The Ponce Chronicles (Part 1)

January 9-26, 2016.

I have just returned from another dimension. That’s the way it feels, returning to Boston.

I have been in Puerto Rico for the last two and a half weeks with one wife and one daughter, frolicking in the sun and surf. Oops—no, sorry!—that’s what normal people do when they “vacation” in Puerto Rico. We have been engaged in something rather different. We have been “camping” in the beautiful house that Allysen’s parents built decades ago, when her dad was brought here by General Electric to help set up some industrial plants. The house remains Fay’s (Allysen’s mom), though she moved up to be closer to us a couple of years after Allysen’s dad died. The house has been largely empty for a few years, except for some dedicated caretakers and neighbors—and one rather, er, exceptional tenant. The elements have not been kind to the house, and the tenant has left a swath of deconstruction.

We have come to pick up the pieces. What follows is a chronicle of that mission. All characterizations of the tenant, and of the house, are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of the owner (my mother-in-law).


We fly to Ponce, Puerto Rico, courtesy of JetBlue. This means we arrive at 4-something in the morning. (All flights between Ponce and Boston are red-eyes, via New York or Orlando. This is one of the charms of traveling to Puerto Rico. Another, an actual charm, is the applause that invariably erupts from the passengers upon safe touchdown. Whether it’s applause for arrival back on the homeland, or for the pilot for getting us down in one piece, I do not know.)

Our plan is to rescue and restore the beautiful Palmer homestead on a hillside above the city, both from the depredations of the tenant and from years of the elements, insufficient maintenance, and some squirrelly electrical work (none of it unsafe!) from Allysen’s dad’s later years, when his once-exacting standards were somewhat in decline.

Members of the mission team: Allysen, Jayce (the-daughter-formerly-known-as-Julia), and Jeff. Mission site: an empty house, devoid of all furnishings except a huge stack that the tenant left behind, and a few essentials provided by kindly friends. Goal: to repair and restore, and make suitable for short-term rental or sale.

As always, we are picked up at Ponce Airport and brought to the house by Freddie, the tireless, fearless, loyal, and there-when-you-need-him moonlighting policeman. We notice at once the broken steps, the defunct lighting, the lack of running water (except precious gallons from the gravity-fed cistern), and the condition of the once-gorgeous pool (now slime green). The place actually looks better than we expected, thanks to Freddie’s hours of work in cleaning and carrying out eight 30-gallon trash-bags full of junk left by the tenant, whom we will call, um… Veronica. It was Veronica who failed to maintain the pool, didn’t report broken steps and decking, and who removed light fixtures from the walls with abandon—oh, and installed an obscenely ugly faux fireplace in the living room where once there had been lovely cabinet doors. When we last saw the house, about three years ago, it needed some work, but nothing like this. It‘s all quite a shock.

The pool as we last saw it, in 2013…

Pool as we saw it in 2013

The pool that greets us now…

Pool in 2016

Another little jolt is the tarantula I spot on the side of the pool, right above the carpet of algae. We discuss what to name it. Edith? Ethel? We settle on Ethel. The next day Ethel is gone, and we don’t see it again.

Tarantula in pool_cu

(Coming up in Part 2, settling in with no running water.)

[To read all of The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]


Our Sojourn in San Francisco Bay

Well, not in the bay, but in the bay area. We’ve just returned from a trip west, visiting my brother and his wife, who are visiting scholars this year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. We got to see lovely Palo Alto and Stanford itself, which besides advanced study boasts two fantastic art museums, and the Herbert Hoover Tower, which houses the former president’s library as well as a great observation deck. Here’s a picture from Wikipedia (I forgot to take my own).

I’m not entirely without snapshots, though. One day we drove to and through San Francisco, and over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Muir National Monument, which is an island in the middle of beautiful state parkland, and the home to a gorgeous redwood forest. It took us a while to get there, but the walk through the redwoods was well worth it. So was the view from the low mountain slopes back across San Francisco Bay toward the city. These pix don’t really do them justice.

If you zoom way in, you can see the San Francisco skyline.

Treebeard would approve. Maybe these are the Entwives?

Another day we drove south to see elephant seals lounging on the beach, gathering their strength for a nine-month swim that would take them thousands of miles across the ocean, eating and swimming, until their return for mating season on this beach next year. Did you know elephant seals can dive to 1500 feet and stay down for an hour, while holding their breaths? On the beach, they look like enormous stuffed dog toys, idly flicking sand onto their bodies with their flippers.

On the final day, we visited the Cantor and Anderson art museums. Here’s Rodin’s “Thinker,” one of seven castings made by Rodin.

The driving game of choice in Palo Alto, by the way, is seeing how many Teslas you can spot per trip. It didn’t take long to develop Tesla envy.

It was a short visit, but memorable. Remind me to get an appointment to Stanford the next time I’m on sabbatical!

Staying on a Boat in London for Worldcon

It seemed like the perfect solution when Allysen found it on Air B&B: Houseboat on the Thames! What could be more charming? Besides, time was growing seriously short, and we really needed a place to stay at worldcon. And it was cheaper than the hotels, which were mostly full, anyway. Besides, it had a double-sized bunk, plus several singles, which was more than enough. Plus, it had a kitchen and a working toilet. What more do you need?  Well…

What we got was a charming little sailboat called the Catch-E, which really was a nice boat if you didn’t think of it in terms of B&B, or even houseboat. It did have the requisite number of bunks, but the smell of mildew and strong cleaners in the cabin caused Julia to immediately decide that she was sleeping on the cushioned bench seat in the upper wheelhouse/dining area. And the tiny kitchenette would have been just a tad more useful if it had had refrigeration. And the working toilet? Technically, it did work. But it also pumped straight out into the marina waters, so it wasn’t what you would actually call usable except in extremis. The fact was, we had to hike out to the external bathhouses for toilets and showers. For that purpose, we could choose between the one inside the marina’s gated fence (where the toilets worked but the lights and electricity didn’t), or the fully functional one that required going through two gates with pass-codes in each direction.

Still, it was cozy enough. And camping can be fun. It was pleasant to fall asleep to the rocking of the boat. And it was a very nice hike around the extensive marina area to the nearest supermarket and tube station. It was only a forty-five minute commute to the con, via foot, tube, and automated (driverless) light rail, which wasn’t bad. I had brought several outlet adapters and a power strip to charge our phones and tablets, which would have been great, except that while I had made certain all of our chargers were dual voltage, I forgot to do the same with the power strip. Which fried soundlessly, the instant I plugged it in, popping all the boat’s circuit breakers. Still, we were doing okay, in spite of its being… other… than what we’d expected.

Until the night came when—sometime after midnight—I ducked out in shorts and t-shirt to the bathroom and came back to the fence gate to find that the pass-code no longer worked to let me in.


No, it really didn’t work anymore. I hollered to Julia, who was reading in her bench-seat bed. She came to help, and she couldn’t make it work, either. Finally we were reduced to me walking along the outer fence while she walked the long dock, looking for a boat with a light on inside. (Most of the boats in the marina really were houseboats.) Finally she knocked on a boat window and found a kind soul who lent her his entry fob long enough to blip me in. On returning it, I thanked him and said we hadn’t been told about a change in the pass-code. “The swine,” he said. “They never do.”

The next morning, I got the new code (it changes fortnightly) from the marina manager, who was surprised to learn that we were paying to stay on the boat a few days. “Really,” he said. “Because that’s not allowed here.” He was perfectly genial to me, but it was clear that the owner of the Catch-E was going to have some ‘splainin’ to do.

We were able to laugh about it, most of the time. It certainly was different from your cookie-cutter con hotel room. But when we checked out of it after the con, and into a hotel near Greenwich (thank you,, we fell with joy upon the spacious beds and gaped with positive wonderment at the included bathroom, complete with shower!

Back from the showers
Laundry day on Catch-E
Tea time!


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