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Neighbor State

On Friday night, Bob and I went to Neighbor State, to celebrate his birthday, which is a bigger deal than it sounds.  Consider:

1. We tried to visit Neighbor State in 2009, and failed.  The mounting costs of dismantling our house, coupled with the mounting costs of keeping our Jeep running, changed all vacations to staycations for the foreseeable future.

2. We tried to visit Neighbor State in 2010 for Bob’s 43rd birthday, but failed again, because we’d forgotten we were still broke.

3. Bob was in the hospital two weeks back, with chest pains.  (?!)  He turned out to be fine, but since he has a family history of heart disease, we were worried it would turn out to be something serious.  After that, we’ve both been very grateful just to be around each other.

All this should give you some idea why this simple trip across the lake on a car-ferry was more than just an outing, and why I was convinced for much of the drive that something would go horribly wrong.

Like when we passed through Delburgh, and the tarmac got a bit rougher. “Bob, do you hear that?  Do you think it’s the tires?”

“NO!”

My freaking was well-intentioned.  I just wanted to get us to the hotel for his birthday, like I promised.  I explained this to Bob.

“I know you do,” he said. “And I also know that you will do whatever you can to subconsciously ensure we don’t.”

“But I know that too!”

* * *

Miraculously, we got across the water, and drove the twenty minutes to the crackpot college town where we would be staying while we visited.

We walked through the center square to find jugglers in the streets, a guitar chick singing “Fidelity” outside a used bookstore, and gaggles of young hippies with cardboard signs, looking for spare change.  Crowded bars, horn-rimmed glasses and beards everywhere.  You get the picture.

The Neighbor State is like that.  A kind of green liberal utopia.  People like Bob and I can even marry there–it’s been legal for a while, no big woop.  Meanwhile, in my home state, such rights have remained a point of contention for years.  Even as Bob and I snuck past the Greenpeace advocates on Main Street that night, the matter was being voted on in our senate, and we were pretty sure it would be shot down.

Naturally people have often asked me, why not just relocate?  Isn’t Neighbor State just like Lonesome Valley, when you get down to it?  A bunch of green hills, barns and bleeding hearts?

Actually, there are ways that Neighbor State is better than Lonesome Valley.  Lots of them, and not just the matrimony.  For instance, it’s a fact that there’s more money to be made over there, and lots of it.  There’s more doctors, too.  (It’s a sure sign that you’ve got something serious if my office sends you to Neighbor State for treatment, no joke.)

There’s also wine in supermarkets, something my home state has yet to trust itself with.  And Neighbor State is prettier all around–not the environment per say, which is similar to ours, but the buildings, professional and otherwise.  People over there just know how to make things look appealing and welcoming, whereas the Lonesome Valley folks expect you to take in the natural beauty and ignore the rest.  Sure this restaurant is in some dude’s living room, but get a look at those mountains!

Trouble is, the people who live in Neighbor State drive Bob and I nuts.  We can’t even put our fingers on why. Maybe, as liberal as we are, these folks outliberal us.  There’s certainly something doe-eyed and idealistic about them, and it alienates us on a central level.  Or could it be the simple fact that their state doesn’t suck enough?  That they haven’t earned the right to be so cuddly?  It’s true that there’s something hard-won about learning to love The City, and there’s something similarly hard-won about learning the ropes of Lonesome Valley.  “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere…” as the song says.

Neighbor State doesn’t feel like that.  It’s not antagonistic.  It doesn’t bite you back.  How can you trust a place like that?

* * *

Bob and I puzzled over this on our drive home, trying out theories.  And when we were done talking about that, we started talking about the plans for our upcoming wedding.

Because on the eve before Bob’s birthday, shortly after we ducked into a Neighbor State Denny’s to hide from the hipsters, my phone started lighting up with texts.  The senate passed it: Our home state had made it legal for us to get married.

And we didn’t even have to defect!

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The Mardi Gras of Coleberry Lake

The carnival reached its climax with the Winter Carnival Parade, which marched down Main Street this weekend, with Bob running sound for one of the floats, and me hanging out by the print store to watch.  It was the best.

Toward the top of the parade, we had an appearance by the official mascot Fluffy the Snow Owl, a “suited character” specifically commissioned for the carnival season.  Fluffy’s costume is effectively cute, which is saying something for an owl, but the headpiece’s sightlines are murder, and the actor inside keeps looking down at her feet to keep from tripping.  This of course translates into a snow owl who’s perpetually hanging her head and slouching while she walks, a real Charlie Brown of the wilderness.  Even when some kid called for her attention, Fluffy would only look up for a moment to wave before inevitably hanging her head again, and dragging herself down the rest of the parade route.  “What a week I’m having…”  Of course, all this only made her more endearing.  You wanted to buy Fluffy a drink and lend an ear to her troubles.

Next came the floats.  This year’s theme was Medieval Times, so it was probably inevitable that there would be a number of floats themed to Python’s “Holy Grail”–though cleverly, each local business chose a different part of the film that was suited to their sphere.  The local hardware store, for instance, focused on construction, and marched with a trojan bunny.  Our church, with its obvious focus being religion, marched as the famous chanting monks, periodically whacking themselves with (foam) boards.  As for the local tuberculosis research facility, they of course focused on the plague, and had the “not dead yet” guy in a wheelbarrow.  Groups with no Python fandom still honored the theme, with the womens’ synchronized lawn chair marchers re-upholstering the seats of their “instruments” with royal crests, and the beard-crazy Brothers of the Bush (essentially a bear scene for straight people, yes even straight women) getting kilted and vikinged out.  The whole event became an anatomy lesson in the building blocks of this town, filtered through a Renfair prism.

Though some groups stuck to what they knew.  The Shriners, who have probably paraded as clowns for the past thirty years, paraded as clowns once again, inadvertent contestants in a John Wayne Gacy lookalike contest.  The various Re-enactors, too, fired rifles and marched in their appropriate period garb like always, since they couldn’t figure how to cross-breed two eras of American history with one era of British.  (Not Harry Turtledove fans, I’m guessing…)

My favorite marchers wound up being the Coleberry Lake Green Circle and The Whistlestop Bar, probably because they were both so nuts.

The Coleberry Lake Green Circle had this troupe of bucket drummers with them, all in these very cool, very creepy, carnival masks.  The men and women at the front of the group dressed as rangers and neo-pagan madrigal ladies, with lots of leaves and greenery on everything.  I don’t know what any of it had to do with composting and sustainable living, but as a promotional exercise, it sold me.

The Whistlestop Bar constituents dressed as sock monkeys, which I know, has nothing at all to do with the medieval theme, but you know what?  I love sock monkeys, and I love them even more when they are visibly manic.  These folks were prancing and hopping around like they could surge into Kricfalucian frenzy at any moment, crazier than the extras in “The Crazies”, I kid you not.  And while some of them were college-age kids, many of them were decidedly not, and the older ones were even nuttier.  This one guy who looked like he ran a roadside gas station kept bouncing around with his tongue hanging out, poised on the edge of transmutation into some horndog cartoon character.

* * *

The sock moneys came toward the tail-end of the parade, and this was appropriate, because they served to smooth the transition from “small town fun” to “shitfaced frenzy” that occurred immediately following the event.  The balconies on Main Street were all stocked with revelers.  The bucket drummers from the Green Circle made their way from storefront to storefront, jammed in the street with other musicians, and then actually headed inside to jam in the stores.  The air was not entirely dangerous, but not entirely safe either, like Woodstock with just a hint of Altamont.

I bought a couple of bottles of wine and headed back home to the apartment, to cook a Betty Crocker recipe for Chicken & Dumplings, as Bob and I were having a guest over for card games later that evening.  I felt the pull of the carnival, but figured I’d engage in the madness another night.

For now, it was just nice to know it was there.

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Restart

So we relocated to The Church.  On New Year’s Eve, appropriately enough.

Not everything we need has come over with us yet, but we were able to spring most of the important furniture from our soon-to-be-useless storage unit out in Delburgh: A few antique tables, some fireplace pokers, and of course, our trusty inflatable mattress.  The new stuff fell into place like puzzle pieces, as though the furniture had picked the apartment, all by itself.

Moving day was surprisingly simple.  A perfectly-timed thaw in the weather made our few trips back and forth a breeze, and eliminated most of the ice on church property that our predecessor (a not-so-careful caretaker) left in his wake.  We arrived here to find the driveways and paths like clean slates, with even the disturbingly spear-like icicles over the rec room dashed to bits in the driveway.

Now we’re here, and I feel like the most complicated riddle in the world just turned out to have the simplest answer.

For one, I barely have to drive anymore, which is amazing after all the ferrying back and forth in December.  My job is barely five minutes away, and as for Bob’s job, he’s already at it.

And while we’re speaking of work, let’s discuss the wintry chores we’re doing on the property, which are suspiciously like the ones we performed on our own property–only suddenly, these chores come with free heat, free running water, and a cute apartment as incentive.

Collectively, this new gig is the Barnabas Collins to our “Dark Shadows”.  We’re well into the show’s second season, but somehow we’re just getting started.

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Chaosium

The theory goes like this: By agreeing to spend your days in Lonesome Valley, where rough weather is the norm, you should at least be free of unpredictable rough weather.

But like that other theory about gay couples having enormous amounts of disposable income, this one has not proven true for us.  And so it was that a thaw-born windstorm inaugurated our December, downing power lines outside of town on the first of the month.  We read by Coleman lantern that evening, until the power came back on and woke us up early the next morning, then turned off again and made us worried it wouldn’t come back on, then came back for good at the permanent cost of our trust.

I should have taken that night as a sign that stability would not be the order of the day this December.  Even work is crazy for us: As I mentioned before, Bob’s a church organist, and thereby a cog in The Christmas Machine.  He can’t celebrate the season because he’s too busy making it happen, and if you think the holidays are crazy from your side of the footlights, you should see it from the wings.  As for me, I’m in the midst of a bid for Medical Care Certification at The Practice, and when I tell you that the application is roughly the length of my novel, you should know that I am not using hyperbole.  In a Bizzaro-Dickens moment, I actually had to ask my Boss to let me work on holiday weekends, just to be sure I’d have enough time to finish the thing.

And then there’s The Big Move.

* * *

Well, it’s not so big really.  We’re not moving to The City, after all.  But we are moving to a city.  In fact, we are moving to Coleberry Lake, the original “Silent Hill” lookalike that won Bob and I over so long ago.

Bob has gotten a gig as property-keeper for his church.  The gig involves copious amounts of snow shoveling, a fair amount of gardening, and a free apartment with free heat.  And did I mention that its (free) water does not need to be coerced out of a well every day with a garden hose?

I can’t explain what a good thing this is for us.  Less driving for me, less gasoline for us, no more storage space in Delburgh.  The amount of money we’ll save adds up–the equivalent to getting a $300-a-month raise.  (Which is a $600 raise in Lonesome Valley Dollars.)

Even better, we are going to be living behind an old church, on its property, in one of the creepiest little towns on earth.

I’m a lizardman invasion away from living a Lovecraft story, and I’m so jazzed.

* * *

This is, of course, going to create more confusion, as Bob’s caretaking gig begins on the very first of January.  And it’s not as if he’s no longer organist!  But there’s a certain elegance to cramming all the crazy into 2010, so that 2011 will feel like closing one box, and opening another.

The only thing we haven’t done is tell our neighbors.  We have to find the right moment.

It’s a delicate situation, since we’re sure that Bev and Helena, the chain-smoking sisters with whom we share our bi-weekly game night, will assume we’ll never visit again once we move.  And that’s just not true.

First off, Bev and Helena’s family has just about adopted us.  We’ve been to Helena’s kid’s houses for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ve been given rides by them when The Je was clunking out on us.  The amount of friendship and support these people have given Bob and I is not the kind of thing you forget.  I feel as though we’re related to them now–by deed if not by blood.

And even if all that weren’t true, I just spent six months teaching Bev and Helena how to play Mahjong.  Would I give up on the thrill of introducing them to Yakitori tiles, and teaching them the meaning of the term, “Flip Your Chicken”?

That’s not how I roll.

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Hyphen Nation

Lonesome Valley doesn’t have much in the way of actual production, so its economy is dependent on tourism, with a secondary focus on breakdown business—that is to say, businesses that fix whatever’s prone to breaking down, from your vehicle to your furnace. (I am in the breakdown racket too, “human body” division.)

So it goes without saying that there is very little money moving around up here, and it’s common for local business to get lost in the shuffle—with everyone looking for increasingly creative ways to make theirs more useful to the general population.

One of the most common techniques is hyphenation.

For instance, the diner on main street, and the karaoke bar on main street, and the bowling alley on main street…are all the same place.  Then there’s the animal feed store, where we get mash for our chickens, and of course, bring all our dry cleaning.  And over in Morris Lake, there’s that famous laundromat, which is also a donut shop, Native American craft store, and antler dealership.

It gets so that you don’t notice this kind of doubling-up–which would explain why, despite living for over a year next to the same highway eatery, I never realized until today that, just over the sign that reads “Ed’s Diner”, are the words “Snowmobile Rentals”.

The obvious strategy for me would be to find the remaining business “holes” and fill them, simultaneously.  So if anyone is interested in helping me get my smoothie shop/palm reader’s off the ground, let’s hook up toots sweet.

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Trust The Pants

I was recently able to buy my first new pair of pants in over a year, guilt-free.

Oh sure, it’s been technically possible for me to buy new pants sooner, but before Bob got his job at the church, there was always this nagging fear in the back of my head that we would end up running out of cash again.  And who would we blame then?  My pants, that’s who.

Another reason I waited this long was that, living in Lonesome Valley, I knew I could.  This is a town where people appreciate using something until it’s broken, then patching it with duct tape and using it some more–and that attitude applies as much to clothing as it does to cars.

This past weekend provided hard evidence of this phenomenon.  It was Sunday, and Bob and I were at the local train depot, where a festival was being held to commemorate the traditions of railway hobos.  There, we ran into some friends, who are recent refugees from suburbia, and they got to talking about how charming the festival was.  “And isn’t it nice that everybody went to the trouble to dress like hobos?” one asked, totally serious.

I turned red.

* * *

The new pants make me especially happy when I’m at work, because I was so tired of showing up in my Boss’ office with shredded cuffs at the end of my khakis.  Though truth be told, she didn’t mind.  My Boss knows the drill.

In fact, there was only one day she objected to my clothes, or mentioned them at all.  I remember it well.  I was tired of putting my raggedy pants on, and decided I would come to work in my jeans, which I wear so infrequently that they are like-new.  I thought this would be more respectful than showing up at the Practice-wide meeting in my zombie Dockers.

So I walked into the office, and delivered my good morning.  My Boss instantly looked down and smiled politely.

“You realize of course that jeans are against our dress code…”

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Al Di La

One of the ways we saved money this year, or at least didn’t spend as much of it, was by shopping at a grocery chain called Aldi.

Bob and I love this store, and not just because it’s vaguely Ikean. The truth is, shopping at Aldi is a patently surreal experience, even borderline satirical, what with everything you get there being some carefully-crafted knockoff of a real-world brand.  They have their own version of Colgate, their own version of DiGiorno’s, their own version of Little Debbie. Shop here long enough and you get the feeling you’ve slipped through a wormhole–to a universe just like this one, save for its premium paper towel brand being called Boulder, and its Mug Root Beer replaced by something called Sudz.

But even better than these by-the-letter knockoffs are the Aldi brands that aren’t knockoffs at all. This is where the folks in the Aldi idea room go off-script, and come up with something patently apeshit. Like that line of cereals whose cartoon mascots are all aquatic invertebrates.  (Imagine cuddly versions of the aliens from Lovercaft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and you’ve got the idea.)

Or Clancy’s, that line of standard-issue snack foods (tortilla chips, corn chips, snack mix, etc.) that impart, in a legend on the back of the bag, how Old Mister Clancy actually invented the snack you are eating.  For a while, I’d been regaling a friend back home with verbatim transcriptions of Old Mister Clancy’s snack-world innovations. Then Aldi re-packaged the bags to omit the backstories, and I wrote the corporation, pretty much begging them to tell me how Old Mister Clancy invented pork rinds. They mailed me an empty bag of the things.  On the back, all was revealed…

Last summer, Bob and I looked sideways at Aldi.  That was when we shopped at the big grocery store across the highway from it, and charged most everything.  I can’t say for sure if those were happier times, but they were most assuredly dumber ones.

Now, we shop at Aldi for pretty much everything, paying cash.  And if we must head to the big grocery store, it’s usually for specific items.

Whenever we go there, the first thing that strikes us is all those brands.  Sometimes two or three, all for the same kind of product!

Hedonism.

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