lisa’s car, because at that point we were still operating under the belief–oh how I laugh now–that she’d be going to work the next morning.

The plough had been through our apartment complex, but he’d just cleared a big stripe down the middle of the road, pushing all the snow into a long ridge that separated the road itself from the cars parked in the parking spaces that let off it. So I had a three-foot-thick wall of snow as high as the car itself to dig out before Lisa could get her car out of its space.

Lisa's carSo much snow had fallen that, as I cleared it off the top of Lisa’s car, I would turn back to the car to find little rivulets of water trickling down the windows, because the snow in the bottom layer had been so compacted by the weight of all the snow above it that it had melted just from pressure, not temperature.

In the event, Lisa did not go to work on Monday. She went Tuesday, and when she got home that afternoon, we discovered the parking space I had spent three or four hours shovelling had been filled with disused rolls of carpet from the maintenance people renovating an unoccupied apartment–while half the complex’s parking spaces still remained unploughed.

Tuesday night it started snowing again. We got another ten inches, and Lisa stayed home again on Wednesday.

The car door, with two and a half feet of snow atop the carWednesday evening, Lee came over. We called Applebee’s to place an order, and he and I went to pick it up.

Thank God he was driving an SUV. I’ve never seen major, major thoroughfares in such a state. Car parks at the major plazas were fields of white, with the barest hints of paths through them. The only vehicles on the road were pickup trucks and SUVs.

Since Wednesday, things have started calming down. The sunny areas have been getting a decent amount of snowmelt every day, though of course at night that all freezes into sheets of ice. But the temperatures have remained low enough that most of the snow is still on the ground, and Boy and I have been sledding pretty much every day.

Monster iciclesWe’ve gotten some pretty huge icicles. The one on the right there was about six feet long. When we’re in bed, Lisa’s and my heads actually lie right on the other side of that wall, and I was taking a nap when the icicle broke off the day before yesterday. Well, I was taking a nap until it broke off.

One thing I was determined to do while we had the snow was sled down the giant hill at the edge of our complex, and yesterday Lisa and I headed round there:


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As you can see from the video, there’s a concrete drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill, and I was pretty worried about slamming into it. What I hadn’t considered was that over the past several days, the surface of the snow has repeatedly refrozen into a top layer of ice. So it was hard. And it wasn’t particularly smooth. And immediately, I found myself being rattled against the sled as I hurtled down the slope. This was painful enough, but WAY more painful was that, in my surprise at this, I bit my tongue pretty hard.

But I did it! And it was a blast.

And finally, here’s Lisa sledding:


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(Note: if you’re reading this on Facebook or somewhere else that doesn’t show the embedded video, head on over to the original post.)

New Year’s Eve

Apart from the summer, I love Virginia.

It rained all night long. When I opened the blinds this morning, I found the underside of every branch and every awning bearing a thin coat of ice, with dozens of tiny icicles hanging down from it.

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November rains

Trees in autumn

It’s raining today. It’s beautiful.

Once Boy goes down for his nap–assuming Girl lets me–I’m going to brew a pot of tea and sit out on the balcony and enjoy it. Because the rain, while beautiful, means only one thing–the beauty will be gone tomorrow. It’s autumn in a nutshell, I suppose–a fleeting instant of breathless beauty, but an instant only because that beauty is itself a moment of death, of passing away. After the rains, tomorrow or the next day, all the leaves will have been washed away into a rotting carpet over the ground, and the trees will stand stark and bare, ready for the winter.

In a month or two, of course, we’ll get our first snowfall, and that too brings with it surpassing beauty. Lisa and I have at times talked about returning to Florida, and what we miss of life there. Florida’s a lovely place to live–Florida girls, in their Florida girl tank tops, are an aspect of the local climate I miss dearly–but honestly, in all the years I lived there, I don’t recall ever once looking out my window and being brought up short by the beauty I could see, like I do two or three times a year in Northern Virginia.

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Boyfish

Boy and I in the poolWe first took Boy in the pool when he was about four months old, in the hotel pool when we were staying at the same hotel as Cirque du Soleil. He didn’t like it.

Since then, though, he’s rather warmed up to the pool. We started going every day after we moved to northern Virginia last summer. He was (and still is) too short to stand up past the steps, but he had a grand old time playing on those steps, climbing up and down them and splashing.

He took slightly less well to the two sets of lessons we got for him at the swim centre–the more recent being about a year ago now. Swim lessons for a toddler, of course, basically amount to getting to spend a half hour a week getting used to the water, and while he always liked getting to go swimming, he was less enthusiastic about the things the instructor would ask him to do, like float around the pool on a dumbbell or noodle.*

This summer–at least since we got back from England–we’ve once again been going every day, and Boy is having just as much fun as before. Only this time, he’s not just in the mood for fun, but for adventure.

We bought him his own noodle so he wouldn’t just have to keep using the ratty ones that are available at our pool. And soon enough he decided to see how much use it could be to him. Seemingly out of the blue, he started paddling his way around the pool, using it for support. At the same time, he became for the first time brave enough to start jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms, rather than having me hold his hands while he jumped.

Soon after he started doing this, Lisa came with us to the pool on a Saturday and we brought the camera. Clicking on the photo at the top of this post will take you to our visual record of that day.

And then the following week, Lisa came with us again. And was there to see Boy swim for the first time. He could only swim underwater, but nevertheless he could swim. I don’t know how old I was when I could first swim underwater, but I’m pretty sure it was older than three. And then yesterday, he actually managed to get his head above water–just for about a second, but he did it two or three times.

I feel like he just reached a point where he was ready. Much like they’re just ready to pull up or to walk or anything else.

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*Just so you know. Every time you see the word noodle in this post, my fingers insisted on originally typing it as noddle.

When I met Tad

Autographed title page of TO GREEN ANGEL TOWER by Tad WilliamsI’ve been writing this blog for four years now, and it seems I’ve never talked about the road trip Lisa and I took in college to meet Tad Williams. This, clearly, needs rectifying.

My junior year at the University of Florida, the final volume of Tad Williams’s Otherland tetralogy was published, and to support it Williams did a book tour of both US coasts. Eagerly I checked the itinerary to see how close he was coming to Gainesville.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy* had on me when I was in middle school. I read the first two volumes, The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell, when I was twelve, but had to wait another eighteen months before the conclusion, To Green Angel Tower, came out. (The trilogy was my introduction to the idea that a single multi-part story could have its respective volumes published years apart, and it was pretty frustrating to get to the end of Stone of Farewell and find myself left on several cliffhangers. Of course it shouldn’t have been surprising, because The Dragonbone Chair had ended the same way, but it still was.)

MS&T opened my mind up to just how high the fantasy genre could reach when written to its potential (as, admittedly, it so rarely is). It’s a work with such a profound sense of wonder, and yet that’s mixed with a thorough realism in every aspect of its storytelling. There’s the imagery–the textures, the sounds and smells that the text summons to mind are so much more real than anything else I’ve ever encountered in fantasy, or, for that matter, in most non-fantasy works. There’s the mechanics of the society in which leave this characters live. But most of all, there’s the psychological complexity of the characters, the way everyone is so fully drawn, a product of their background and their personality and their own understanding of the world around them. Even the trilogy’s supremely powerful over-villain–who is, after all, an elemental ghost who might or might not even still have a proper consciousness to understand what’s going on–is given an exceptionally sympathetic hearing as to why he’s embarked on a plan of wiping every single human being from the world.

There’s the way the world achieves such a sense of depth by rooting its societies in real world cultures and history. There’s the way the history of Osten Ard blends slowly into mythology, just the way the real world’s history does, and there’s the way, when the truth behind that mythology gets revealed piece by piece, we can see where it formed the basis for the stories, but also where the truth was twisted and the true lesson lost.

As a teenager dreaming of becoming a writer, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn probably had a greater effect on me than any other books. Throughout junior high and high school I probably wrote half a dozen different works that could have been accurately titled An Obvious Cipher for Simon Snowlock Goes on an Adventure in a Land Remarkably Similar to Osten Ard.

Well. An impromptu paean in praise of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. But the upshot is, I was tremendously excited at the prospect of this book tour, and thoroughly devastated when I saw that the farthest south Mr Williams was coming was Washington, DC–a sixteen hour drive north from Gainesville, Florida.

But!

This Washington, DC appearance fell right in the middle of spring break, so instantly I hatched the plan that Lisa and I should drive up there for the signing. Lisa needed her arm twisting a bit, not least since she’d be the only driver–I honestly don’t know if this is something that’ll have become apparent to any readers who don’t know me personally, but I don’t drive and never have. But she agreed, and was even able to secure the loan of her parents’ car after she decided we could use the opportunity of passing through South Carolina on the way for me to meet her extended family, especially her grandma and her favourite cousins, Jamey and Dede.

The trouble started soon after we entered South Carolina and had a tire blow out on I-85. This was the days before cellphones had entered our lives, so we had to walk up the highway to the nearest exit to call Lisa’s cousin, Jamey. So my first meeting with Lisa’s favourite cousin, who is exceptionally protective of her, came when he had to change our tire on the highway, because I didn’t know how.

A day or two with the rest of Lisa’s family went perfectly fine, and then we were off up to DC. And now the story gets interesting.

The plan was to stop for the night one to two hours south of DC, in Virginia. So with about eighty miles to go we started stopping for hotels. Lisa, who’s never prone to spend money, decided her upper limit for a room was $40. The very first Motel 6 we checked was $42, so at her insistence we continued north.

Over the next four hours, we got off at over a dozen exits. Everywhere–and I mean everywhere–was full. I have no idea why. UF’s spring break is a week before most non-Florida schools, so they weren’t full of college students. Given that it was the first week of March, Washington might have been hosting the ACC Tournament, I suppose, but I still have a hard time seeing that filling every hotel for ninety miles down I-95. We did find one hotel with rooms available for just $20, but seriously, if we’d stopped there, I doubt I’d be here to be writing this now.

Finally we stopped somewhere–I honestly don’t remember where, even though it’s probably within ten miles of where we now live–less than twenty miles south of DC and pulled into a hotel car park. An SUV pulled in just ahead of us and stopped, like we did, in front of the main entrance, pulling up to the kerb about twenty yards in front of us.

As had become our habit by this point, I got out of the car, ready to cross in front of it and head inside to see if the hotel had any rooms available. As I got out, I noticed that the SUV was reversing towards us, presumably to centre itself more directly in front of the entrance. Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand, I would have just hopped quickly in front of the car, since clearly the SUV was going to come to a halt before it reached us. But for some reason, this time I waited for it to stop.

I am so glad I did.

The SUV, as you’ve probably guessed, didn’t stop. In fact, it picked up speed. Lisa, she told me later, was sitting at the wheel of her parents’ car, frantically slamming the spot on the steering wheel where the horn was located in her own car. And then the SUV slammed hard into the front of Lisa’s parents’ car, with Lisa still inside.

She was fine. Her parent’s car had its front third crumpled in like a squashed cake, but it was still drivable. I won’t go into too much detail on the ensuing few hours, other than the mention that the hotel–which was indeed full–gave us the sofa-bed reserved for the night clerk to get some rest on, and that the address we got from the driver’s license of the SUV’s driver (before he conveniently remembered, after protesting for half an hour that it was silly to call the police when the accident had occurred in a private car park, that he had a nine year old asleep in the back seat and needed to get her home) turned out to be false.

The next morning, shaken but undeterred, we got up to drive into DC, though when we got into the car it turned out the damage to the bonnet had folded it up too high for Lisa to see over. I sat on it to flatten it out, only we did not discover until we were rapidly picking up speed along the on-ramp onto I-95 that in doing so I’d popped the bonnet free of its latch, and any time we exceeded 25 miles an hour it swung up to completely cover the windshield.

So we pulled over on the side of the on-ramp to try and figure out what to do. Within, literally, moments, a pair of Virginia highway patrolmen (VHiPs?) had pulled up behind us to see what was up. They produced a length of rope and we were able to tie the hook on the underside of the bonnet’s front to the latch it was supposed to catch just above the grille, though at any sort of speed the bonnet would still rise just enough for us to become convinced it was about to come flying up.

Lisa was, understandably, quite rattled, and driving into DC was not a fun experience for her. We got off I-395 at one of those exits that emerges out from under the National Mall; as we approached the intersection with Constitution Avenue, the light turned red. Lisa just continued blithely trundling into the intersection.**

“Red!” I said. (I said, “Red!”)

So Lisa came calmly to a stop. In the centre of the intersection.

We then started trying to navigate DC’s rather busy streets, many of which are one-way, on a Wednesday morning. At one intersection, I asked why we were just sitting there, and not turning onto the street.

“Because there’s too much traffic right now.”

I looked up and down the street. Both kerbs were packed bumper to bumper with parked vehicles, it’s true, but,

“There is no moving traffic on this street right now,” I pointed out.

Anyway. We found an egregiously expensive parking garage and made our way to the downtown DC Barnes and Noble–coincidentally, the same Barnes and Noble where I would one day work, just for a day, four years later, the time I worked the National Book Festival, the day I decided to start this blog–where the signing was being held.

And for an hour, all the stresses of that trip lifted. We’d had a pretty horrible past eighteen hours, and the reality of that settled back on my shoulders as soon as we left, but while we were in that bookshop it all went away. I realised as soon as we sat down that, if I wanted to ask a question during the Q&A, I needed to actually have a question, so I started frantically trying to frame one that contained at least a modicum of intelligence, and I think in the end I succeeded.***

After the discussion was over, we joined the line to have our books signed, my hardbacks of Stone and Farewell and To Green Angel Tower held eagerly against my chest. I hadn’t brought The Dragonbone Chair because it had literally split in two down the middle of its binding, the victim of my constantly proselytising MS&T throughout my teenage years, and indeed, still today. (Nikki, Diane and probably Sabrina can tell you all about that.) I regret not having taken The Dragonbone Chair with us to this day.

I do distinctly remember, as we stood in line, saying something about how when we got up there, we should be cool, and not turn into gushing fanchildren. We’d also already had the conversation about how these were books I was going to be keeping for the rest of my life, so I wanted to make sure it was okay that I was going to ask for the inscription to be made out just to Ian.

And we got up to the front and handed over the books and were asked who to make them out to. And asking for Ian alone just … felt wrong.

“Ian and Lisa,” I said.

Lisa jumped. Actually, visibly jumped. The manager who was accompanying Tad–the shop’s CRM, presumably–thought it was an exceptionally sweet moment. “Lisa wasn’t expecting that!” she giggled.

I can’t say that in that moment I knew I’d be marrying Lisa. But it was definitely a major epiphany-moment for me in our relationship.

So we got the books signed, and I picked them up and turned to leave.

“We’re from Florida!” Lisa said out of the blue, just a touch chippily.

I felt a block of lead at the pit of my stomach. What did I just say, I thought, about being cool?****

Tad clearly didn’t know quite what to make of this piece of information. “That’s … er … nice. What brings you here?”

“You.”

This quite took him aback, and a short conversation ensued along the lines of, “You came all the way up here to see me?” “Well, this is the farthest south you were coming.” And then as we were turning to leave again, he said, “No, wait.”

Signed manuscript page from WAR OF THE FLOWERSFrom the bag by his chair he pulled out the manuscript for War of the Flowers, which he was working on at the time, and started thumbing through it. Eventually he pulled out page 105–I assume because most of the page has been struck through–and wrote, To Ian and Lisa, who are utterly mad, signed and dated it.

And there we go. In that instant, it was all totally, totally worth what we’d been through–would have been worth even more than we’d been through. (Lisa disagrees with me on this.)

The CRM was nice enough to buy us lunch, and then we were on our way south again. We still didn’t like the freedom of movement the rope allowed the car bonnet, so we picked up some duct tape somewhere and tried taping it shut. That worked pretty well so long as we didn’t break fifty miles an hour. (Lisa, in an obviously irrelevant aside, is incapable of anything lower than sixty on a highway.)

We left DC probably around two in the afternoon, and at about six o’clock the following morning we pulled into the front drive at yet another new relative of Lisa’s, in Myrtle Beach. Later that morning, her cousin’s boyfriend Brian tied one end of a rope around the car’s front fender and the other around a tree and pulled the car back into shape.

And that’s the story. I ended up with a framed page from a Tad Williams manuscript, the realisation that “Ian and Lisa” sounded better than just “Ian”, and a pair of very angry future in-laws who quite firmly informed their daughter that she was never borrowing the car again.

I

ETA: Dated May 9th, huh? So I guess not during spring break after all, but just after spring term ended. I am an old man of 29, and my memory plays tricks.

Also ETA: In the comments on the Facebook iteration of this post, you can find Tad’s response.

*To me it’s a trilogy, because my copy of its final part is the first edition hardback, bound in a single volume. I’m sure it’s now generally considered a tetralogy, since the paperback of part three was published in two volumes.

**It is at this point in the story that Lisa always wishes me to include that traffic lights around the National Mall are positioned to the side of the road, rather than hanging over it.

***Actually, Tad himself inspired the question during his talk, when he said that stretching Otherland from a trilogy to a tetralogy had allowed him to avoid the problem of having too much story to fit into too little space that he had had to deal with in To Green Angel Tower. So I asked if that meant there was more to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn that he’d intended to include but that we, as readers, had missed out on. His answer contained a discussion of chapter thirteen of The Dragonbone Chair (Simon’s escape through the ancient catacombs beneath the Hayholt), though he did falter and give Lisa a curious look when his mention of the words Dragonbone Chair resulted in her clapping her hands over her ears–we were reading the book together at the time, and she wanted to avoid being spoilt.

****If you ask Lisa what she was thinking, she will tell you, “We’d come all the way from Florida. I’d wrecked my parents’ car. He needed to know.

Tree pattern baldness

The denuded treeOne day as I was walking along the pavement, carrying a full trashbag to our apartment complex’s dumpster, I heard a thin, distant cry: “Hi, dad!”

It was a spring day when the weather was pleasant enough that we had our windows open, and Boy, knowing I was taking the trash, had run to his bedroom window to wait for me to pass by. His bedroom window (soon, his and Girl’s bedroom window) is the only window in our flat that has any view of the street, and it’s a narrow, distant view, partially blocked by a tree.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve taken out the trash, I’ve always had to first open Boy’s window, so he can give me a shout when I pass by. It’s one of those fun little rituals with which toddlers fill their lives.

Boy at his windowOnly as spring turned into summer, we had a problem–that tree between his window and the street first blossomed, then after the blossoms fell, they left in their wake a thick growth of leaves, completely blocking his view. It got so that I would instead have to shout, “Hi Boy!” to let him know I had reached the point where he could shout back to me.

This afternoon I opened his window and took the trash out. Only as I was walking, I heard a shout: “Hi dad!” I turned and looked.

The leaves on the tree have gotten–thinner. More sparse. I have no idea why this is. It’s the middle of August, in the midst of the hottest run of weather we’ve had all year–though not so hot, and definitely not so dry, I’d expect it to start killing flora.

It just seems–odd to me.

I

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