The October 2020 Birthday Trip, Part 6: Flora and Media

My wife standing atop a pile of dirt in Bloomington's WonderGarden

Anne imagines herself queen of the hill in WonderGarden. Deep into autumn, we found at least two things wrong with that name.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

In addition to our annual road trips, my wife Anne and I have a twice-yearly tradition of spending our respective birthdays together traveling to some new place or attraction as a one-day road trip — partly as an excuse to spend time together on those most wondrous days, partly to explore areas we’ve never experienced before. We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.

Well, at least we did before 2020. Anne turned 50 this year, but for work-related reasons involving the Age of Coronavirus, I’m currently not allowed to leave the state of Indiana for the foreseeable future. Anne did some local travel research, a longtime hobby of hers (you have no idea how many of our future road trips she’s already mapped out), and came up with a few things she thought would be fun to do on a Saturday in autumn. Naturally we had to start with a long walk around someplace with millions of leaves changing colors. When you live in Indiana, it’s what you do. After picking up some sugar for breakfast, our first attraction of the day was McCormick’s Creek State Park, southwest of Indianapolis…

…and then it was on to Bloomington — home of IU, filming location for the 1979 Best Picture nominee Breaking Away, and hometown of such luminaries as David Lee Roth, Princess Diaries author Meg Cabot, animation voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, wrestler Mick Foley, sex scientist Alfred Kinsey, Jerry from ER, and the guys who wrote and directed both Hoosiers and Rudy. We didn’t exactly follow their footsteps, but we enjoyed finding our own path and picking up souvenirs along the way, where permitted.

We already shared some of the other sights we passed along the way as we searched for places to indulge our hobbies. Anne’s interests are arguably more particular than mine and nowadays consume far less space. In 2020 her favorite things to collect have been library books and groceries. In Bloomington she found herself in pursuit of exactly one (1) object. Just the one. A small ask for an enormously wondrous birthday gal. I mean, she also loves hanging out with me, and enjoys seeing those color-changing trees. But she also had her heart set on a certain thing.

Her modest wish led us to the WonderLab Museum of Science, Health & Technology, whose name is self-explanatory and doesn’t lend itself to the best acronym. Longtime MCC readers may recall that one of the recurring side quests in our travels is the search for those machines that smash pennies into ovals and imprint them with imagery evocative of their location. She has books filled with dozens of these small, simple, shiny souvenirs. As it happens, her sources confirmed WonderLab has a smashed penny machine. Thus off we strode arm-in-arm to WonderLab…

WonderLab logo.

We don’t hit up a lot of all-ages science museum at our age, but we were huge fans of them as kids.

…whereupon we were greeted with abject failure. The smashed penny machine was just inside their front door in a little foyer requiring no admission fee. The machine was turned off and turned to face the wall. Whether it was shut down to avoid COVID-19 tactile contamination or simply broke down, we cannot say. All we know is Anne’s birthday wish was foiled.

Anne laments broken smashed penny machine.

The offending inaccessible machinery. Down low, a tiny fluorescent traffic safety golem feels her pain.

Rebuffed by malfunction, we attempted to console ourselves in WonderLab’s adjacent park called WonderGarden. According to other visitors’ online photos, WonderGarden is a lush, verdant delight in the summertime, a microcosm of nature dotted with gizmos on exhibit among the flowers and bushes and leaves and probably happy, smiling insects. Judging by our lead photo taken here in the annus horribilis that is the Age of Coronavirus, either autumn in Bloomington has become a time of blight, or else WonderLab’s 2020 cost-cutting measures have included axing the gardeners.

The gate to WonderGarden advises guests "Explore Gently".

“Explore Gently” advises the front gate. It is possible previous guests did not heed this.


Coneflowers have been a recurring motif in our Indiana travels this year. Admittedly we’ve seen healthier.


Hydrangeas seemed to thrive a bit better.

Purple flowers resembling loosestrife.

I’m no horticulturalist, so I asked Google and it thinks these resemble loosestrife. They seem awfully short for that, unless they were recently beheaded.

Metal contraption without explanation.

A contraption with a sealed control panel and no placards of explanation. Maybe it’s a bomb.

possibly modern sculpture, idk

A molecule atop a fake A/C unit. A building block atop a built block, clearly symbolic of the Duality of Man.

…so that really didn’t help us forget the broken smashed penny machine. We forgave but moved on to other sights.

red bushes!

A few blocks east over on Walnut Street we nearly tripped over the prettiest, strongest flowers we spotted this day. Whatever they are.

Indiana Theater marquee in Bloomington

Another marquee to add to my collection, and one answer to the question of what to do with theaters in a world without crowded entertainment: make your own! If you must!


In 2019 scooters were everywhere we went, both in downtown Indy and in other cities. This year, not nearly so much.

Though Anne had no luck with her pennies, I fared better in finding reasons to part with money. After lunch, our wandering took us near Landlocked Music, one of those awesome record shops that exist in large quantities in larger cities, and in decent quantities in all the best college towns. Up in Indianapolis they largely roost on all the sides of town where I never, ever go. (The west side has exactly one such place to call our own. It’s a tiny shadow of its former self.) I have the sort of musical tastes that find precious little sustenance at big-box stores, and I’ve grieved the loss of CD sections altogether at our nearest Best Buy and Hot Topic. Usually if I want to shop for music in person and not online, I have to wait till we hit downtown Chicago during comic-con season. Guess which year deprived me of that pleasure? Hint: it rhymes with “schmunty-schmunty”.

Landlocked Music!

Tune purveyors since 2006, they moved to their current location in January 2019. It’s better on the inside.

At first I was chagrined to approach and find the doors locked. We knocked on the door and a clerk approached with a spray bottle full of sanitizing liquid. He blasted our hands and then permitted us inside to romp responsibly. I dove right in and after several fruitful minutes had to stop myself from accumulating more than we could carry. The CD selections were old and new, diverse and obscure, things I’d never want and things I had to have now. That’s as it should be. I recovered my self-control, paid, and vowed to find more excuses to return to Bloomington someday. More than once, if possible.

We also found two bookstores, one of which employed a curious sales tactic of filling its display window with numerous knickknacks and decorations and exactly zero books. Perhaps reverse psychology works on some window shoppers. We moved on, though, as the afternoon began to wear on us — remember, we’d also already walked around a state park — and I didn’t want to keep us here all day.

Then, as we rounded a corner toward the car, we accidentally ran into a comic shop. Obviously we had to investigate, by which I mean spend money to support small businesses and the arts in this unkind pandemic economy. Hence a short tour of Vintage Phoenix Comic Books, 25-year veterans of immersing readers in the grand graphic storytelling traditions.

Vintage Phoenix Comic Books in Bloomington, Indiana

Bonus points for the “Heroes Wear Masks!” sign on the front door.

Window display of John Lewis' "March"

Items on display out front include samplers of John Lewis’ bio trilogy March — Free Comic Book Day offerings from another, far better year.

…and then we returned to the car and headed home while I still had money left.

On the way home I asked Anne if she was satisfied with her birthday weekend experience. I probably asked her twelve or thirteen times. It seemed a bit disproportionate that she was the one who turned fifty but I was the one bringing home shopping bags.

Some graphic novels and CDs I bought.

Winning artists, clockwise from top left: L7, John Wesley Harding (now Wesley Stace), Shriekback, Jim Rugg, Derf Backderf, Blur, and L7 with a 2020 reissue of a 30-year-old album. The baby beets in the center came from Rise ‘N Roll.

But at all twelve or thirteen times I asked, she wouldn’t stop smiling. She was content. She got her outing, her exercise, her experiential fix (in direly short supply this year), her decent lunch, her eyes set upon new sights, and — naturally paramount — her chance to see autumn colors making everything pretty for just a little while longer.

autumn tree!

If you’re in Indiana in autumn, it’s what you do.

The End. Thanks for reading! Lord willing, we’ll be back with more birthdays next year.

Other chapters in this special MCC miniseries:

Part 1: Nature Under One Roof
Part 2: Ambling in Autumn
Part 3: Woodland Signposts
Part 4: Obligatory Food Photos
Part 5: The Art of B-Town

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