Years ago, when I liberated Venetia from Wisconsin in the dead of winter, House on the Rock was closed for the season. A return trip was, therefore, absolutely necessary. But when? And under what conditions? Answers: Now. And Wiscon in Madison over the weekend of my birthday. We would get to spend time with Mark Oshiro and Baize White, visit with Venetia’s old cellmate Kat Lemmer, and see as many of the surrounding wonders as possible.
As usual I worked until the last possible minute – this time on my homage to the great Steven Universe (a portrait of the Crystal Gems featuring Claire as Pearl and Mish as Amethyst) – even as our dear friend Phia sat in the next room sewing up my attempt at business-attire-cosplay. When we wrapped up, my Mother kindly ferried us to PDX, and the TSA lines were more or less as-usual. The red eye to Chicago encountered turbulence, and the airline (Spirit) featured the latest in sardine-like passenger-discomfitting chairs that didn’t recline. All told we got three hours of sleep that first morning.
Arrival: Made very welcome
We got to O’Hare as the sun came up and made our way directly to the car rental counter. There, the lovely woman asked what is likely a common question for her – “What are you here for?” So we told her the plan: the waterparks of the Wisconsin Dells, House on the Rock, Wiscon. She wanted to know what Wiscon was, so we explained that it’s an inclusive feminist Science Fiction Fantasy Convention in Madison and that Venetia would be featured on a panel about creating religion in fiction. When she asked us about our own spiritual practices, we spoke about trauma and abuse and healing from PTSD. At this point, the woman behind the counter next to us joined in, asking questions and telling us her story. They were wonderful people, and we stayed with them for over an hour, talking animatedly in the moments between customers.
Once settled into our car, we picked our destination – Lee Street Park. The drive there was dull and unappealing, until we got to Evanston where we were only a few blocks from the park and the edge of Lake Michigan. There, the lawns grew wider and the houses grander until we came to the brick mansions and small stone palaces overlooking the lake. We parked the car in a nice shady spot, rolled down our windows to enjoy the warm breeze off the lake, and promptly fell fast asleep.
Much later we awoke to hunt for food and retired to a lagoon in the park, to eat and soak our feet in the cool water. Refreshed and rejuvenated, we began to contemplate our surroundings with more awareness and discovered that this beautiful oasis was none other than Northwestern University. Though we still had hours before Mark and Baize arrived, we decided to start the drive back to the airport, but this time avoiding the toll roads completely by using surface streets. Heading due south, we soon ran into a grand and expansive cemetery. Already this trip was proving most useful and worthwhile as we took picture after picture of Celtic crosses, patina-ed copper, and deer which (unlike the rest of the inhabitants) were not dead but merely resting. After a dodgy sleepless start it was exactly what we needed.
We picked up Mark and Baize from the airport and headed straight for Madison, already ready for dinner. By the time we reached Madison we were hungry and desperate for food. Happily, Mark’s advanced Yelp skills found us a genuinely delicious (and surprisingly affordable) Venezuelan restaurant called La Taguara. Everything there was delicious – including the peculiar sodas! Check it out if travel takes you hence.
Immediate food needs met, we headed to Costco to do some longer term food shopping. En route, we were lured away by a vasty store called Woodman’s across the freeway. We never made it to Costco. As we moved through Woodmen’s peculiarly midwestern enormity, Mark and Venetia bonded over peanut butter and rice crackers. Luckily we found food we could eat, and our way out – only discovering the invaluable store map as we departed into the gloaming.
We reached the Wisconsin Dell’s as the last light faded from the night sky and were gratified to find the promised kitchen, and the room’s jacuzzi overlooking the lake. Soaking away the aches of travel was a perfect way to end to the first of several surreal days.
Day 2: Boom, like that!
Mark and Baize started the day with run along the lake where they saw an ostentatious mansion on it’s own little island guarded by door-sized black stone lions. We all ate breakfast, put on swim suits and headed out for the first day of our water park extravaganza! The Wilderness Resort is so full of different water parks it was a little confusing. We started with the Water Dome (“two swimmers enter, one swimmer leaves”) where Venetia experienced her first-ever water slide. It would not be her last! After a few trips to the top of those stairs (Ye gads! The stairs! I wouldn’t have believed I would so willingly climb as many flights of stairs!) and down the big slide, we left the overheated faux-tropical Dome for the second giant room of water slides. Waterslides (like most amusement rides) come in a small variety of possible physics-observant permutations – we tried them all. The tallest and most berserk featured a sharp drop (Venetia loved going over such falls backwards) that opened into a funnel shaped area where the riders of the raft-thing (we tried it with 2, 3 and 4 riders) soar up and down in a whipsawing motion before plunging once more straight to the bottom.
After a brief return to the hotel to dry off, we headed back to the resort – this time for drier (if no less interesting) diversions. There, Mark proved to be a well-practiced sniper whose efficiency was only matched by his glee and savagery. His massive victory was tragically (for us) inevitable. Lee found that his odds were not helped when his white shirt and socks glowed incandescent in the black light of the psychedelic wild west environs. Lee’s later first place finish on the go-carts proved little consolation – it seems that bumping, ramming or bashing was counter-indicated so those who start first tend to finish that way too.
Venetia was breathtaking as she moved through the mist-shrouded Laser Escape Room. Nimble and possessed of an amazing degree of body awareness, she escaped in…. well, it wasn’t record time exactly, but being 28th among the 25,000 without practice runs or do-overs was pretty astonishing to the rest of us. Afterwards, skee-ball, pinball, Whack-a-Mole, Dance Dance Revolution, and Kung-Fu Panda punching games fell to Mark’s might on the Midway. Then back onto the shuttle bus to the hotel.
This time we were driven the long way around the lake, and by that curious mansion (on it’s own wee island) that Baize and Mark had seen earlier. The shuttle driver told us that it was the 18,000 square foot palazzo home of Nick Laskaris (owner of Mt. Olympus Water and Theme Park) and how his 9 bay garage (which held at least 2 Lamborghinis) is insured for 2.7 million dollars. What made this especially startling to me was the sheer number of trailer parks that dotted the surrounding area.
Venetia and Baize found us a place for dinner – a lovely little restaurant down on the water, not too far from the ubiquitous Tommy Bartlett’s water skiing extravaganza. Happily there was no show that night, and we watched rain roll in and out from the safety of our covered patio. The food was as average as the waiter was charming. We were exhausted from the day, and lingered a long time over the meal. So into this idyll, image our surprise as the sky went white with a Lightning strike. It was pretty much straight up and down, smashing into a cove around the lake to our left. Seconds after the flash, the thunder! We’d never heard anything so loud, and glad though we were that it hadn’t struck us – we were a little concerned it had hit our hotel. This feeling intensified as the smoke began to drift up and over the lake! We talked a little nervously about it, and I suggested that we were probably fine. After all, I was pretty sure our hotel was more to the left. Surely the lightning had hit that palazzo on the island. We left 15 minutes later, walking through the small throng of diners who had come out to watch the smoke and hear the sirens blaring, seeming to converge at the invisible spot of the lightning strike. As we left, a man on his cell phone seemed to have news, so I asked him about it. He had called friends in emergency services and they had told him – the lightning had hit Nick Laskaris’ palazzo on its little island. Don’t mess with Zeus.
Schadenfreude dictated we do a little drive by, if only to see how the locals were taking it. There was almost a traffic jam of drivers, and no shortage of neighbors peering curiously at the smoke and the mass of assembled firemen. And while little damage was visible to us, the wafting smoke suggested that some serious damage had indeed been done. And it was a comfort to know he was well insured….
After our neighborly gawking, we returned once more to the scene of the earlier amusements – this time to the rope course and glow-in-the-dark miniature golf. It amazed me how many amusements could be crammed into a finite space. The golf courses were squalid, but they fit into a couple otherwise useless caverns.
The rope course was delightful and hung over an arcade populated with similar games to those we’d seen earlier. Those playing below seemed oddly uncaring about the cat’s cradles and odd ropes and ladders that were being traversed mere feet over their heads – 2 stories of safety-harnessed fun!
Safely back at the hotel that night, Mark secured us cheap tickets for Mt. Olympus the next day.
Day 3: Ready to (House on the) Rock!
We arose Thursday later than we might have liked (but let’s face it, 3 separate visits to every water slide and attraction our feet could carry us to, and a surprise lightning strike might just require a little sleeping in!), and headed south to House on the Rock. The drive was wonderful – bucolic and calm. “Giant carousel! Too many dollhouses!” was all Venetia had managed by way of warning or explanation, so we were, as Mark often says in his podcasts, not prepared.
The House itself surprised me. I’d somehow imagined this all-American folly would have been…. older, more Victorian. Instead, it’s the embodiment of a very different era, when smarmy swinging 60’s super scientist Jonas Venture would have invited hot chicks in with a single rakishly raised eyebrow and a mellifluous, ”Hey doll, have you ever made it in the Infinity Room? It’s just delicious, kitten….”. The small bachelor pad on the Rock is filled to busting with conversation pits, cozy nooks, massive walls of books, re-purposed stained glass windows and Tiffany lamps. Oh, and a mechanical orchestra in the kitchen, natch. There is carpet on nearly all the floors (good), many of the the walls (hmm) and a surprising number of ceilings (peculiar… but then the ceilings are dangerously low). While I’m sure it prevents wear (and helpfully collects dust), I cannot imagine keeping so much carpet clean. Miles of carpet. Because these days, that original House on that original Rock is surrounded and buttressed by a veritable labyrinth of other less-photogenic structures – it seems that once punters were paying to see the great work, there was nothing for it but to add more. And more. AND MORE!
It took us 4 hours to traverse the strange pathways of House on the Rock. Highlights included:
The “Life-sized” kraken battling a giant whale with enormous teeth.
The Mikado was just one of the almost-insane and often nearly in-tune music rooms (by which we mean rooms filled with automatons that eerily play musical instruments, often to a vaguely recognizable tune. ‘The Blue Danube’ was more curdled and strange than its namesake in a winter flood!)
The giant Carousel about which we had been warned (and which readers of Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ have encountered in fiction. The staff knew nothing of the mythic Halloween carousel ride that Venetia had witnessed years earlier “Hmm… no. No one ever says anything about that”. The staff did admit some excitement at the prospect of the ‘American Gods’ miniseries being shot on site later this year or next).
As a longtime docent at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum, I know that Museums have collections. The tricky thing about the collections at House on the Rock is that (despite the endless rows of cabinets, shelves, interactive displays, et al.) they are not a Museum – it’s history, and faux history and no-history mixed up in a pop (and popped) culture blender designed by Rube Goldberg (from napkin doodles by Nikola Tesla) and built by Ed Wood and Tim Burton.
The contrast between the Ladies’ and Men’s rooms was deeply peculiar, yet oddly gender-normative. After our own forays, I felt it only mete to invite another group of women into the men’s room. So much wonderment, surely it would be a shame to miss any!
En route back to the Dells, we stopped briefly at the Forevertron. This enormous sculpture is what the Transformers might have looked like had they invaded Earth during the Edwardian period (It seems that Rube Goldberg casts a large shadow over Wisconsin).
A quick visit to the hotel suite and a speedy change of attire later we were off to Mt. Olympus, its 3 active go-cart tracks and, of course, even more water slides.
While Baize and Venetia stuck to the ground, Mark and I climbed still more stairs. “Zeus is feeling particularly aggressive today!” These were the words that greeted us at the top of the huge wooden roller coaster. All we could do was nod. And laugh. Of course this was intended as a warning about the speed and ferocity of the juddering old roller coaster. But given the events of the previous evening, the hubris of stealing Zeus’ thunder seemed more…. topical. Of course we sat in the front, thusly:
The Dells is not a hotbed of fine cuisine, but after dinner at Noodles and Co., Venetia’s enjoyed her first custard milkshake and became a Culver’s convert. Afterwards, Mark (who has boundless energy) headed back to the Arcade while Venetia and I relaxed in the jacuzzi.
Day 4-6: Welcome to the Weekend
At noon on Friday, Memorial Day weekend began in earnest and the outdoor water slides opened. So of course Venetia and Mark had to experience all 8 of the newly-opened rides in 90 minutes’ time. Whew! While they cavorted in the sun, I spent a long luxurious morning in the hot tub catching up with the delightful Kat, who had brought us all an amazing and delicious home-cooked Indian meal. The best part of traveling (and of having people stay with us) is getting to spend deep quality time with them – and Kat is always a favorite. :)
Venetia drove Mark and Baize (and my art show) down to Madison but then frantically called me for help in setting up. It seems the art show ran out of proper hanging hardware! Happily, Kat got me to the hardware store and the day was saved. The art show had a great set-up (and kindly displayed my work front and center). You can see the last-minute piece (printed on metal in the nick of time) below:
Once the art show was set-up we left to join Kat in another delicious meal. This time the highlight was a rhubarb cinnamon lemonade so amazing we had to share it with our friends the following day as we wandered in the heat of Saturday Farmer’s Market around the capitol building.
Venetia’s panel about creating religion in fiction was also on Saturday, and I hope she shares her notes for this blog at some point. We attended a Steven Universe panel where we got some hot tips on the French releases still unaired in the US, and an extended intro animation. So of course we ran back up to our room following the panel to catch up. And then to nap. A lot. It turns out that our life of adventure compounded with masses of people is pretty tiring! Who knew? Venetia ended the day by playing multiple rounds of one of her favorite board games, 7 Wonders.
Sunday brought the best panel we attended: You Got Race On My Class! You Got Class On My Race! – a panel with Mikki Kendall, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, and Nisi Shawl. Fascinating and nuanced stuff. But Sunday was for friends and extracurricular activities too – so we geared up for more sun and boldly set off to the Madison Zoo. Our bravery was rewarded with a nearby parking space and an afternoon with Venetia’s dear friends Sarah and Jamie and their kids. As we parked in the lot for dinner by the lake we got a surprise – water skiers arrayed like a three layer cake! And as we left? A huge rainbow that made a brilliant contrast with the lightning we’d enjoyed 3 days earlier.
When we returned and got gussied up, we were surprised by the line for the Desserts and Guest of Honor speeches. But as some of you know, I do love a line as it gives me the opportunity to chat with people I might not otherwise encounter. The dessert selection was splendid – allowing me to sample several (ok, many) desserts. We got to sit with dear friends Rachel and Phi, and watch the speeches, and the speeches were better than the desserts. Really.
All three women are astonishing, and their different approaches made for a unified and inspiring whole:
Justine Larbalestier spoke in a light accent that reminded me of that other Australian American Liz Argall. She dropped the occasional f-bomb for effect as she talked about the rejection of ‘Young Adult’ novels by her otherwise sensible peers. And she went deep into the word and concept of “teenage”, its origins, its arbitrariness and its extraordinary power.
Sofia Samatar was as stylish and poised as she had been when I watched her win the World Fantasy Award a few years earlier. She read us some of her breathtaking rejection letters, showing with great clarity how ridiculously stale and calcified the olde world of publishing is and how difficult it is for even supremely assured and powerful work to find a home with the mighty publishing cartels. The status quo needs changing, but it isn’t going to change itself, and it isn’t going to go quietly.
Nalo Hopkinson slyly lampooned the troglodytes who have spent their time in racist, sexist protests against progress and inclusion. She sang us a little Lady Bey and talked about a new award she is creating – an annual award for those in the field who are making things better – turning those lemons into lemonade. By the time I’d volunteered to work up the award certificate, 2 others had already volunteered. Wiscon is full of good people.
I wish I could find a link to these speeches on YouTube or the like, but so far no luck….
Day 7: Monday Monday
Monday was quiet in comparison, but still full of good friends and conversations. I was surprised and delighted to run into the radiant Esther and her children in the sparkling con suite. It’d been far too long since last we’d met. And so much longer since I’d sculpted Calvin and Hobbes for the top of her (and Ben Rosenbaum’s) wedding cake. While I was gabbing away, Venetia got quite the workout carrying Sarah’s eldest son everywhere on her back. She was over the moon getting to introduce him and his brother (and Sarah) to Steven Universe. I assisted in the tearing down of the artshow – not just my small panels, but the whole kit and kaboodle. Even though I’ve been exhibiting in shows since 1980, I am constantly surprised by the different mechanical and cultural ley lines that shows around the country present – in this case, coloring books for sale with the fine-art dolls, and abstract paintings and 3D papier-mâché science sculptures! My biggest surprise was the lack of inclusion in the artwork. This is endemic in most shows, but I had guessed that Wiscon would manage better.
That night while Venetia recovered from her exertions, I had a marvelous time at the final party of the convention. Travelers and friends converged – coming from as nearby as Madison itself and as far away as York in the UK. A lovely night, and new friends into the bargain.
Day 8 and 9:
The next day we were off to Chicago. Driving south we quickly saw an approaching (and very ominous) storm front. We turned east in the very nick of time, racing ahead of it. By the time we arrived in Chicago, the storm seemed well behind us.
We dropped Mark and Baize off with the McCartys and shared a wonderful lunch of Duck Egg Hash. After a hasty goodbye, and a quest for gasoline, we headed downtown. The storm broke all around us – wind tearing into awnings and spewing garbage into the streets. It was portentous as all heck! We arrived at our hotel just as the storm hit the city in earnest. But thanks to Venetia’s cunning, our car drop-off was a mere block from the hotel, and I was barely wet when I returned. We were quite surprised to find that our room (which had been booked at the last moment) occupied the top floor of the hotel, and had such a great view of the park, the museums, and the lake beyond. We ate some snacks we’d brought and enjoyed the view and, when the sun set, even some TV – a thing that never happens at home!
The last day of our trip was spent in the parks of downtown Chicago. The first ‘attraction’ was the repulsive line at the Shedd Aquarium, purposefully engineered to convince people to spend more money in an upgrade and deliberately making poorer people wait in a 45 minute line. As with the increasingly haves vs. have-not culture of air travel, it left us feeling bad for all involved. The neo-liberal oligarchy has some serious problems, and they don’t seem to be getting better.
We did a little research and discovered that we could get into the Field Museum at a discounted price if we didn’t go to all the special exhibits. It turned out we didn’t even have the stamina for all the regular exhibits! We were both impressed by the displays and the way the museum placards are recontextualizing the way people think about pre-colonized North and South America. There were many beautiful and functional displays that were educational and interesting. There was a marvelous Tibetan display with not only religious objects but also pieces of everyday clothing and the necessary items of life – from clothing to teapots. And the crowning gem for us was the astonishing and exquisite exhibit of newly-restored Malvina Hoffman sculptures. Sadly the museum was sold out of her art book. Sadder, there seems to be no book featuring the work properly – only books gassing on about it. I wish we’d taken a hundred or so photos, because…. wow!
The final highlight of this delightful vacation came from a most unexpected source. We were seated next to a baby taking his first flight, and it seemed a recipe for disaster. Instead, he the cutest and best-behaved baby on the plane. After cooing and smiling at Venetia, he promptly fell asleep for the entire flight. Awww.