November 23, 2017

Revelations, Part 3: Gratitude, Thy Name is Shannon

Adoption is an amazing and beautiful thing, but it can also be a double-edged sword honed in contradiction.  An adoptee is ultimately the product of two entirely different realities, one of which is more often than not an unknown quantity. As a result, most of us spend our lives wondering where we came from, wondering "what if."  It doesn't mean we don't love or appreciate our adoptive family; quite the reverse is usually true.  But it does mean we will always wonder where and how we fit into the world, and it does mean that we will always be aware that a part of our identity is missing like lost pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.  Even growing up in happy homes, some of us may feel like we were rejected or abandoned by our birth parents, while some of us may feel a bit like aliens in a strange land.

I was fortunate in that my adoptive family made a point of telling my brother and I about our adoptions long before we had the first clue about what it meant to even be adopted.  As a result, we grew up considering it little more than another fact of our existence, like having blue eyes or dimples.  At least I did...I can't really speak for my brother.

I grew up knowing I was loved and "chosen," and my childhood was mostly happy (puberty notwithstanding).  But I still often felt like my parents didn't entirely understand me, not the least because my interests and abilities so diverged from their own.  It's not that they didn't try to be supportive, it's just that they had simply no frame of reference for understanding or dealing with someone like me. I was an anomaly, and I knew it. A loved anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless.

We all search for identity in one way or another, and adoptees more than most. I can remember being asked by the woman who helped me find my birth mother what I thought it would be like to "see photos of people who look like you."  Flummoxed, I had no answer for her.  Even after finally deciding to search for my birth parents, the possibility of finding people who might look like me had never once crossed my mind.  I was far too used to looking either like no one or like everyone; I forever seem to remind people I meet of some random other person that they know.  Visible Anonymity.  Even when I found Norma 5 years ago and my half-sister named Robin just a couple months ago, I discovered that I didn't really look like them either.  I was still a mystery, as was much of my heritage--"my heritage" being the operative phrase.

By the time my genealogy course started in September, I had already tested with all the major DNA/genealogy testing sites in my effort to find connections and to solve the mystery of my parentage.  Over the summer, on a whim, I tested with a less well-known company called MyHeritage, figuring since I'd already gone this far, I might as well make a clean sweep of all the testing companies, even this one.  Honestly, I didn't expect much to come of it.

Approximately 5 weeks after I first learned the identity of my birth father, Donald Tolin, I was checking my email in front of the television.  One of the first messages was from MyHeritage; as I had never received a notification that my test had finished processing, I was more than a little surprised to see a subject line boldly proclaiming that I "had a DNA match."  I opened that message on October 8th, which will forevermore be the day my story changed.

That match was for someone named "Shannon Moore Tolin Parrish" who, like Robin, was listed as a possible half-sibling. Seeing the name "Tolin" was enough to send my heart racing; seeing "half-sibling" was something else again.  This time it was my discovery, not someone else's.  I immediately contacted the person administrating this Shannon's test, whose name was Rose.  We emailed back and forth for a couple of weeks while Rose worked on uploading Shannon's raw data to GEDmatch and while we tried to find a mutually convenient time to call. Rose and I settled on the October 21st; I spent most of that afternoon trying to will my phone to ring like Darth Vader Force-choking one of his minions.

Finally Rose called. She gave me Shannon's kit number for GEDmatch, and with Rose right there on the phone, I ran the X-comparison  same as I'd done with Robin.  Shannon and I matched even more cM than I had with Robin.

I had another sister.

Shannon <3

I have to say, Rose is a woman after my own heart.  A fellow genealogy geek, she and I chatted for a good hour or two, laughing and comparing notes.  I liked her right away; Rose is good people.  From Rose I learned that not only did Donald Tolin have the three legitimate children I'd already uncovered, he also had two older sons I'd known nothing about.  From me Rose learned about Robin and that we all probably have yet another half-brother who was born some 8 months before me (though I haven't been able to contact him yet to confirm or deny).  Rose also learned of some of Donald's more dubious escapades from the newspaper articles I had ferreted out.  Basically my birth father sired enough children to field his own baseball team.

As we were ending the call, Rose asked if it was okay to pass along my contact information to Shannon (duh!), and we ended the call.  I felt breathless and a little dizzy...everything felt so different this time.

Less than 24 hours later, on October 22nd, I spoke to my sister Shan for the first time.  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Shan and I clicked from the very start. Violently. Audibly.  Really, really audibly. Like the sound of a bazooka being cocked and then fed through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's speaker array in a small room constructed of stainless steel walls that is sitting atop a pounding locomotive.  I don't know if it's because we are both adoptees or because of our particular recombination of DNA or what, but I felt a deep and instantaneous kinship with this woman. She is nothing less than the missing piece of my heart.

That first chat was just under 5 weeks past, but it already seems like a lifetime ago.  There is so much I still need and want to learn about Shan and her family, but it already feels like I've known and loved her my entire life. Chatting with Shan in real time has been a challenge, because she is currently deeply ensconced in an intensive cooking school in Ireland (!!) that will basically qualify her to be a chef when she's finished if she so chooses.

I am in awe of Shannon on a daily basis.  She is so creative and so talented in so many ways and even more beautiful inside than she is outside (which is stunning enough); she outclasses me in virtually every way possible.  She is a fighter and a survivor, yet has enough joy and energy and exuberance to give the girlie a run for her money.  She loves fiercely and forever.  I am prouder of her than she will ever know and humbled that I now get to be a part of her orbit.  I can't wait till we are able to meet in person at long last.

Shannon herself is a gift beyond price, but generous to a fault as she is, Shan has also given me back my missing history.  As a young woman, she did the hardcore, pre-Internet research required to find her birth parents.  Success follows that woman everywhere she goes. I get Irony laughing and pointing at me from the corner while she lives out wildly improbable adventures and achieves accolades and honors the rest of us could only dream about. As a result of her successful searching, Shan had several years of getting to know our birth father and, while it didn't turn out as she may have hoped (let's just say our father wasn't exactly the most upstanding of men and leave it at that), her experiences with him have made it possible for her to fill in missing pieces of myself I thought I'd never get to know. For example, my baby fine hair and jacked up teeth are direct legacies of my birth father, as are my intelligence, my love of words, and any small musical ability I may have (actually, there is music on both sides of my birth family).  No doubt there are more genetic quirks I have yet to learn.

Donald Tolin, sporting our big Chicklet front teeth.
Shan also sent me pictures so I could see my birth father for the very first time.  I still stare at them in disbelief because when I look at those photos, I see my own face staring back at me.  I don't just favor our father, I practically AM him (physically, at least).  Virtually every photo I see of him instantly reminds me of a photo I have in an album somewhere with an identical pose and/or expression.  It's surreal.  What's even more unnerving is the fact that Donald Tolin's youngest son, who was born a scant four months before me, is basically my clone.  Frankly, it's unnerving. Even without DNA tests confirming my connection to the family thru sisters and cousins and half-nephews, Shan's photos alone provide more than sufficient evidence that Donald Tolin was my father.  I don't know if I will ever get over the uncanniness of the resemblance between Donald, myself, and his son.  It's just plain freaky.  Freakier still is that Don died in May, just two weeks after my birth mother Norma.  (You just can't make this shit up.)

My birth father and me. I was 17, he was around 18-20.

My half-brother, about age 14, and me at 17.

Me and my half-brother as sophomores in high school, or possibly auditioning for Clone Wars.

Thanksgiving is all about being grateful for the things and people that give our lives meaning. Well, that and egregious gluttony and the inevitable tryptophan comas that follow.

 I am always grateful for my family and friends, both far and near: my in-laws, who've put up with me for over three decades, my fantastic nieces and nephews, my amazingly supportive Posse and Divas--who make all things easier--and of course for my brilliant daughter, who both amazes and confounds me on a near daily basis.  I am blessed to have had the smallest part in her upbringing (though I'm still not entirely sure who raised whom), and I can't wait to see what she does next.  I adore you all.

This Thanksgiving, however, I am especially grateful for my new sister Shan, and for all she brings to my life: knowledge, openness, generosity, light, hope, love, and joy, grace, history, a passel of talented and hilarious cousins who have welcomed me with open arms, a new brother-in-law nicknamed "Sweet Daddy," and a glorious trio of talented and heartwarming niece and nephews. Shannon is completion...I am at last whole because of her, and I love her unreservedly.

My heart is full.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Revelations, Part 2: Paternity

I love genealogy; it's history wrapped in mystery and tied up with the ribbon of revelation. (Meanwhile, is it just me, or does "The Ribbon of Revelation" sound like something St. John the Apostle would use to tie his tunic during one of his rare whimsical moments?)

Doing genealogy is a little like getting paid to stalk dead people; as a result, you never know going in quite what you'll find so the occasional drama is inevitable.  That's all well and good until the drama magically appears on your own family tree's proverbial doorstep and suddenly you are the one trying to figure out how to process it all.  But more on that in a moment.

Genealogy Dad Jokes

After Spring's riotous insanity, what with the death of my birth mother Norma, the girlie's graduation, and the replacement of both my car and my home's entire HVAC system/water heater (never mind the indecent expense of replacement), my hope was that the rest of the year would prove to be a little more chill. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)  Instead, most of June was spent recovering from the onslaught of May and starting to prep for moving the girlie south to start her doctoral program in Atlanta.  Aside from a few cringe-worthy moments involved in parking a 15' U-Haul truck and attached car trailer and car in an awkwardly-designed Taco Bell parking lot, the move went more or less smoothly and we got the girlie settled back in Georgia--just three years after our having left it.  Irony strikes again, the perverse bastage.

With the girlie safely ensconced in her new apartment, I was able to spend a couple days visiting dear friends in the area before attending my first-ever genealogy institute in Athens, Georgia, my former home.  The institute was a little intimidating at first, particularly since I was surrounded by much more experienced genealogists, but I had a great time and learned a lot about Scottish genealogy research (including the correct way to pronounce "Kirkcudbright"--it's Kuh-coo-bree, by the way) under the auspices of my instructor Paul Milner, whose encyclopedic knowledge and ready humor made the week-long class so enjoyable that I'll be taking a course on English genealogy from him in Salt Lake City next January. (For those of you who don't know, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is basically Genealogy Mecca, so any chance to study in its vicinity is tantamount to going on pilgrimage.)

After the institute I returned home and was finally able to spend a month catching up on things before my intensive genealogy course started at the beginning of September.  Several of the institute attendees had warned me that the course I was planning to take was rather intensive; each advised me to double or even triple how many hours Boston U said I should allot for the course every week.  Intimidated, I made sure to clear my schedule of conflicts for the rest of the year so I would have sufficient time to adequately focus on the coursework and assignments. Famous last words.

Early in the year,  I was contacted by one of my DNA matches on Ancestry.  A man named Terry was looking for help in solving a family mystery regarding his mother-in-law's parentage and, given that I was a relatively close match to his wife, they hoped that I could help.  Unfortunately, since I didn't really know who my birth father was, there was little I could do to assist.  This didn't seem to matter to Terry, who was convinced his mother-in-law and I were half-sisters.  To be honest, I didn't really believe him. Everything he told me about my supposed father, including the man's age and his location in Texas, conflicted with the (admittedly) limited information I had about my alleged birth father; Also, I had DNA matches in the family of the man I thought was my birth father, albeit rather distant ones.  Given the relatively close match to Terry's wife, it was clear that I am related to Terry's family, I just didn't know how.  Terry decided to test his mother-in-law in the hope of discovering more information and said he would get back to me after the results came in.

A couple of months later a new DNA match showed up on my Ancestry account; it turned out to be for Terry's mother-in-law Robin who was, as he'd predicted, a degree closer to me than his wife was.  I remained unconvinced that Robin was a half-sister or that we shared a birth father, in part because while Ancestry classified us as a "close match," it also offered multiple options for our relationship, including aunt/niece, cousin, grandparent, etc.  Plus I couldn't get past the DNA matches I shared with the family of the man I thought was my birth father. I sent Terry a message about the match at some point in the spring, but never heard back and the whole thing slipped my mind.

However, Irony has an unnatural love for me and likes to hug me tighter than my skivvies, so it wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily. A mere week into my highly-intensive genealogy course, Terry finally returned my call and we chatted for a bit. By then I'd been introduced to the wonders of GEDmatch, which is a free site genealogists use to analyze and compare raw DNA data.  On GEDmatch, there is an option for comparing the X-chromosome of two testers.  Because Robin and I clearly had different mothers, if Terry uploaded her raw data to GEDmatch, I could compare our X-chromosomes; without our mother's Xs to complicate matters, any full X-match we shared would have to have come from a shared father.  By the time Terry called me in September, I'd also learned a little more about how to read and interpret DNA matches in terms of centimorgans (cM), which is a distance measurement genetic genealogists use to determine the closeness of relationships between people.  Robin shares enough cM with me to make our possible relationship one of grandparent/grandchild (which wasn't plausible given the proximity of our ages), one of aunt/niece (which was plausible, if less common, given our age proximity), or one of half-siblings.  Hmmm.

Stand back...I'm gonna try SCIENCE!

I asked Terry to tell me again about the man he thought was Robin's (our) birth father while I took notes, then I asked if he would be willing to upload Robin's DNA to GEDmatch so I could confirm whether or not we were half-siblings via the X-match utility.  While I waited the several days for him to do so, I started researching this putative father, a man named Donald Tolin (who ironically shared the same first name as the man I had thus far presumed to be my birth father).  In the process of frenetically researching Donald Tolin around my coursework, I learned several sketchy things about him, many of which echoed the circumstances of my conception.  I started to wonder.  I also reread my adoption paperwork and noticed that I might have misinterpreted some of it; after looking at the records from a fresh perspective, I realized that New Donald might fit the profile listed in my adoption paperwork after all. Slowly but surely, I started coming around to the idea that this Donald Tolin of Texas (originally from Indianapolis) just might be my birth father after all.

A few days later, Terry got Robin's DNA uploaded to GEDmatch and I immediately ran the X-comparison.

We were a match.

Blue is the color of sisterhood.

Suddenly I had a half-sister. And a birth father. Who was a different Donald than the birth father I spent the last five years thinking I had.

I was stunned.  I was also struggling to keep up with my homework around all the unexpected and exciting revelations.  Turns out my colleagues at the summer genealogy institute weren't kidding about the amount of time this course demanded.  Still, I made it work for me as much as I could by using my new-found paternal family as the basis for my next assignment. Multi-tasking FTW!

A couple of days later, Robin and I chatted on the phone for the first time.  We didn't talk very long; Robin doesn't seem to be a very chatty sort of person, at least not on the phone.  We texted a few times after that because Terry thought he'd found a mention of Donald Tolin's death, but hadn't been able to confirm it.

After that I didn't hear much from Robin or Terry, so I got back to work on my class and settled into a consistent routine of working 5-10 hours a day and having basically no life while imprisoned in my office and virtually chained to my computer doing genealogy assignments.   I fit in research on the Tolin family whenever I could find a spare moment.  All genealogy, all the time.  I figured I would finish up my course and that would be the end of the story.

I could not have been more wrong.

Revelations, Part 1: Saying Goodbye

If I were emulating the coy style of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I might call 2016 #abitofayear.

However, for me to assert that 2016 has been "a bit of a year" would be a gross understatement, even by Miranda's standards. Between not finding much particularly humorous after the election and the ensuing rapid-fire of events blasting me in the face like a runaway fire hose, I've barely had time to remember my own name much less to write or to finish any projects.

What began earlier this year as a new dedication to my ever-increasing passion for genealogy--via an online "Genealogy Essentials" class in February through Boston University--has now turned into a wildly improbable journey of discovery, one that is rife with endless ironies (as all my best adventures are).

The Essentials course only served to whet my appetite, so I decided to take the serious graduate-level course "Certificate Program in Genealogical Research," which builds on the Essentials course by increasing one's professionalism and research skills in the field while helping to prepare one for future certification as a genealogist.  However, with the girlie finishing up seminary in May and moving to Atlanta over the summer, I opted to wait on the second course till September when things would presumably be a little calmer.  It's cute how I thought that.

Sometime during the first course the girlie was on her way to NY for a meeting and ended up slipping on some ice and putting her car in a ditch.  She was fine; the car not so much.  We rescued her in the cold, white north, then had to replace her car after much wrangling with the snail-like pace of the insurance company.  By the time March ended, my first course was over and the girlie was firmly ensconced in a cute little red Hyundai.  On the plus side, I now get to look forward to having extra pocket change every month when she mails me her car payment.

May was beyond insane.  First, my car started dying, so I had to work on replacing yet another vehicle.  Then my upstairs air conditioner decided to die, ultimately taking out the entire HVAC system and water boiler with it.  I can only assume that they went on strike in solidarity with the first unit, and not at all because they were each passing 20 years old and knew that all warranties were defunct, making it easier to screw with me.  Meanwhile, I still had all the requisite end-of-the-year concerts and the girlie's graduation on my plate. And, just because all that wasn't exciting enough, I got a call from my maternal uncle--ON MOTHER'S DAY (hello, Irony, I was starting to worry you weren't paying attention) that my birth mother Norma was critically ill and not expected to live long.

May turned into what amounted to a military operation of surgical strike precision in order for me to fly to Indianapolis to be with Norma before (and when) she died, to manage the intricate ballet of HVAC people coming and going in and out of my house on and off for three weeks, to coordinate graduation choir rehearsals and actual graduation, to acquire a functional vehicle for me, and to fly back to Indy for Norma's funeral.  Honestly, I'm still not entirely sure how I accomplished it all; the month is largely a blur and I still feel bad that I wasn't able to devote as much time and attention to each individual event as I might have liked.

Picture of Norma at 40-ish, gifted to me by my uncle.
(Photo Credit: Mark Wheeler)

Norma's funeral was definitely a unique experience, given that my status as a pretty much "life-long secret" was blown wide open within virtually minutes of Norma's death and without regard to my opinions on the matter. I found this particularly disconcerting; I figured that as the "secret" in question, Norma's moratorium on divulging said secret would then pass onto me and it would be my right to decide when and how the revelation of my existence might be disseminated.  Alas, this did not turn out to be the case. Instead, the revelation became a juggernaut over which I had no control or say and I could only hold on for dear life and ride it out, much to my chagrin.  At the funeral, I could almost literally feel holes burning into my back from the piercing gazes of some of Norma's friends and associates; I was never quite clear whether it was because they were judging me (us) or just burning they were burning with curiosity, which seemed more the case with some of Norma's relatives. To their credit, most of these relatives gamely introduced themselves to me and were reasonably welcoming, especially considering the news of my existence had to have come as a quite a shock.  For good or for ill, I was the skeleton now firmly out of the closet.

My primary concern about the entire juggernaut was that my presence might end up pulling focus from Norma and keep people from celebrating her life or from recognizing her passing with all the respect she deserved. I really didn't want her funeral to become about me; that would have been grossly inappropriate as far as I was concerned, and not even remotely the reason I was there.

All in all, things went somewhat better than I feared; for the most part, any people who were judgmental kept it to themselves, and the people who did speak to me were polite enough.  Doesn't mean I couldn't still feel the majority of them staring at me the entire time.  The rabid curiosity of everyone scoping me out was physically tangible.

When it was over, I was grateful that Norma could finally be at peace after an often difficult life. She was a quiet person, a private person, but she was loving and kind and generous.  She spent most of her nursing career helping to deliver babies at the same hospital in which I was born, always working the night shift like the night owl she was. I confess it was a little surreal being there in that hospital with her as she died and realizing that the last time I was there, it was also with Norma--when I was being born.  Talk about coming full circle.

There were many ups and downs in May, and many revelations about Norma's life and family (myself being perhaps the biggest one), some of which were good and some of which weren' revelations so often are.  But I got to meet some of my new-found cousins, one of whom is a live wire full of energy and and Life with a capital "L." And because Irony follows me like a shadow, it turns out that she was also an adoptee and that one of Norma's cousins is a red-head who shares my name and who has a daughter with the same name as the girlie.  There were many other weird little serendipities between us, proving yet again that genetics influences us and our choices in invisible ways we could never imagine.

Surprisingly, the revelations surrounding Norma's passing proved but a hint of what the rest of 2016 had in store for me.  If I'd only known in January where this year was going to lead, I could have purchased a case of Valium and some baseball catcher pads with which to prepare myself for the onslaught.

For more of the story, continue reading parts 2 and 3 of the Revelations trilogy.

March 25, 2016

Let It Go, aka Fun With Colonoscopy Screening

When I was a kid, anyone over 50 seemed positively ancient.  That was still pretty much true during my 20s.  By the time I hit 30 I began to adjust my expectations, particularly when my first white hair made an unwelcome appearance at age 39 about the same time my eye doctor began bandying about the "B" word--bifocals.  I kept so busy in my 40s with commencements and two interstate moves that I didn't have much time to think about my encroaching age beyond a certain smugness that I was still under 50 when the girlie graduated from college. Still, 50 began sounding a lot less ancient than it once had.  Then, last spring, it happened.  I turned 50.  Within minutes of the year turning over my mailbox became inundated with missives from the AARP proclaiming my sudden eligibility for retirement programs and benefits, because now I was officially old.  I ignored them all and took myself off to Great Britain for an outstanding adventure instead, comforted by the knowledge that I never would have been able to afford such a trip in my callow 20s (or 30s...or most of my 40s, for that matter).

This year for my birthday, instead of a kick-ass trip overseas, I got to have a colonoscopy.  Apparently what you're supposed to do when you turn 50 and suddenly become magically at risk for colon cancer because obviously your best days are now behind you and it's only a matter of time before body parts start breaking down.  Needless to say, I was less than thrilled by the prospect.  Call me old-fashioned, but I don't consider having someone Roto-Rootering my rear to be an appropriate birthday gift--at least not without buying me dinner first.  But I sucked it up and put on my big-girl panties like the old-lady-who's-supposed-to-know-better I have theoretically become (everyone who knows me can stop laughing now) and set about to prepare for a long day of unpleasant purging.

Mission're doing it right.

First I went shopping to make sure I had all the requisite clear liquid diet items allowed, including two bottles of Citrate of Magnesium (clear cherry-flavored, thank you very much), which I assumed to be much the same as digestive WD-40 when it came to greasing things that need to move more freely.  Next I mixed up some yellow Jell-O for when I eventually became hungry and put it in the fridge to set.  Beside it stood some white grape juice, lemonade, and chicken broth.  Turns out my future diet was not so much clear as ironically urine-colored.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Lastly, I deployed my cell phone, laptop (complete with charging cable), and a blanket in the bathroom and put on some comfortable stretchy pants.  Then I forced myself to chug the first bottle of bowel basher and hunkered down to wait.

I'll spare you all the gory details that followed; in the end it really wasn't all that bad (aside from the mag citrate sitting in my stomach like a lead balloon and forcing up vile cherry-flavored industrial solvent belches) and I had an easy go of things (puns intended).

All we who are about to die salute you.

Then next morning I got up at the ass-crack of dawn and dressed to go to the Endo Center.  As instructed, I didn't put on any makeup.  I don't know why that was a specific requirement because it sounded as though they were expecting me to put makeup on my backside so it looked nice for the occasion or something.  After completing my paperwork, I sat in the waiting room thinking it absolutely criminal that the room was not ringed with bathrooms for the intestinally-compromised patients filling it.  Next to me sat an older woman whose son, a bald dude in a Fu Manchu mustache, was complaining about there not being a spread of food in the waiting room because the poor guy was hungry.  Seriously, dude? Having a room full of food next to people who haven't eaten in 30 hours would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  I wanted Bald Dude to shut up because he wouldn't stop talking about breakfast, therefore inciting me to want to smack him for making me hungry. Where's a Snickers bar when you need one?

Eventually a nurse took me in back and loaded me up with special socks and two hospital gowns, one to leave open in the back and one to wear as a robe opening in the front, instructing me how to wear them--twice.  I assured her sardonically that I did indeed comprehend the rocket science that is dressing for surgical procedures and she left me to it.  While I was waiting for a changing room to become available, an elderly man waddled out of one wearing both gowns open to the back and displaying his tighty-whities for all to see as he looked around for a nearby bathroom.  So much for disparaging rocket science jokes...apparently surgical dressing is difficult after all.

Once changed I was taken to a bed, asked a bunch of repetitive personal questions, and given an IV.  An anesthesiologist's assistant came in to ask yet more questions while a nurse plied me with further instructions for the procedure, including that if I had to pass gas afterwards I should rest assured that it was "clean" and just "let it go."  Personally, one of the last things I needed the morning of my colonoscopy was Idina Menzel belting out "Let It Go" on a continuous loop inside my head.  The nurses and I joked around a bit, during which I happened to mention that I'd intended to write "Bottoms Up" across my tush but had forgotten.  The anesthesiologist promptly responded, "Oh, I haven't seen that one in a while!"  My eyebrows shot up and I replied, "Wait--that's a thing??"  The assistant and two nurses all nodded vigorously so I asked what was the best one they'd ever seen.  They all considered seriously before throwing out phrases like "Exit Only" and "No Admittance" and "Be Gentle."  I offered "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter" and was quickly informed that they'd never seen that one.  Note to future self...

After a chorus of gigles they all disperse, leaving me in the bed to listen to the hustle and bustle of patients and staff all around me.  I had the impression of being part of an extensive assembly line and, sure enough, when the nurse came to wheel me to a procedure room I found I was part of a line of beds whipping through the building like speed racers on Mario Kart.  Once we had all been arrayed at battle stations, you could hear the staff returning empty beds to the holding area for the next wave of patients.  I asked how many procedures they typically performed in a day and was told the average is around 80.  That's a lot of drains to snake.

I met my new anesthetist, while waiting for the doctor to arrive; he was a cute young man possessed of a very snarky sense of humor who had inexplicably switched places for the day with the Exit Only girl.  My kind of people, really. The anesthetist arranged an oxygen tube over my ears and on top of my head like a tiny silicone unicorn horn so it was readily accessible once the procedure started, then began placing electrodes on my forearms to monitor my heart rate.  I was a little surprised that he was limiting them to my arms and said so.  He told me "I don't stick my hand down anyone's shirt without buying them dinner first."  How dare the little weasel steal my line!!

When the doctor finally came in he caught me jamming to the '80s music playing over the PA system and smirked at me.  He asked if I had questions before starting, then sat down to mess about on the computer while the nurse had me roll over on my side.  As I did so, Rod Stewart started blasting "Spread your wings and let me COME INSIDE 'cuz, tonight's the niiiiiiiight...gonna feel alllllllll riiight..."  I snorted and said that had to be the most wildly inappropriate (if accurate) song they could have played under the circumstances.  The anesthesiologist then informed me that he had worked at another such medical center at which the theme from Deliverance invariably started every morning around 10 am, just as he was about to put someone under, and that it had made even him uncomfortable.  I chuckled and told him I was now disappointed that I wouldn't be hearing Dueling Banjos outside the door.  He just smiled as he hit me with the nap juice; one quick head rush later and I was out cold.

Pretty Much

Moments later (or so it seemed to me), I became aware of people discussing a musical and I remember wanting to chime in.  I couldn't tell you now which musical it was or even if it really was a musical and not just wishful thinking.  I awoke in what seemed to be a hallway, where I was given saltines and some water.  I commented that it hadn't seemed to take long at all because I had the distinct sensation of not much time having passed.  The nurse told me the procedure itself had only taken about 15 minutes and that they usually stop the anesthetic just before finishing I really wasn't out very deep or for very long.  After maybe another 15 minutes in recovery, I was escorted to a recliner and offered more juice and crackers while I waited for the doctor to come by with my results.  A few minutes later he showed up and told me that I was completely clear and wouldn't have to do the test again for another 10 years, barring any difficulties in the interim.  Yay, me!  He then asked where I was having breakfast--the 5th or 6th time that morning I'd been asked.  No doubt that's a common topic of conversation when managing people deprived of solid food for a day or two.  (For the record, I went to Panera's where I had a breakfast sandwich of ham, egg, and Vermont white cheddar on toasted ciabatta bread...mmmmmmm.)  The doctor handed me a copy of his report, complete with TMI pictures of the inside of my colon. One picture clearly displayed the only two kernels of corn to survive the previous day's purge, something the doctor made sure to tease me about, as though leaving them behind had somehow been a deliberate choice on my part.  Thanks, Doc.

All things considered, I have to admit that while perhaps not the most enjoyable of activities, getting a colonoscopy was still not even close to the worst medical experience I've ever had.  Those honors probably go to the time a podiatrist did a wedge excision on an ingrowing toenail edge, in the process giving me a rampaging staph infection--twice--which took months to heal.  Really, I've been pretty lucky so far, medically speaking.  Here's hoping that luck holds out a few more years.

And that brings us to your your PSA for the day:  Go and get roto-rootered screened for cancer.  A day or two of mild discomfort is infinitely preferable to the alternative, especially if you get to be surrounded by fellow smartasses into the bargain.  Doesn't hurt that you're in and out of the building in less than three hours.

I still expect to hear "Dueling Banjos" next time, though.

October 17, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: The Wrap-Up

Final Impressions

Sometimes it's funny how things work out.  I always intended to write up a list of final observations about my trip when all the other posts were finished and I was back home.  Instead I fell behind on posting during the trip because I was either too busy or too tired at the time, then after returning home I was simply too preoccupied by other things.  Thus, while I was actively procrastinating and/or goofing off, someone got the jump on me.  An American tourist named Scott Waters decided to detail the differences he observed between American and English culture while on his 4th visit overseas.  His extremely accurate list has since gone viral; you can (and should) read it here.  I'd like to say Mr. Waters' post will teach me to rest on my laurels and to finish my writing when I should, but you and I both know that's not likely to happen any time soon.  My expertise is in smartassery, not punctuality.

So what are some of my final impressions of the United Kingdom, then?  First of all, I agree with many of Mr. Waters' observations:  shops do close entirely too early, dogs are everywhere (something I loved seeing) and are well-behaved, and the staircases are indeed exceptionally narrow--as in too narrow to navigate with a suitcase beside you; you have to drag it behind or walk sideways to allow adequate room.  Either way it's a hassle.  I also agree with Mr. Waters that facecloths/washcloths seem to be non-existent for some inexplicable reason and that the shower controls are often illogical or confusing (and not standard from hotel to hotel).

I do have some observations of my own, however.  For example, I don't entirely understand the death-defying step-down tubs everywhere.  You climb in and are showering essentially two feet off the ground.  That's a little weird and disconcerting at first, but you get used to it.  The real problem occurs when you then have to climb back out of these raised tubs while still wet and slippery.  I don't understand how there aren't elderly hips breaking all across the country every few minutes as older people attempt to navigate these hygienic death traps and arrive safely on the ground.  Are the British just way the hell more coordinated than I am??  (Those of you who know me well can stop laughing at any time.)

Foreign Tall Bathtub of Death

Continuing with the bathroom theme, I was likewise fascinated by the apparent preponderance of removable sprayers in lieu of fixed shower heads.  This seemed infinitely practical and I wish this were as standard practice here in the states.  The only problem is that when holstered they then tend to spray straight down rather than outwards, so you don't always get very good coverage when standing under them.  Still, this seems a small price to pay for their added flexibility.

Meanwhile, I'm convinced the only reason the British try to keep a "stiff upper lip" is because that's the only way they can cope with the stiff lower ends which must surely result from using loo (toilet) rolls with the overall softness of 36 grit sandpaper.  You'd think this rather indelicate tissue would turn everyone there into (literal) hard asses, though if anything the opposite is true.  But then I suppose even sandpapery loo rolls are preferable to the minuscule squares of paper one gets in a public restroom, which are about as effective as trying to wipe with Post-Its (and only slightly less comfortable).

On the other hand, while British toilet tissue leaves much to be desired, their bath towels are a vast improvement over ours--at least in hotels.  It's not that the towels are appreciably softer, necessarily, but rather that they are simply larger.  I find it ironic that the British people, who are on average notably smaller than the typical American, have bath towels more than ample enough to swathe even the largest person while we usually have to settle for hotel towels the size of Barbie's dish rags.  Go figure.  The abundance of oversized towels was wonderful.  Plus how can you not love a country with a towel-warming rack in nearly every bathroom??  Pure decadence right there.

While we're in the vicinity, another thing I really loved on my trip was the bedding--not to be all lurid, or anything.  Most beds I encountered had nothing but a bottom sheet and a big, fluffy comforter or duvet.  There were no top sheets to mess about with or get tangled up in while you slept.  I actually slept the best I have in months while there.  I'm sure part of that was due to the simple exhaustion of constantly walking everywhere, but just the same there was something truly glorious about sliding in under a thick, cozy coverlet every night and burrowing in for a nice, deep sleep.  Small wonder I found it so difficult to pry myself out of such a warm, pleasant nest every morning.

Another thing I really enjoyed in Britain was using the railway system for all my travels.  The trains rocked.  Even with the assorted stops on each trip, I could get almost anywhere in the country in 2-5 hours by train, with the added bonus of being able to enjoy the scenery instead of stressing out over whether or not I was on the correct road.  Most of the time I was able to snag a table and spread out with my laptop or my puzzle books and whatever snack I'd grabbed along the way.  Even when I couldn't get a table, the regular seats had pull-down trays like on airplanes which served almost as well.  The seats were comfortable and often had nearby outlets I could use for recharging my phone.  Each carriage had a luggage rack for larger bags and an overhead rack for backpacks and such.  Several even had storage for the bicycles people use to travel in town.  Most trains also had random signs exhorting passengers to "always carry water when traveling" as though Britrail thought everyone was going to suddenly disintegrate into a puff of dust if not sufficiently hydrated.  Needless to say, I found those signs pretty humorous.

I thoroughly enjoyed riding the trains during my trip.  Admittedly, I originally thought paying nearly $600 for a 2-week rail pass was a bit steep (never mind my largest expenditure by far), but it was worth every penny.  I'm pretty sure I came out around $100 ahead when all was said and done, but even if I hadn't it would still have been totally worth it just for the convenience and travel flexibility alone, something which came in handy more than once.  I highly recommend rail passes when traveling in Europe.

In addition to the rail pass, I also managed the paper money and £1 coins reasonably well, though I found the other coins to be pretty much pointless unless I needed to use a public bathroom where "spending a penny" now costs more like 30p-50p.  I'm not sure when peeing became such an expensive proposition, but there you go (or not, as the case may be).  I will confess that the newest-minted coins are pretty cool, though, because they can be assembled to show the royal heraldry displayed on the back of the £1 coins.

Thanks for showing me this, Dean!

By the time I headed back to Heathrow, I felt like I could almost pass for a my imaginary world, at any rate.  Aside from the dead giveaway accent, I had my little black rucksack and was able to pack away tea and English breakfasts with the best of them.  Heck, I even mastered the coinage, even if it was just before I had to leave.  The only thing I figured I had left to do to become native would be to invest in a gross of black leggings because I saw those freaking things everywhere.  Skirts, boots, and black leggings:  the British woman's uniform, apparently.

I'm sure I could think of other interesting differences between England and the US, but why bother, really?  Intriguing as many of those differences are, they won't be what sticks with me.  What I'll remember most isn't the differences or even the big touristy sites I saw like Stonehenge or the Globe or the assorted castles I visited--amazing though each was in its own right--but rather getting to know the heartbeat of every town by wandering through the streets and the everyday places one doesn't normally see on tours.

I'll remember how much I loved Aberystwyth; I'll remember the gorgeous flowers everywhere, the sound of the waves lapping the shore of the bay, and the melodious lilt of native Welsh speakers.  I'll remember how even though I enjoyed the bustling streets of London and Edinburgh and all those cities had to offer, it was the peaceful serenity of Wales that made me feel as if I'd finally come home at last, as if I truly belonged there.

Welsh beauty.

I'll remember all the people I met, whether Crrrrrrrrrrraig from the Hard Rock Cafe or Stacey with an E or the lovely couple making their first trip to Edinburgh for an anniversary holiday or Sari the Australian from Perth.  Docents and tour guides can be very informative, but you learn far more about a country by listening to its people and learning from their experiences.

Lastly, I'll remember how the best part of my whole trip was the time I got to spend hanging out with new friends, whether I was being escorted to an event or whether we were simply chatting and laughing together.  No matter how epic or breathtaking a given building is, the human connections we make are far more important and enduring than any structure could ever be.  Besides, memories are always better when you have someone with whom to share them, and so I am especially grateful for every moment I was able to enjoy with friends.

As for final impressions, the only thing really left to say is:  Best. Birthday. Trip. EVER!!!

September 29, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Days 12 & 13

The Days I Lounged in London and Flew Home

"Buzzzzzzzzzt!  Buzzzzzzt!!

I'm pretty sure it's not every day that one gets awakened by a text message buzzing under one's ass, or at least it's not an everyday occurrence for me.  But that's pretty much what seems to happen when one climbs into bed after a very long, very busy day and promptly face plants into one's phone.  Turns out traveling is exhausting--at least the way I do it is.  Clearly I need to write a bestseller that gets optioned for a movie and thus become independently wealthy so I can afford to have drivers escorting me from destination to destination the next time I travel overseas.  On the plus side, I'm now positive that I've lost some weight because none of my pants want to stay up. I'm currently maybe a pound or two away from causing an international incident.

My buzzing phone dealt with, I dragged myself out of my cozy, warm bed just in time to make it downstairs to the complimentary breakfast buffet.  Even though I was awake under extreme protest, I had to appreciate the variety of items on offer at the buffet (look at me, speaking all Britishly!).  There were several fruits on one cart, an omelet station, assorted breads and pastries, yogurts, juices, and of course all the makings of a full English breakfast on the hot bar.  I sampled a modest variety of items and then drug myself back upstairs and attempt to accomplish some writing under the possibly unrealistic assumption that I could keep myself upright and conscious for a change instead of slamming face-first into my electronic devices yet again.  As it happens I did not get much writing done, but I did thoroughly enjoy decadently lolling around in bed all afternoon after a hectic two weeks.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most pleasurable.

My cozy "Exectutive" room.

In the evening I forced myself to go downstairs for dinner at the hotel restaurant rather than copping out by ordering room service and continuing to hide out upstairs.  The restaurant was called Oscar's and looked more like a bar than a restaurant. After my quiet day in I opted for soup and salad instead of something heavier. The French onion soup arrived in a giant bread bowl and was teeming with so many onions that I could hardly get to the broth; it looked rather like an explosion of translucent worms trying to climb out and infest the restaurant.  Mmmmm, tasty! My efforts to consume the soup were not aided by it soaking almost immediately into the dense bread bowl, but I spooned up as much as I could before tearing off bits of bowl to eat. Edible dishware is always a novelty.  Meanwhile, the chicken Caesar salad was absolutely delicious and I scarfed  down every single bite.  I hadn't really planned to order dessert after the meal, but it seemed a shame not to enjoy one last sugary hurrah before leaving the country in the morning so I requested a simple ice cream sundae.  The small, overpriced sundae I anticipated arrived in a 12" tall parfait glass and had two different flavors of ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream (the good kind), assorted sprinkles, and a large cookie/waffle wedge perched on top.  My jaw dropped at the immensity of the creamy vision before me.  Rather than stay there sucking down a mound of ice cream alone like some jilted lover, I paid my check and took my delectable plunder upstairs where I could savor it in private and not while I was surfing the internet like a sad, pathetic woman at all.

I spent the rest of my evening packing, which involved redistributing clothing and gifts/souvenirs between my original carry-on bag and the new cheap one I was able to purchase in the hotel gift shop.  I put most of the gifts in the crappy new suitcase to take on the plane with me, choosing instead to stow all my toiletries and dirty clothes in the sturdier bag with which I'd started and which would likely survive molestation by baggage handlers.  Besides, I figured if some clothes went missing on the way home it would be no great loss, but I wanted to make sure I personally kept track of all the good and/or irreplaceable stuff.  Once everything was stowed to my satisfaction, I selected clothes for the trip home, washed up, and climbed into bed.

The next morning my alarm went off first at 5:30 am, then again at 6 am.  (I always set a back-up alarm to give myself a little extra time to become coherent as I wake up.)  Then I promptly fell back asleep for an additional 20 minutes.  I woke up, saw the time, employed some of the new British swear words I'd learned, and then quickly dressed and shoved the last few things in my suitcase.  I grabbed a light breakfast at the Executive Customers Only buffet, bags in tow, then checked out and plowed down the hotel walkway like a steam roller to Heathrow's Terminal 4 where I checked my bag and collected my boarding pass.

Staying near the terminal proved a canny choice because, in spite of my slight oversleeping, I arrived with plenty of time to stand in line in the bowels of the airport with my VAT receipts and wait to process them for refunds.  The line moved quite quickly and efficiently though I was slightly annoyed to discover that I'd been misled about the refunds when I saw people standing in line with stacks of receipts 2 inches tall.  I'd been told you could only request up to 6 refunds and I didn't find out that each receipt required a specially-printed form from the original vendor in order to be processed.  So my most expensive purchases were not eligible.  Sigh.  When I reached the front of the queue I submitted what I had, was told I'd get the refund in around 3 weeks (which I still haven't gotten), and was sent blithely on my way.

Back upstairs I walked past a currency exchange which did not appear busy and so decided to go ahead and change my money there before heading through security rather than have to make an extra trip to the bank at home even though I knew I'd take a little bit of a hit on the exchange there.  Just as I was walking up to the counter, however, some Middle Eastern dude walked up in front of me with his entire family and a 4" stack of VAT forms.  I assumed he'd get shipped downstairs to the processing center like everyone else, but he didn't.  So I waited patiently in the queue like a good faux Brit while he was processed, fully expecting the other girl at the counter to call me up at any moment.  Which she didn't.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  As I stood, I watched the man's children wander about, clearly as bored and impatient as I was.  His daughter, who was maybe 10, was wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled over to the side in the gangsta hip-hop style, making it look wildly incongruous next to her pink Hello, Kitty! sweatshirt.

Twenty minutes later the queue was some 8 people deep and the second girl still wasn't serving anyone.  I was becoming antsier by the second, wanting to get through security and off to my gate.  I know I probably should have just left and changed the money at home, but eventually I got to the point where I want to WIN rather than having waited so long in vain.  Silly, I know.  Sometimes it's just about the principle of the thing.

Finally another woman came to the desk and changed out places with the one not waiting on anybody.  Just as she did, some woman jumped the line and walked directly up to her to be served.  My first thought while glaring at her was "Dammit, woman, we're British!!  We QUEUE!!!!"  Two weeks here and apparently I've already gone native.  The line-jumper did her exchange, then I jumped the queue and went over as well.  I guess the staff had assumed that everyone in line had VAT slips (which, to be fair, several did) and so neither employee had asked the rest of us forward as a result.  I got my £70 exchanged into $50 or so, taking a far bigger hit than expected.  Or maybe I have the amounts backwards; at this point the morning is a bit of a blur.

My business completed, I headed over to queue up for the scanners, where I sailed through security.  I did not have to take off my shoes, I did not need 15 bins to hold my belongings, I did not have to stand in the cancer chamber, and I did not get over-enthusiastically frisked by overzealous and self-important security staff.  I couldn't believe it--me, simpatico with airport security.  Who knew miracles were performed at Heathrow? As far as I'm concerned, this is yet more proof that I belong in Great Britain; clearly London loves me far more than the US, where TSA mocks and torments me at every possible turn.  I retrieved my things from the bin on the belt and headed off to my gate, which I found surprisingly devoid of passengers.  I just figured I'd gotten there early in spite of the financial queues and that people would continue to arrive in due course.  They didn't.

While I waited, a lovely British woman in a Delta uniform sat next to me and asked if I would be willing to do a survey.  I figured it was as good a way to pass the time as any, so agreed and ended up subjected to a good 15 minutes of fairly personal questions about my travel habits and my opinions on the airport/airline/etc.  I couldn't really be irritated by the lengthy survey questions, though, because everything sounds better in a British accent; even swear words like "Fook!!" or "Slutty bitch!" which I'm supposed to find offensive just make me giggle maniacally instead.  Shortly after the lady finished with me my flight began boarding.  I walked on early and stowed my suitcase, then sat in my aisle seat to await the inevitable line of people smacking their bags into my head as they passed.  They never came.  By the time the door the attendants closed the door there were maybe all of 60 passengers on the plane.  It was absolutely glorious.  Everyone spread out all over the plane.  I had a row all to myself, as did a guy next to me who spent most of the flight stretched out across all three seats and fast asleep.  Easily the most comfortable and most quiet flight I've ever been on, this unexpected boon was made all the more priceless given the several-hour length of the transatlantic journey.  Every flight should be even half so peaceful...I highly recommend traveling like this whenever possible; it's infinitely preferable to being crammed into the cabin like drunken college students into a Volkswagen.

Taxiing down the runway proved unexpectedly emotional for me; when the wheels left the tarmac and London began to shrink in my window I choked up, my eyes welling with tears.  The funny thing is it's not like I've never been to England before--I was there with my family 15 years ago and although I enjoyed my visit back then, this trip was somehow very different. Certainly I reveled in my British adventures this time around, but I was still surprised to be overcome at liftoff...surprised to find just exactly how much I truly love this amazing country and how much it means to me. Perhaps this was merely the result of being in Great Britain on my own or perhaps it had something to do with my newly-discovered genetic ties to the country. All I know is that the history, the architecture, the food, the atmosphere, the people, the language--everything, really--has now become a deeply-imbedded part of my soul and I felt a physical pain at leaving.

I didn't sleep much on the trip back; I wanted to remain awake so I could recalibrate my internal clock more quickly once home (not that it worked, mind you).  Instead, I plugged my earphones into the seat-back console, cranked up some tunes, and spent half the flight writing and the other half surfing the internet.  You've got to love technology--ten years ago it never would have occurred to me that I would one day be able to access the internet from some 30,000 miles above the earth.  Pretty neat trick, really.  Even better was being able to use my would-be neighbor's tray table for food so I didn't have to move my laptop from my own tray table.  Life is all about the little things.

Several hours later, we began our descent towards Philadelphia.  As the city grew larger in my window I turned off and stowed my laptop, thinking how surreal I felt to be back in the States as though I were just starting my holiday rather than finishing it.  It seemed like I should be heading home to Europe at any moment.  Two weeks later I was only just beginning to feel "back to normal," or at least as "normal" as one can feel after leaving a big chunk of one's heart with the cobblestones and grey skies of Edinburgh, with new friends in the Doctor Who podcasting community, with the ancient stones on Salisbury plain, with the calligraphic kiss of Magna Carta and the heraldry of her staunch protectors in Salisbury Cathedral, with the pubs and theaters and bustling streets of London, with the sea lapping at the shores of Aberystwyth while gulls keen overhead, with archives full of books and the heady, musty perfume of age and knowledge leaking out from between their pages, and with the silky slate and ancestral castle walls of Cardiff.

"On final approach to Philadelphia..."

All things considered, I could not have asked for a more meaningful or fulfilling birthday trip. In truth, if governments these days weren't so anal about immigration I'd be on a plane tomorrow, work visa in hand, bursting to become an American expatriate.  Seriously. America may be far more familiar to me, but the United Kingdom feels far more like where I belong.  Must be the genes of all those British ancestors flowing through my veins and calling me home.

September 13, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 11

The Day I Explored Cardiff

This morning before wandering the streets of Cardiff, I took the time to consume another delicious "full English" breakfast in the hotel restaurant while sitting at a table overlooking the drizzly, rainy city streets.  I figured going out in the gloom today was only fair considering that Great Britain is supposed to be notorious for rainy weather and yet in the ten days I've been here, I've encountered rain only once when I was in Edinburgh and for only an hour and even that wasn't much more than a misty drizzle.  I've been supremely fortunate with the weather thus far, enjoying temperate and frequently sunny days in the upper 50s and low 60s.  What more could a pale girl ask?

Minus the fried tomatoes and mushrooms.  Yum!

After breakfast I once again checked out and stowed my belongings in the luggage lockup like the travel boss I've become.  The desk clerks were very helpful, both with my bags and with giving me a map and directions for how to access most of Cardiff on foot.  They also didn't laugh at me last night when I accidentally locked myself out of my room while putting my dinner tray in the hallway and had to come down to the lobby in my pajama pants and bare feet for a replacement key card.  Yay for consummate professionals!

I was interested in touring the city on one of the local "hop on, hop off" sightseeing buses because I've found them to be a quick and efficient way to get around as well as a good way to learn a lot about the city I'm visiting,   However, I also wanted to see the Doctor Who Experience (yes, I know, I'm a giant's been mentioned)  but the tickets already appeared to be sold out online and I hadn't pre-booked because I was trying to leave my time in Wales flexible in case I found some genealogy trail I needed to run to ground.  I knew I ran the risk of screwing myself over by not prebooking, but I figured since there's never enough time to see everything I want anyway I could just pick and choose activities as time and availability allowed.  As a result, I eschewed the bus for the moment and instead walked down to the bay in an attempt to get Doctor Who tickets at the door before they were all gone.

The walk was supposed to take 10 minutes but probably took more like 30 by the time I actually reached the Doctor Who Experience on the other side of Cardiff Bay; no doubt it would have been shorter had I not ended up going the long way around after getting faulty directions from some construction workers on the street.  Still, the rain had stopped before I left the hotel and it was turning into a beautiful day so the walk, while long, was pleasant.  En route I passed the dramatic Millennium Centre for arts and music, sheathed in the slate for which Wales is renowned.  Near the Centre I watched as a parade of festively-dressed people marched down a distant sidewalk for some inexplicable reason. I also walked by a very amusing street sign for the Doctor Who Experience which featured no words but which sported a Dalek and and arrow pointing the way to the site.  I strolled by the Pierhead Building on Cardiff Bay; it boasts its own clock tower affectionately known as "Baby Big Ben" or "Big Ben of Wales."  Standing next to this building were two entertainers (or so I assumed) on stilts who looked a bit like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, or possibly like some of Tolkien's Ents.  As they were largely just hanging around doing nothing, I've no idea why they were there but they were certainly unique.  Clearly it's all go in Cardiff on a Saturday.

"This way to the Long John Silver's salt shakers..."

Pierhead Building

Your guess is as good as mine.

Getting tickets to the Doctor Who Experience proved no problem after all; I purchased my ticket and was able to walk pretty much straight into the next viewing.  I smirked at a girl in front of me as the line moved because her shirt was emblazoned with a pseudo-Disney logo reading "Dismal and Bemusement Park."  All throughout the lobby were several props from the television show; we passed additional props and costumes displayed just outside the entrance to the exhibition as we threaded through the line barriers.  In order to avoid spoilers for future visitors we were not allowed to take photos during the "experience" part of the exhibition, which proved to be a terribly cheesy and trumped-up "action-adventure" clearly geared towards children.  Once through our dubious adventure we were funneled into a far more interesting museum of props and costumes and such from the many years Doctor Who has been on television.  My favorites were the oldest items from when the show started over 50 years ago, including a model of the original TARDIS set and the mock-up of the first TARDIS interior which was used in the movie "An Adventure in Time and Space" about how Doctor Who came into existence.  They even had the soundboard of the grand piano used to create the original theme song. Meanwhile, some of the early monster/alien costumes just made me laugh; they looked so ineptly constructed when examined in person.

Mockup of the original sets.

Original TARDIS console replica

Other notable displays included Jon Pertwee's yellow roadster "Bessie," a mockup of Tom Baker's Tardis interior, complete with a coat rack draped in one of his later, more purpley giant scarves, and several TARDISes, including one used in the filming of the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor."  I also got to see K-9, who is perhaps one of my favorite characters of the entire show and who was significantly larger than I expected.  After examining the mostly older set pieces downstairs, I moved upstairs to explore the remaining displays, most of which consisted of assorted costumes--including the clothing of each and every Doctor incarnation to date.  While I wish there had been less emphasis on items from the current Doctor's and previous Doctor's eras (understandable given the relative accessibility of such items) as opposed to a more equitable representation of all the Doctor's incarnations, I really appreciated the ability to look at all the costumes up close and with a seamstress' eye.  As with most theater costuming for the stage, the assorted clothing I viewed looked much better on film and in motion than it did on stationary stands.  In addition to thinking that the current companion Jenna Coleman must be impossibly tiny based on the size of her costumes ("Impossible Girl" indeed), my overwhelming opinion as I strolled through all the displays (especially the women's clothing) was that I could have easily made any of them myself (and probably done better). Clearly the BBC needs to put me on staff immediately.  Are you there, BBC?  It's me, Ginger...

Man's best electronic friend

Clara Oswald's and Robin Hood's costumes from "Robot of Sherwood"

As is often the case with tourist sites, I could only exit the main exhibition hall after being funneled through a gift shop, presumably in the hope that I would spend a bucket of money on souvenirs.  Much of the stuff on offer was typical touristy schlock, but there were a few good things including some collectibles I either couldn't justify expense-wise or couldn't risk damaging in my overstuffed suitcase on the way home.  So I settled for a couple of less breakable shirts, including a royal blue zip-up hoodie printed with "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Yard" in an homage to the very first episode.  I also sprung for the rather disappointing "Merchandise Pack," which included a certificate identifying me as an "official companion," a fancy souvenir ticket, a booklet about the exhibition (which was decent), and a t-shirt--though they were out of the sizes I wanted and so took my address to mail me one when they were back in stock.  I was most excited about the souvenir Tardis key included in the pack, thinking it would look like the ones used in the show.  It didn't.  Instead it was a perfectly normal and boring key stamped with "Doctor Who Experience." lame.

Is that really the best you can do, Doctor Who Experience?  Really??

In spite of the kitschiness here and there, I really enjoyed the exhibition.  It's good to let one's inner geek out for fresh air every once in a while...keeps them from getting cranky (or too pasty).  Upon exiting the gift shop I came out in the main lobby next to a life-sized Dalek made of over 157,000 Cobi bricks (a Lego lookalike).  There was also a little cafe in the lobby whose menu, not surprisingly, had appropriately-themed item names (as did the wifi password); they even had small packages of Jelly Babies for sale (4th Doctor not included!).  I purchased a banana for a snack and a couple bottles of water to stash in my backpack. In an unusual stroke of luck for me, one of the sightseeing buses pulled to a stop nearby just as I was leaving the exhibition hall.  I was able to purchase a ticket directly from the driver and hop aboard, climbing to the top of the double-decker bus where I took a seat and plugged in my earphones.  The audio commentary on these buses always makes me smile; I'm convinced the narrators smirk their way through the entire script; they are my people.  The bus drove past the Millenium Centre, but this time the audio track explained the history and gave me a clue what was written on the front.  For those interested, it's two lines of poetry by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis: Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen ("Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration") in Welsh and "In These Stones Horizons Sing" in English.  The words are made up of windows and are apparently lit up at night.  I'd like to have seen that.  I also learned from the audio that Lloyd George, Welshman and former British Prime Minister, was supposedly quite the womanizer.  As we made our way through town I saw several lovely old buildings, including a historic Norwegian (Lutheran) church and the Millennium Stadium, home to the Wales National Rugby Union team.  I gather that Rugby is big in Wales.

Millennium Centre

Millennium Stadium

One of the stops was at Cardiff Castle and rather than finishing the bus tour just then I jumped off to make sure I had adequate time to see the castle and its environs. What's cool about Cardiff Castle is that it has building elements spanning centuries.  A Roman fort was built on the site around the 3rd century; some of the original wall was recently excavated and is now on display.  Then, in the late 11th century at the probable behest of William the Conquerer, the Norman invaders built a bailey castle over the ruins of the Roman fort.  Additional repairs and buildings were added over subsequent centuries, making Cardiff Castle an unusual conglomeration of building styles.  Cooler still (at least to me), the castle was held by the de Clare family for a century or two; in fact, the Black Tower still standing there was commissioned by one Gilbert de Clare, who was one of the 25 Magna Carta barons and, coincidentally, one of my ancestors.  This closed the circle on a weird serendipity for me...first I saw Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral during its 800th anniversary year and then I was able to go touch a tower built by one of its protectors who came from my own family line.  Funny how seemingly unrelated events end up tying together like that.  I'm not gonna lie; it left me a little breathless.  Even without that little connection the castle has quite an interesting history, having featured prominently in the War of the Roses and been held at different times by both the Nevilles and the Tudors.

11th Century Keep at Cardiff Castle.

The Black Tower, built by Gilbert de Clare, aka Grandpa

On my way up to the keep I saw a small gate house with a stockade nearby.  Across the grounds stood a medieval trebuchet all silent and poised as though performing active sentry duty.  I walked past the remains of another defensive wall which once connected the Keep to the Black Tower.  I hiked up myriad stairs to reach the top of the medieval keep, where I was treated to some stunning views of Cardiff.  I wish I'd thought to take a selfie of myself up there or asked another visitor to snap a photo for me, but I was so entranced by the landscape that I completely forgot.  The castle keep was built very similarly to the one I saw in Arundel with Alan, the memory of which made me smile.  I didn't run into any scary toddlers jumping out of niches at this keep, though. As I looked down from the 77 foot high parapet and across the moat, I could see a wedding party leaving the Georgian house on the grounds to line up so the newlywed couple could run the traditional rice-throwing gauntlet.

View of Cardiff from the castle keep.

Because why wouldn't you get married at a castle if you could?

Once back down on solid ground I returned my audio guide to the gift shop and purchased a couple small souvenirs, then left the castle grounds and went across the street to do some proper shopping at a place recommended by Phil, one of the guys I'd met at Whooverville.  I almost bought one of the beautifully-carved Welsh love spoons (they're a big deal in Wales), but they were incredibly expensive so I regretfully passed them by.  I did finally get my Welsh dragon necklace, though, and even purchased earrings to match.  Afterwards I headed back across the street to the bus stop where I discovered to my chagrin that I had missed the last pickup of the day--just as I had in Edinburgh.  Darn those fall hours!!  So I only got half my bus tour.  But that's okay; I was more than happy to exchange the reduced off-season running hours for the beautiful weather and fewer tourists in town.  With bus transport no longer an option, I started hoofing it to a nearby mall to see about purchasing a second small suitcase so I could get all my swag home on the plane.  Unfortunately, all the shops were either closed or closing by the time I got there.  Still, I got to do some serious people-watching as I walked along the busy arcade, observing first a small child dribbling melted ice cream while eating a cone, then several buskers playing drums, and finally some Asian girls wearing what looked like some anime cosplay outfits.

I had just stopped near the end of a street off the arcade and to figure out where to go next when a young girl stopped me to ask for directions to the train station.  I found this supremely amusing and ironic since I likewise had no clue where I was going, but apparently I looked safe and/or reliable and she stood looking up at me with wide-eyed innocence and trust. I sighed and pulled out my map from the hotel, pointing out the way for her as best I could.  Then I found a taxi parked on the street and gave the name of my hotel.  Once again the driver grumbled and muttered that I should just walk.  What is the deal with Cardiff taxis anyway?  I realize I'm not providing large fares, but surely making some money is better than sitting there making none?   I climbed into the cab and, because my feet were hurting again, I insisted he drive me anyway.  The driver grimaced but put the car in gear, hurtling down the road at high speed as if in a hurry to get rid of me.  He probably was, wanting to go off in search of more lucrative plunder. After retrieving my luggage from lockup, I sat for a while in the lobby till my feet felt better, then got up and walked the five minutes to the train station.

Originally I'd planned to spend two nights in Cardiff, but ultimately decided I was over schlepping all my crap to a different hotel every night and thought that a nice, quiet afternoon in London before getting up early to fly home sounded delightful.  The train ride back to London proved to be a colorful one; first we were delayed while the train in front of us had mechanical problems.  Then the door to my carriage, which was immediately behind me, decided it didn't want to stay closed when anyone walked through it, so for over an hour I was treated to the loud bangs and rattles of the carriage junction slamming into the tracks while a cool wind kept whooshing in through the door.  I tried fixing it once or twice to no avail.  Eventually the door sorted itself out, but it took over an hour to do so.  Next a guy on his phone walked through the carriage and out into the junction to talk loudly about sports to whomever was on the other end.  He said he'd given up on football (or maybe it was rugby) and was doing handball now...I think that's what he said, anyway.  His conversation then became extremely animated and heavily peppered with the word "fuck."  You would have sworn he had just stepped out of a British sports was that comical.  He finally disembarked right before we arrived at Paddington station. The couple sitting next to me, who were probably in their late 50s and who were very nattily dressed, muttered to each other that you could still hear the guy even after he'd gotten off the train...which you could.  And for probably another 300 yards before he finally went out of earshot.  The couple looked at each other and I started smirking, so they looked at me and we all exchanged knowing glances.  You've got to love the British...they are so understated and yet so much meaning can be conveyed in just one such eloquent glance.  I couldn't help asking myself "Why do I not live here yet???"  You know, because I'm so understated myself and all.

A couple of stops later the train arrived at Paddington. I purchased a ticket for the Heathrow Express, having cannily reserved a hotel room within walking distance of the airport so I could avoid any rush hour transportation delays before my plane's very early departure Monday morning.  As I was walking to the platform I was accosted by some man looking for money to get home "because his bank card was empty," etc., etc.  It sounded like the same old scam as at home; someone asks for money and if you offer to call someone or offer some other form of tangible aid and it's all "No, no, I just need X amount of money!"  I felt bad about turning him down but he was quite persistent which made it a little easier.  I had to wait a while for the train to show up and then to get moving, presumably because it was quite late at night, but finally the train zipped along towards Heathrow.  A transfer and a 10-minute walk later, I checked into the Heathrow Hilton where I was given a free upgrade to a "King Executive Room" with complimentary breakfast and internet.  Who knew keeping hotel loyalty cards you rarely use could come in so handy?  Plus the room came with "amenities," by which I mean "mini bar with exorbitantly overpriced snacks and sodas."  Personally I was far more excited by the free internet since most hotels over here charge for that unless you are a loyalty member.  I made myself comfortable and then climbed into the bed where I promptly fell asleep halfway through posting on Facebook, phone still in hand.  I found it under me the next morning.  Yup...that's how I roll.

Welsh Kilt Count:  8