Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Language Barriers

Image from The Cooper Review
 Not long ago, as I sat in an unremarkable conference room surrounded by other professionals, I realized that the meeting facilitator had been talking for nearly the entire hour without saying anything.

I recently changed day jobs, leaving higher education for a project management role as a government contractor. A different world. As such, they speak a different language. My first three weeks, I understood next to nothing said in meetings between the specialized content and endless acronyms. As part of my onboarding, I was provided two separate lists of the pesky things with associated definitions. Of course, I first suspected that my lack of substantive comprehension was due to being new. New jobs are emotionally exhausting.  Trying to remember names and roles, the policies and procedures for my new company, the policies and security protocols for the client agency, while not looking like a complete idiot makes for an uncomfortable time. Add a new commute route, different expectations for dress, and daily security screenings complete with x-ray machine and placing one's laptop in the plastic bin just like the TSA line and I'm eating my feelings with my buddies Ben and Jerry.

So, was it me? Did I zone out and miss important points hidden among the buzzwords? Nope. After two more of these time-wasters, I recognized the strategy of sacrificing content for the sake of appearing smart.

These phenomena are not exclusive to government agencies. I spent a year or so writing and editing academic proposals and requests for capital funding at a university. PhDs are not necessarily fantastic writers. A completed dissertation doesn't mean that coherent sentences flow like the chocolate fountain at the Sizzler. My boss routinely had me wrestle nonsensical passages into clear descriptions, justifications, or calls to action in order to get the desired result. At the end of the day, that's what matters, right? Getting the approval, securing the funding, scoring the job, whatever the goal is. Once, when my boss was out the office, the president of the university tracked me down, a bundle of pages from a funding proposal clutched in his hand. "What's missing here," he said, "is that the current version SUCKS."

At some point, we just have to cut the bullshit.

The desire to sound smart, to clutter up our writing or our meetings with useless phrases or obscure terms is natural, but immature.  Smart people don't have to appear intelligent - they are intelligent.  Saying "low hanging fruit" or "let's move the needle" regularly does not make someone more professional than really talking to others like human beings.

When I teach creative writing students, either fiction or nonfiction, it takes a few weeks to get them comfortable enough to edit out all the extraneous crap cluttering up their stories and essays. Again, it's the result that matters. What does your reader feel? Are you connecting? Are you getting the punch you want? If not, step one is to break out the red pen and start trimming out the fluff, the cliche, the fat.

It's hard to get out of our own way, though. Our voices tend to creep into our work and if we are accustomed to patterns of speech that don't fit the needs of the moment, it can feel unnatural to adapt. Years ago, during my Disney attraction days, I was training to be a bandit in The Great Movie Ride. Imagine "Kate Durango" busting through the bank doors, six shooter in one hand, dynamite in the other, shrieking YEEEEHAW! before exchanging banter and gunfire and blowing up the bank. If you've ever done any theater, you know that's a complicated process - learning blocking (where to stand, where and when to move) while delivering lines in a way that immerses the audience in the story. Not getting blown up is a priority, too.

No one would confuse me for an actor, but I made a go of it during my training, running through my lines, "Well, lookee here," not dropping the gun or tripping on the fake rocks or losing my cowboy hat. I looked over to see my trainer Rob doubled over in spasms of laughter, almost incapacitated. I had unconsciously been correcting my character's grammar and destroying the performance.

We have to tailor our communication for the audience - for the desired result. Hopefully, that isn't to show off your vocabulary for a conference room of tired, busy professionals. Give your colleagues the gift of thoughtful, clear communication. Don't waste their time. Trust that clarity is a positive thing.

Unless you are a grifter, or a spy, or a press secretary. Or an actual bandit bank robber. The rest of us don't need to hear "low hanging fruit" again. Ever. Just stop.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Going Home

I left Winter Garden thirteen years ago, my stuff packed in one of those white storage cubes that gets hauled away on a truck. My house sold almost immediately, providing me little time to give notice at Disney and arrange a temporary place to live in Maryland while I secured a job and bought a new house. Thirteen years ago.

I've been back to Florida many times - for work, for residencies at UT and then my MFA graduation, for vacation, when my stepdad got sick and my parents had to move back to the states, and again when he passed. But I hadn't been back to Winter Garden.

I'd left WG one time before. My mom moved my sister and I away to Gainesville the summer between my junior and senior year. At the time, I was devastated as only a teenage girl can be, but new environments create new opportunities. I went to art school in New York, worked some interesting jobs while attending UF, and even did a semester out in Arizona. But then I came back and rather than settle in Gainesville, I got an apartment with two high school friends in Winter Garden. I started at Disney, which for those who grew up in the area, feels like joining the family business. And then Disney becomes your family. As young cast members, we worked wacky hours, holidays, and often second jobs to make the rent. We bonded over Friendsgiving, third shift projects, kick-ass parties, and navigating the rocky path to adulthood. I went back to school part time and then grad school. Fifteen years passed, wearing me down like water smoothing down rock. Highs and lows. I finished my BA and then my Master's and as it seemed that my career was in a valley, I made a fresh start in the state where I was born. It snows here. We enjoy "fall" complete with apple cider donuts, spectacular leaves, and sweaters. I learned to shovel snow and to drive in sleet. I hate both.

Now my mom lives in Florida again, in a nice community with stuff for her to do, easy access to what she needs, and a golf cart to putter around the neighborhood. Coincidentally, my boyfriend's dad lives just down US1 about 15 minutes, so we came down for the holidays. I knew that I wanted to visit friends in Winter Garden while we were down, so I looked for a place to stay. Renovations at the old Edgewater Hotel had started before I moved up to Maryland, but in the years that passed, the entirety of Plant Street has undergone a transformation. Layer Christmas on top of that, and it's magic.

High school friend and expert on all things WG, Amy Q told me to book at the Edgewater early to avoid disappointment, so I reserved a nice corner king room with a view of the tree, smack in the middle of downtown.

The view from my room:

It rained a bit the first night, because - Florida, but the lights along the West Orange Trail which runs right through the center of town - literally - combined with background music (BGM to us Disney folks) and the holiday crowd made for a merry atmosphere indeed.

 When I was a kid, Winter Garden was - forgive me - shabbier. This is orange grove country, emphasis on country. I was a poor kid, going to school with other poor kids and a few less-poor from nearby Windermere. Later, during my Disney days, WG was the little town with grit, steadily rebuilding itself. The old train tracks were removed for the West Orange Trail, a paved fitness path winding through downtown and another twenty-some miles. The weekends bring cyclists, joggers, and people who stroll along with dogs, and even the occasional cat-on-a-leash as I saw this trip.

The trail became a reason to visit downtown when I lived here last. I bought a bike. And roller blades, which turned out not to be one of my better ideas. I walked for the exercise and then rewarded my efforts with pizza at Winter Garden Pizza Company or an ice cream from Downtown Brown's. The latter spot is gone now, but the Edgewater has a scoop shop right in the lobby. I swear, it's like they knew I was coming.

Other cafes and shops crept in, and even the weekend farmer's market started before I departed for the wintry north. But still, I was unprepared for the renaissance that happened while I was away. My school pal Sherri and I explored after a hearty barbecue lunch at one of the stalls inside Crooked Can - the new brewery and gathering spot on the west end of Plant Street.

Christmas photo op spots sprinkle the downtown area, immediately reminding me of my theme park days. We checked out all the shops along Plant Street, finding some really cool stuff, particularly in an eclectic store called Apostrophe. (They had a t-shirt with "Moody" emblazoned across the chest and cool architectural salvage type things that would not fit into my suitcase.)

Here's a view of The Edgewater:

They gave us a pass to show that we were guests and could leave my car in the lot next door and I noticed something cool about it:

The drawing of the building was done by my high school art teacher Rod Reeves! Apparently, he has drawings of many WG landmarks around town, particularly in the Heritage Museum. I had a weird impulse to track him down and tell him I got into Pratt and SCAD and Ringling and MICA and he was partially responsible. I didn't though.

In the sketch, you can see the side of the building on the left side. That last door at the back was once the dance studio where I started ballet many, many years ago before the business moved to a larger space. I feel connected to this building, even now. When I lived here before, there was a barbecue restaurant (Choctaw Willie's I think) in the first floor space on the right. It now is home to a Thai restaurant where my BF got some take out yellow curry which he slurped happily in our room. The other corner on the left was once a family style restaurant with fried chicken and incredible meatloaf that came with an array of sides for sharing. Now, there are two fine dining options there - The Chef's Table where one can get prix fixe dinners of three or five courses, or the Tasting Room which has shareable plates and a wide selection. They also have vihno verde which is my current favorite wine. We dined here the first night in town. It was delicious, but I had trouble doing it justice after the late afternoon pulled pork sandwich. I managed a scoop of salted caramel cookies and cream from Scoops though.

Our room, while quite charming, posed a few minor challenges (we couldn't figure out how to open the roman shades and it was a little weird to come out of the bathroom and brush teeth or wash hands in the open room) but the bed and pillows were divine. Not only because they were soft and comfortable, but the sheets and pillowcases smelled clean and fresh which automatically relaxes me. Fresh from the dryer. Heaven.

Breakfast was impressive. Not because it was super fancy, but because of how comprehensive the common room is.

There was fresh brewed coffee and nice ceramic mugs with all the coffee fixings. Breads and bagels were available with a toaster and a variety of cereals. Guests can choose from a menu with staples such as eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, pancakes, and French toast which was my choice both mornings. Delicious and unpretentious. This is orange country, so get the OJ. It comes in a chilled goblet and is AMAZING. They also leave out dishes of candy, bags of chips, and other snacks for the guests, refrigerators for guest use, and bottles of water - a necessary thing as even in winter, the humidity is no joke. Hydrate!

The guests can sit together or not, chat or keep to themselves and Max who runs the place is on hand for any questions or needs. The staff are super-polite, whether you need a ride up or down the ancient staff-operated elevator or would care for a second goblet of juice. I kept hearing a noise during breakfast which I assumed was a guest's cell ring tone as a bird call, but no - they have a pair of birds that call the hotel home.

The hallways are filled with paintings, some quite good, and thick carpet runners. We stayed on the second floor, though I understand that the third floor has even better views. The lobby has an enormous fireplace which was not on as it was a balmy 75 degrees during my visit and an intriguing old safe behind the desk.

If that's a bit too open, there's a hidden patio in the back:

It looked like an excellent place to read a book, but alas - no time for that. On the way out, I noticed that the hotel was built the same year as my house in Baltimore. I feel for you Max, with all those renovations! I've been there. I'm told that tours can be arranged. Go check the place out. Nearly everyone I met during my visit asked about how it looked inside, including people who have lived in WG all their lives.

Here is the Winter Garden Pizza Company, a familiar spot, though it appears to have expanded into the adjacent building. The "Roper" building in this case, a name all over town. The Roper family was all about the citrus industry when I was a kid and I went to school with the Roper twins, Cam and Matt, though I've not kept up. I think many of the groves have made way for housing developments these days. WG seems to have undergone a bit of a building boom in my absence.

The trail bisecting the two traffic lanes right through the center of town.

The fountain - temporary home to the tree - has mosaics of some of the original crate labels and sculptural oranges around the base.

And swings under an arbor. It's lovely.

I met up with a longtime friend from Disney in the local coffee shop, Axum, which he uses as a writing space. I hadn't been there five minutes before running into an old supervisor from my Epcot days. Judy recognized me after all this time - around 25 years or so. It definitely made me feel at home. Darryl, my writer friend and former fellow Imagineer, was typing away on his laptop at a table in the back. I sipped my iced coffee and distracted him for at least an hour jawing away about everything and everyone. Turns out, he had a story published in the previous issue of Storyteller Magazine, a local quarterly print publication and our mutual friend Gabriel has a story in the current issue! Hooray for published stories! (You can get copies via the link or at Axum)

I left Darryl to his work and visited the Farmer's Market (open year round, a feat unheard of in Maryland) and then to another lunch back at Crooked Can, this time, Coal Fired Pizza. It turns out that one of the founders of this little culinary paradise was another Disney colleague from the way, way back, Jared C. Well done, sir! Well done indeed. I was back that evening for a gathering of fellow high school friends, arranged by the aforementioned WG resident expert - Amy Q. Most of these people have been just pictures in the yearbooks for thirty-some years. Some haven't changed at all really and some were unrecognizable, though not in a bad way. The beautiful thing about time is that we get to meet each other again as grown ups - grown ups with memories that can't recall any adolescent insecurities anymore, free to enjoy each other as practically new acquaintances.

I definitely felt at home. The tendrils of connection and memory, friendships formed, careers, and all the paths of life build a web in a place like this. It's a collected history - a shared experience of love, loss, growth, (in some cases, the lack of growth), and a new and evolving appreciation for each other as we are and not as we perceived ourselves to be as kids. I enjoyed it more than I could have imagined and I'm grateful.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Culinary Baggage

I was out to breakfast (again - I LOVE breakfast) with Dave last weekend, and as we each ordered, the following scene plays out:

Me: I'll take the Farmhouse Hash please and coffee.

Server: How would you like your eggs?

Me: Scrambled, please - but you you ask the cook to make them really well done?

Server: Got it. Scrambled, hard.

Me: Ask them to cook it until they feel bad about themselves as a person and then just a little longer. Thanks.

Dave: *dies of embarrassment before ordering eggs "over easy like a normal person"

This has played out with a few variations, but is essentially the same. "Until it's nearly a tragedy" or "until nothing remotely gelatinous remains" or "there must be nothing oozing or I can't eat it." And I can't. I used to be able to eat over medium eggs, though I was never into sunny side up or over easy. And then Paris happened.

When I was going to turn forty, a friend was assigned to a 6 month project in Paris. His company set him up in a small flat just off the Champs-Elysee. He sent out a call for visitors to come over the pond and see the sights, offering up the couch. I jumped at the chance and booked my week to overlap my birthday. Paris would be a wonderful place to turn 40, I thought. It was - it really really was. Mostly.

Like anyone would when planning a trip to Paris, I made a list of sights and a list of foods. I was relentless in the quest for both. In no particular order:

eiffel tower
Musee D'Orsay
Notre Dame
entrecote au poivre
pain au chocolat

You get the idea. My friend made reservations for us at a restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower for lunch on my birthday, followed by a short architecture cruise of the Seine. We sipped kir royale and I ordered prawns and gazed out upon the City of Lights. It should be noted that prawns in France come with the heads on. They stare at their diner with their long dangly legs hanging off the plate. It's off-putting. I must have had a bad one, because I was almost immediately sick which made the river cruise less enjoyable and the following Metro ride unbearable. I skipped Montmartre and went back to the flat where I spent the next 24 hours ridding myself of all traces of the vengeful prawns.

When I emerged the following evening, it was the night we'd penciled in souffle. We went to a very fancy restaurant, but I could not get through my cheese souffle. The texture was more than I could take. Since then - only well-cooked eggs.

For the record - I did eat all the things. ALL THE THINGS AND MORE. And Paris is wonderful. Skip the crustaceans.

I have similar backstories for my distaste for peaches, pimentos, and others, but I'm not terribly restricted with my food options. I dislike oysters, peas, capers, and olives. I don't like salad bars or buffets. Sometimes I put all my foods on one bowl (eggs, grits, cheese, bacon - or turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy) and I don't mind that they touch and mingle. I like fruit, except for the aforementioned peaches. I like cheese and yogurt, but not cottage cheese. Ice cream is my favorite food group, right before pizza, cheeseburgers, and warm cinnamon rolls.

I have a friend I've known forever who inexplicably discovered many, many food allergies in her twenties. Like to everything. Lettuce, all dairy, all squash, peppers, almonds, etc. We've traveled together frequently over the years and the dietary restrictions are tough. She has reintroduced a few things, but most are still an issue. No butter, cheese, or ice cream - three of my favorites. She gets her pizza without cheese, just sauce and meats and the occasional wildcard like pineapple. Her choices are driven mostly by necessary dietary restrictions.

My other friend, though, has even fewer options, thought they are of her own choosing. She won't eat cheese. Cheese is one of the most delicious things about living on this planet, so I find this one hard to imagine. She's not vegan, she just finds the idea gross. She only likes chicken that has no residual moisture left. Dry as the Sahara. I can see how this may have started from a desire to make sure it's completely done, but it even applies to dishes which would normally have sauces on cooked chicken. It's a no from her. She eats a lot of salad. So many, that she buys them two at a time so her next meal is covered as well.

We all have our food baggage I guess. When Dave and I watch Food Network and the Chopped chef tops the random dish with a partially fried egg, he waggles his eyebrows at me, like "See? That's how it's done," while he scoops the remainder of whatever our dinner was out of his dish with his bare fingers. I don't feel so bad about my lengthy breakfast instructions.

On a side note, Food Network is a wonderful source to discover new food items to try. Broadening one's culinary horizons is just as healthy as traveling and cheaper, so go forth and conquer! Though I doubt that I will ever love beets, I have discovered many new things that I do love. Bon apetit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

And So it Begins...

I have begun the novel.

With actual words. Nay, pages.

Okay, not a lot of pages so far. I am currently stuck on character names. Not the main ones - all the ancillary characters necessary to weave this thing together. I am baking without all the ingredients. Just kidding - I'm baking for real because it's nearly Thanksgiving and that's one of so very many distractions from the grind of creating pages. It was the pies on Monday and today it will be tarte tatin.  In my mind, this long holiday weekend will be crammed with opportunity to build the early chapters and continue my incomplete roadmap for the later chapters.

In truth, I will Netflix and snack. I will nap. I will lose a half day researching deer stands or North Carolina history or vacation rental properties. I'll feel guilty about it. And yet, I will also be excited, my brain sending me little nudges. Add a dog. Let's learn more about the fisherman. This is a great way to introduce a little background since she spent time here as a child. I should emphasize the contrasts here. That internal well of the subconscious is flowing ideas, hoping to nourish the fallow rows of my too-sparse outline.

So, the laundry will pile up along with clutter from half-completed sort-for-donation efforts in nearly every room. I'm not one of those writers who has all their shit together, the clean house, the stocked fridge, and the completed pages. I'll get one of those, not all three. I'm choosing pages.

As much as it sounds like I'm a complete mess and my project is doomed for failure, I actually feel pretty good about it. I've learned a lot since the last one. The short stories and the essays and the readings have all built skills and provided ideas about my options as I choose how to tell this story. Reading has become inspiring and exciting again and not a reason to feel insecure about my own work. Teaching reminds me to do the work and embrace revision. Providing encouragement to my students helps me to remember to give myself a break when I worry that this house of cards will all fall down and I'll have no plan.

So, if we are friends and you see that I'm in my writing cave, cheer me on silently, knowing that I'm chipping away at a huge block of stone as I try and shape it into something thrilling and funny and real. Forgive my mess. Understand that I will forgo real clothes for my jammies or sweats or whatever because I had to get the words down before that shower. Are you working on something too? Plan to meet me at the coffee shop or the library so we can work on our stuff.

Please don't ask me to explain the story to you. It really does deflate the sails. I have to hold it in for now, keeping my options to change course as open as the journey permits.

For all you fellow writers out there, may the coffee be plentiful and your own internal well overflow with possibility.

I'll be in my writing cave.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Building a Mystery

On the way home from our Saturday morning diner breakfast, Sarah McLachlan's Building a Mystery came on the radio in my boyfriend's car. I hadn't heard it for awhile, though I'm a fan.  Dave likes to share a story about a Portlandia skit featuring Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann in cameos, which he did again. I looked it up because when I was in high school, I wanted to be Aimee Mann, with her super-cool hair and rebellious outbursts in defiance of a controlling Greed is Good kind of boyfriend in Voices Carry. Hush hush, indeed.  I rocked the long braid for a bit, but otherwise, I was nowhere in the neighborhood as cool as Aimee.


That's me in the middle with the requisite perm and highlighted bangs. The braid is there, but not visible. Here's one a couple of months before:

This was my first trip to NYC with my friend Cindy. We came up to check out Pratt Institute where we would later take classes, but managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, including a visit to the World Trade Center (pictured) and some shopping on Canal Street (see bag). Cindy was way cooler than I, even then.

Anyway, back to the song. It struck me as coincidental for a couple of reasons. First, there's a line - You woke up screaming aloud - which, unfortunately, I did yesterday. I'm not normally prone to night terrors (I don't think) but once, after Dave made me watch a scary movie about a group of kids who break into a blind man's house, I uttered a cry when Dave came upstairs much later and woke me. He described it as "blood curdling" and "the utterance your body makes as its last sound before an imminent and terrifying death." I remember seeing him stunned and frozen at the bedroom door, too frightened by this sound to get too close and that I had been nonplussed and rolled over to go back to sleep. I had just mentioned the recent scream over my French toast and coffee and we had talked about it awhile, hypothesizing the potential causes. It's true that I prefer to watch my scary movies during the day, but I hadn't watched a scary movie on Thursday. I'd watched the trailer for The Haunting of Hill House remake on Netflix, though. Is the trailer enough to invoke involuntary shrieks from a sleep? Not sure. It may not have had anything to do with what I'd been watching. Like many post-burglary residents in a famous-for-crime city, I'm twitchy about break-ins. I'd like to think that I'd go all vigilante like the blind man in the scary movie, wielding my pink aluminum bat and unleashing some whoop-ass, but I'm secretly afraid that I would freeze, hide, cry, or otherwise fold in the moment in the most un-movie-like way.

But the second reason the song was timely is that I actually am building a mystery novel. It doesn't look like much yet:

Eventually those post its will be on the roll of paper in an order that makes sense.  They are color coded so I can keep track of my main and secondary characters, pivotal plot points, and the separate threads. As I build this out, I know that I will revisit my previous novel and make a few adjustments so that it flows a little easier into this one. I have to say that I have been inspired by my binge-listening of Preston and Child's Pendergast series. They seem to have little difficulty managing multiple points of view and outrageous premises that all seem to weave together into compelling and fun stories. Challenge accepted!

I've been focused on shorter fiction in the last few years, trying to get some stories published, but it's time to revisit my novels and get in the rhythm again. That means weird research, lots of random questions, impulsive scribbling when I'm out and about, and so on. And I'll be crippled by my inability to name my characters, so feel free to volunteer monikers for my suspects, victims, witnesses, and so forth.

That random collection of colored notes above will become the second Gina Morrison mystery, River of Death. Gina will leave Baltimore for a writing retreat at a not-so-peaceful lake house in North Carolina hoping to get some work done in the off season. Cue the deadly distractions!

And because I mentioned Aimee Man, here's one of my favorites of hers: Save Me

Friday, September 14, 2018

Ten Dysfunctions

The Vermont Train Writing Residency was most helpful in forcing me to finish my story collection. Interested in checking out my snarky tales of workplace terror? You can get it here on Kindle or Paperback:

I've learned that three things happen immediately following the publishing of one's first book. First - you see typos. Lots of them. And weird spacing, and all manner of things that need to be fixed. I marked them on my proof copy and flagged the pages so I could make the updates to the electronic file:

Second, people will let you know that there are mistakes. It's human nature, I suppose. I have to admit that I'd been hoping to glow in the "just published my book" sphere a bit longer, but the notes are well-meaning and it has been generally well-received. Still, I applied myself to the necessary edits and bumped up the font size. This is why editors are so valuable!

Lastly, it becomes obvious right away that SO MANY THINGS were left out. I could dedicate a murder mystery to any number of conference bridge meetings with their passive-aggressive, time wasting, self-aggrandizing smugness. And I learned that there is such a thing as a "motivational magician!" For realz. Team building, the rumor-mill, tech issues, the commute, panel interviews and on and on. I made a joke about including this stuff in the sequel, but I actually could. Alas, I have to focus on the novels for now, but keep the ideas and hilarious stories coming.

I'm reading a spooky story next month for Highlandtown's First Friday Artwalk. Look for Yellow Arrow Press on Bank Street at Conkling.

I'll have a few copies of the book there for sale and I'm also happy to sign any you bring along. Thanks for all the support!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Vermont and the Three-Day Writing Experiment

So, we did it - we made up our own "Residency on the Rails" and rode for twelve hours to Vermont and back. Here's what I learned:

First - train stations are cool. Unlike the bustle of airports and the uncomfortable uncertainty of bus pickup locations, train stations seem to have some nostalgic class from eras past, even in downtown Baltimore. Penn Station is beautiful, if a little shabby. The long wooden benches are comfortable and there was a (much needed) Dunkin Donuts for iced coffee and glazed donuts. Normally, when I want to really concentrate on writing, I'm dressed comfortably (like a complete slob or in my pajamas) but I at least put on a tee shirt and real pants. Here I am waiting for the train.

Amtrak is cool because you can bring on two carry-ons and two personal bags for free - essentially, four bags. And all of them stay with you, either above your seat on the shelf or under the chair. So, I was able to bring my little suitcase, my laptop bag, my purse, and an insulated cooler which had my packed lunch, some bottles of tea, and some celebratory cans (don't judge me!) of sparkling rose for the end of the day. I did not want to rely on the cafe car and its mystery snacks and prepackaged sandwiches. Writers need constant fuel! And caffeine!

Coach is comfortable on a train, unlike pretty much every other form of public transportation, and you can get up and walk around.  There were bathrooms on each car. As a means of getting around, I recommend it. No security lines, no removal of shoes or laptops, and no fuss at drop off and pick up.

So, my writer friend Stephanie (this was her idea) and I roll out of Charm City and head north, laptops and notebooks out. The pressure! I stall by setting up files for my remaining stories and taking a selfie:

It's rainy out, so that should be a deterrent from spending the WHOLE time looking out the window, but...

I wrote, I napped, I ate the lunch I packed:

Frankly, the trip up is a bit of a blur. When we arrive in Essex Junction, I have two stories partially completed - hardly the bounty of pages I'd hoped for. Stephanie and I are hungry, without a car, and in a residential area where nothing is really open or walkable - so we order pizza. The hotel is a nice surprise - spacious and clean, with a full kitchen and super nice staff. I check messages, drink one glass of my rose and I'm unconscious.

The next day is our "rest" day and we plan to go visit Ben and Jerry's, which turns out to be much harder than anticipated. It's about 20 miles away and getting a ride proved challenging. Turns out a member of the hotel staff drives a Lyft part time and the manager asks her if she can take us - she does. B&J is a zoo and the factory tours are sold out until the afternoon - not feasible for us to wait - so we tour the flavor graveyard,

where the tombstones of discontinued flavors rest, raid the gift shop for silly items, and get ice cream pints to go. Lunch - check.

In the evening, after a nice post-ice cream nap, we met up with another writer friend to explore Burlington. Chelsea is super-talented and has a novella coming out in September - stay tuned for more info on that. We had a lovely dinner, gazed at Lake Champlain, and back to sleep before the following day's ride.

I was a bit less organized on the way home - we did not have lunch packed up, aside from snacks we picked up at a gas station, and we very nearly missed the train but we were saved again by the wonderful staff at the hotel. (I sent Marriott a glowing report and shared their names. I'm told that they will be recognized, as they should be.)

It was crowded coming back, though the views were better, both due to the daylight in the mountains and the lack of torrential downpours. Check out the views below:

That's New York. I finished up my two stories-in-progress, and mapped out the final two. I'll finish them this week.

Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY. I think I would stay longer at my destination space and either get a car or better transportation. For longer trips, it might be worth reserving the "roomette" which is what they used to provide for the Residency on the Rails I believe. This is definitely an experience that is just as much about the journey as the destination. You can't be in a hurry. We spent 12 hours each way, but my story collection is nearly done, and it was a great break from my regular life.

No one was eaten by a bear.

So, a success I think! Do you have other ideas for self-designed writing retreats? Let me know - I have to polish the novel a bit and get started on the next one.