28 September, 2014

Full Disclosure

We weren't going to make it to see Craig this time.

My friend Craig--professional trumpeter, music-man and all-around wonderful person--was performing in The Addams Family at the Grand Theatre in London. Since he lives in London, this is what he'd doubtless refer to as a "preferred gig", a run that comes complete with seeing his wife and son every morning and going home for a nap between matinee and evening performances if he wants to.
Since I don't live in London, actually seeing this performance looked unlikely. At almost the last minute a Saturday-sized hole in our schedule opened up and, Craig re-jigged things so we could attend with his family, and...what better way to spend a Saturday night?

I was going into this one almost blind. My cultural tapestry is riddled with holes you could drive a truck through: one of them is The Addams Family. The first show was before my time; the second one is background nattering every once in a while, not because Eva watches it, exactly, but because it's on one of the channels she watches. (My wife is a strange person, as I think I have made clear). There are very few shows that manage to snag my attention and that hasn't been one of them.
No, my only real exposure to the Addams Family comes by way of the most profitable pinball table of all time. I was an aspiring wizard once: if you ever wondered how it's possible for a man to go into  first year university with ten grand after all expenses were paid, and come out stone flat broke, without doing drugs of any kind--that was one reason. I bet I spent at least five hundred bucks in quarters that year. At least.

Anyway, after a straight-out-of-first-year-university supper at Burger King at Oxford and Highbury--and we only ate there because we couldn't find the Swiss Chalet that was signed and which I sorta-kinda remembered being on Highbury someplace--we found our way to Craig and Nicole's.  Oh, the perils of navigating a once-familiar city that is no longer half as familiar as you kid yourself into thinking it is. Very soon it was time to head downtown, to the Grand Theatre.

I hadn't been in the Grand since Agnes of God in...holy crap, Google says 1985. Grade seven, that would have been. It doesn't seem to have changed much. We sat second row balcony and the place was packed.

As Eva and I perused the program waiting for the house lights to dim, I confess--full disclosure--I was a little chagrined. I'd understood that the show was this year's rendition of the  High School Project but hadn't fully grasped that everyone on stage and almost everybody offstage was, in fact, a high school student. Craig himself was mentoring a tenth grade trumpeter in the pit (there was also a student violinist); the cast and crew hailed from all of the Catholic and most of the public secondary schools in London and area. (Nobody from my two London high schools, but a couple from my actual alma mater, Ingersoll District C.I., which raised my eyebrows a bit.) They put on one full production on the main stage each fall and one springtime show in the smaller McManus theatre, and it really is a high school musical. They're overseen, of course, but cast and crew are all kids.
Eva and I sat there, in the middle of an audience full of mostly family and friends of the performers, and felt --again, full disclosure--a bit put off. I've seen high school productions. Been in a few of them. Not to put anyone down, but...unless you're a friend or family, you're not likely to appreciate them overmuch.

So I thought to myself. Then the curtain went up.

I'm not going to tell you that everybody gave a stellar performance. That would be a lie, and lies just get you in trouble...one of the morals of this musical. But there were several real standouts--the female cast in particular, a couple of which have a future in theatre that could be their present at this point. The dance numbers were well done, as was the stagecraft, and you couldn't help realizing what talented kids can do given the run of a full professional theatre.
The play itself was creative, with pop culture references scattered throughout. Truth be told, I listen to these things more than I watch them...the music was really impressive, and challenging. Craig's an old hand at musical theatre scores at this point, and was, as always, fantastic. His second was great, too, for fifteen, and almost great enough I could drop the qualifier.  Craig has been playing trumpet since he was knee high to a valve and he agreed with me, afterwards.

Listening to Craig at these things is going to become an expensive hobby, I can tell. First Cabaret and now The Addams Family...and somehow I think whatever I see next, iTunes will have the Broadway recording of as well.

Some of the music really spoke to me:

Move toward the darkness
Don't avoid despair
Only at our weakest
can we learn what's fair

When you face your nightmares
Then you'll know what's real

Move toward the darkness and feel


Full disclosure ...I had a great time. Thanks for the opportunity, Craig. Looking forward to the next one.





27 September, 2014

Trigger Warning!

TRIGGER WARNING: The following trigger warning will mention several triggers. The mere sight of these words is toxic to some people, and therefore those people should stop reading now and go to bed. Unless something really awful happened to them in a bed once, in which case I apologize for not posting a trigger warning about the word "bed". I am sincerely sorry for any offence I may have caused and I will undergo sensitivity training forthwith.

TRIGGER WARNING: The word "rape" will appear in this post more than once. So will the words "gay", "trans", "man", "woman", and, oh, yeah, "polyamory"--trust me, that last one's there for a good reason, even if I can't figure out what that reason is--and if any of those pixel-patterns are traumatic for you, please retire to your safe space at once.

------------------
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
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Polyamory has come a long way since the early nineties when the word was coined. I only need look at my own coming-out process for proof of that.
Coming out of any closet is a scary proposition. Announcing to the world that you are different, and not just different but proudly, defiantly different--who wouldn't feel butterflies? And yet, for me at least, the reactions have been almost universally positive.  Not one friend disowned me. Nobody told me that I was to keep my mind and my hands off his wife or girlfriend. Many people were excited and happy for me; many others were carefully neutral, which amounts to the same. I only fielded a couple of viscerally negative reactions and even they weren't as negative as they might have been.

Anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about--go here and check this out.

I was prepared for much worse. Misunderstandings still abound about what it means to be poly--hell, the community itself has half a hundred working definitions, which doesn't help. But the rest of the world is apt to miss the common threads of honesty, trust and transparency that run through all those definitions. They're also unlikely to understand that "loving many" doesn't mean "desiring everyone"--in that way, poly is a lot like bisexuality. Regardless, I didn't face anything I couldn't handle. Could be that I wrote my coming-out post well enough to sufficiently lessen people's concerns. Could be that I'm just blessed with very good friends. I lean towards the latter explanation, myself.

My friends are as understanding as they can be--much thanks--but it's critical that people in a fledgling community band together, and so I have begun to seek out other poly people. Searching them out online is easiest: us polys don't t generally go around waving flags.
To that end, I joined one open international forum that has a few hundred Canadians on it, as well as a closed group on Facebook. And it's this Facebook group that has triggered (sorry) this post.

Closed groups are invite only: you click "Join Group" and wait for an admin to admit you. It took about twelve hours before I got my invitation. In that invitation was an admonition to read and comment on the rules thread before posting or commenting on any other thread--the Facebook equivalent of an end user license agreement.

This one was surprisingly long. There were more than two full screens, not just of text, but of text with links to more text--"Thou shalt not do such-and-such" and here's why.

It was immediately clear that this group is heavily moderated. The consequences for disobeying any of their rules were instant banishment and removal of the offending content. Moderation is a good thing in internet forums...in moderation. You want to keep the trolls down to a dull roar and combat the spam-bots. But this went way beyond anything that could be reasonably expected...by me, at any rate.

First rule: no cruising. Well, that's perfectly acceptable--I'm here to talk about polyamory with like-minded people and, well, yeah, meet some, for online values of "meet". I've said repeatedly that polyamory isn't about sex and "cruising' is the last thing on my mind. Okay, that's fine--so are all the sub-rules to this rule--no unsolicited friend requests, no 'stalking' and so on.

Second rule: treat everyone with respect. Well, yeah. Unless I'm treated otherwise, respect online is my watchword. Okay, so I agree to all this, I'm ready to join up, right?

Not even close.

The third rule was "do not put down anyone's polyamory". Okay, I have a wee problem here. I know that the monogamous world is full of people who think polyamory is a symptom of the moral decay of the universe, and poly people are exceeding wary (and weary) of being told they are evil degenerates. Further, there are many possible polyamorous configurations, any of which may work (or not) for the people involved, and just because you're in a polyfidelitous triad doesn't mean the non-hierarchial polycule across town is doing it wrong; and neither is the solopoly girl in the next town over, and for those of you who think I just lapsed into Martian, there's an exhaustive glossary here, which you are under no obligation to look at as it's tangential to my point.

My point being there are lots of right ways to do poly-there are also ways that are very, very wrong. (pdf) And if I see somebody screwing up, or about to screw up, their relationship and hurt any number of people including themselves, you're damn right I'm going to call them on it.

Moving on.

"Check your privilege". So help me, I had to look that up using the link provided, not because I had no idea what white privilege or male privilege or hetero privilege was, but because I couldn't figure out what the hell any of that had to do with polyamory. No matter, there would be zero tolerance for posts exhibiting privilege--they and their posters would be forcibly removed.

"You are not allowed to discuss Dan Savage in this forum". Wait, say what? Dan Savage is--well, I won't say he's a hero of mine, but I respect him highly, both for his It Gets Better Project and for his humorous, earthy and usually dead-on advice column.  Still, maybe there's something I don't know about him, some awful thing he did that makes him persona non grata. Better click the helpful link to find out what it is.

Oh dear Gawd.

Repeated Use of the 'T' Word--spelled "t****y" on the site, because "tranny" for "transexual" is obviously grossly insensitive.  Clap the man in stocks. He was also berated for his "sex-positivity", which led one woman to feel she could not say no to any sexual request. I've been reading Savage Love almost since its inception and I can state with absolute assurance that Dan Savage understands and respects people's right to say "no" to anything they are uncomfortable with.
There are a large number of other gripes, all of which have to do with Dan Savage's opinions that somebody obviously disagreed with. How sad, that somebody's response to an opinion they disagree with is to try to remove it from their sight. I just bet the next rule is going to be about

"You must post trigger warnings if you discuss anything offensive or traumatic. This is a safe space. Failure to do so upon request will result in immediate banishment and removal of the offensive content."

Sigh.

Okay, I'd better get my feelings clear out front here. If you have been raped, abused, assaulted, bullied,  exploited or hurt in any way at all, I'm here to lend as much support as I can give. I have been through my own dark hells, and I empathize with those most of you who have been in hell--or who are still there, for that matter. I care. I really do. Often too much--it's a failing of mine. If you suffered something traumatic, and you are beset by flashbacks and other personal demons because of it--please, seek the help you desperately need and make steps towards healing. I'll help as best I can.

But I can't make it didn't happen.

I can't assure you that from this moment on you're never going to be hurt again and I certainly can't
remove the trauma and all its associated words from your sight. At some point you have to--ahem--suck it up, buttercup. As bad as whatever you went through was, you are not alone in your hurt and you are not entitled to live off it indefinitely.

I've longed for warnings myself--usually when somebody posts one of those horrific animal-abuse stories on Facebook "to raise awareness"--gee, thanks, I knew bad shit happens to animals already and I didn't need the visual reminder. And I would also expect some kind of warning before a graphic image or description is displayed. But what any of that would be doing in a forum dedicated to multiple committed loving relationships is a mystery for the ages. Apparently there's so much of it in there that the mods can't deal with it on a case-by-case basis but instead have to post extensive warnings against it and require strict compliance as a condition of joining.

It's not that I want to go out there and deliberately offend, let alone hurt, anyone. It's that I feel very much like these kind of restrictions make it impossible for an honest, frank discussion on anything at all. If you are so terrified of being offended and hurt that you have to remove all possibility of either--what, pray tell, are you doing on the internet?







\

25 September, 2014

Was I born too late? or too soon?

I certainly don't feel as if I was born at the right time.

There is no doubt civilization has evolved markedly over the past century, in many ways besides the obvious technology. We have come a long, long way. There's a black man in the White House, a reality unthinkable as little as forty years ago: what's even more amazing, in the light of history,  is that people are disappointed with him and it has nothing to do with his skin colour. 
Gay people are increasingly free to be who they are and love who they will; "bastardy" is a concept out of time that would need to be explained to many people, and then further explained why it was once considered such a stain on one's life. Information, which always longed to be free, is freer than it has been at any time in human history. Superstition is slowly being supplanted by science, in a process that started centuries ago. 

And yet, you can turn every one of those undeniable accomplishments on its head. That black man in the White House presides over a country with Ferguson, Missouri in it; a country with the city of New York in it. New York, you'll recall, is the place where more young black men were detained and frisked in 2011 than there are young black men in New York City. Racism is very much alive and thriving in the U.S; it hasn't even lessened much, in places, just been driven underground, where it bubbles up like a sulphurous spring every now and again.
There is still a long, long road for gays to travel before they are considered equal, both in the United States and certainly in many benighted areas of the world. The "family' is a quaint old thing hardly applicable to certain communities: children grow up without the presence and sometimes the knowledge of their fathers, to their profound detriment. A concerted effort is being made to lessen the flow of information, and in any event most of that information is noise and not signal. Governments in both Canada and the U.S. are infected with a virulent strain of anti-intellectualism, while abroad ISIS carries out barbaric and terrible acts in the name of superstition. 

It's a complicated place, the world.

It's not that I long for a simpler time. The past was not simple, it was a different kind of complex.  I don't mean to romanticize the past...actually, for all the horrors of our present, I think I'd rather stay here than find myself in a world where a toilet, or two people in a bed, can't be shown on TV. I'd last fifteen minutes in the fifties before I'd be locked up on obscenity charges. But there is a quality of the past that appeals mightily, and that I don't think I'm romanticizing at all: seriousness.
For all the serious issues facing us in 2014, and there are a multitude, society today seems frivolous. 
The decline of education is particularly worrisome. Every now and again you see eighth grade tests from 1912 or 1895 going around Reddit or Facebook, and you look at them and know you'd fail them. Snopes argues that this does not imply educational standards have slipped. I beg to differ.  
I hate math--advanced math, at any rate. Its utility was never explained to me and thus it lacks relevance to my life. But "kitchen-table arithmetic" is relevant to everyone's life and it's the sort of thing few high school students can do without mechanical help. 
("But why is that important, Grandpa? I've always got my phone on me and it has a calculator function!") Yes, and how do you know your output matches your input, sonny-boy?

It just seems so...silly. Hollywood keeps making the same movies over and over again. There's lots of decent television on, to be sure, but there's still so much reality tripe, and the latter has completely overcome channels like TLC (which used to be called "The Learning Channel", let's not forget). Popular music is full of AutoTune: actually singing songs yourself is passé. From Instagram to Vine to Twitter, the overwhelming imperative in our society is to communicate your thought in as little time as possible. This does not lend itself well to serious thinking. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's the enemy of analysis.

What troubles me is the proliferation of celebrity culture. Now, celebrities are not new. They date back into prehistory. But never have they been so scrutinized by so many for so little. The obsession with celebrities has overtaken us to the point where we actually look to them for guidance on issues well outside their purview.
I just cited one (among many) who use their fame towards a higher end, and there are celebrities who are extremely intelligent, deep thinkers. But that is not what they are known nor revered for, and that troubles me. There was a time when intelligence had popular value. That time has all but passed. 

Most ominously in Canada of late, we find ourselves with a government that distrusts, perverts, and outright ridicules science--in fact, our Prime Minister refers to science in the terms one usually reserves for some sort of crime. (I trust this attitude will be thoroughly repudiated at the polls next year--but believe me, the coming Canadian election will be the dirtiest in our history). It's all I can do sometimes not to retreat into a past when political antagonists still respect for each other (usually), and who debated the issues of the day more rationally than we see today.

-------------

And yet...there are many times I find myself musing I was born too soon...perhaps far too soon.
I do believe that in some respects, I'm ahead of my time. On a personal level, the polyamory I so deeply identify with is roughly where homosexuality found itself in the early 1970s: just starting to take its first tentative steps into wider recognition, but beset on all sides with misunderstandings and condemnations. I suspect--I hope-- that forty or fifty years hence, polyamory will be seen, both legally and socially, as something utterly unremarkable. I'm going to do my part to bring that about.

Globalization has made the world smaller, but it needs to be smaller still--very much so. There is but one human race, and we are all part of it; perhaps in the (probably very distant) future we will truly recognize this and act accordingly. Sadly, I'm not at all sure the world isn't about to get a whole lot larger. I believe the cheap oil is running out, and oil is the lifeblood of our world as we know it. Even renewables need oil to get off the ground--you can't as yet make a solar cell without input from oil, for instance (people tend to forget that the manufacture of anything is a complex system that depends on oil for its transport, among other things). 

Still, I'd welcome this development. If we can't have a one-world government, we can--and I suspect will, by and by--have a multiplicity of local governments that are more likely to have our interests in mind than the remote and insanely convoluted governments we're stuck with at present. I think we're in for some very rocky times before things settle down--the storm before the calm, if you will--and I'm torn between hoping I'm dead long before things get too interesting and hoping I'm somehow alive to see how interesting they get.

In the end, of course, I was born exactly when and where I was supposed to be--or it wouldn't have happened. It's my charge in life to couple the best of what I know of the past to the best I can imagine for the future, and thus continually re-create myself in the next greatest version of the greatest vision I ever had about who I am. 

Join me, won't you?












24 September, 2014

Snarkery: another ramble

Oh, I'm in a ranty mood today.

Paulina Gretzky's pregnant. The Great One is going to be a grandpa.

WHY IS THIS NEWS?

In my world, newspapers would not report the successful birth of human beings, let alone their successful conceptions, no matter how famous some relative of theirs might be. Paulina Gretzky is a DD-level Hollywood starlet; somehow I don't think she's the famous relative. Her father was a sports star of some repute, I understand. Big whoop. The achievement we're reporting here is accomplished every day by thousands and thousands of people worldwide. Some of them have fathers (and mothers) who were genuine heroes. Don't see their names in the papers, do you? Your little lump is going to be loved every bit as much as Paulina's will be, and isn't that what really matters?

I started racking my brain for exceptions to this rule and Eva immediately suggested royalty. William and Kate's ripening second kid may someday have some entirely ceremonial power by virtue of being distantly descended from people with absolute power...

(Yeah, I have a bit of a problem with the Divine Right of Kings, too.)

It all boils down to two precepts of mine:
1) we're all special, but none of us are inherently any more special than anyone else;
2) even the most public personality deserves her privacy.

Celebrities of whatever stripe are people. It sounds ridiculous, but I think this is often forgotten. I'm not even going to get into the nude photos leaking all over the place--the very topic, or rather, the ravenous appetite, disgusts me beyond all reason--the instant a celebrity comes off screen, or off the field, or whatever, she is "just" another person: special, of course, but no more special than you or I.

This is just like that impossible thing you say about not being attracted to bodies, right? You're a huge Toronto Maple Leaf fan. I bet if you met Phil Kessel, you'd be gobsmacked.  

Nope.
Wouldn't even recognize him. Or any other Leaf. I know their names and their numbers and their stats, sure. The rest is irrelevant unless I somehow become friends with one of 'em. Isn't it?
The same holds true for Hollywood. There are actors and actresses I respect--some for their acting talent, sure, but I'm more likely to respect them for what they do off screen--

a-ha! so you do notice what famous people do in their downtime!

No, actually I try really hard not to. But the media covers these people like a blanket, and so every once in a while I'll see one of them deflect their celebrity to a higher cause. (No, I am not going to write about the aftermath of that speech!)

One of the most powerful passages I have ever read is the following:

    Practice saying this ten times each day:
I LOVE SEX
I LOVE MONEY
I LOVE ME!
·         Here are some other things you are not supposed to love.  Practice loving them:
      POWER
      GLORY
       FAME
       SUCCESS
       WINNING
        THE ADULATION OF OTHERS
        BEING BETTER
        HAVING MORE
        KNOWING HOW
        KNOWING WHY
·          KNOW GOD
·         Yet I tell you this:  love, love, love, love the things you desire – for your love of them draws them to you.
·         These things are the stuff of life.  When you love them, you love life! When you declare that you desire them, you announce that you choose all the good that life has to offer!
·         Yet do not choose sex instead of love, but as a celebration of it.  And do not choose power over, but power with.  And do not choose fame as and end in itself, but as a means to a larger end.  And do not choose success at the expense of others, but as a tool with which to assist others.  And do not choose winning at any cost, but winning that costs others nothing, and even brings them gain as well.
·         Go ahead and choose the adulation of others – but see all others as beings upon which you can shower adulation, and do it!
·         Go ahead and choose being better – but not better than others; rather, better than you were before.
·         Go ahead and choose having more, but only so that you have more to give.
·         And yes, choose “knowing how” and “knowing why” – so that you can share all knowledge with others.
·         And by all means choose to know God.  In fact, choose this first, and all else will follow.

--Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God, Book II
(link to full text)
Fame, in our society, accords power. I think Emma Watson--and more than a few other celebrities--
 choose "power with" rather than "power over"; these people have demonstrated that they use their fame towards a larger end. This, to me, is far more worthy of attention and respect than anything Watson or anyone else does in the course of their profession...and it's certainly more newsworthy than a marriage, a divorce, a birth, or fer cryin' out loud a conception.

------------------

DON'T TELL ME WHAT I WANT TO HEAR.

Don't even weasel-word between what you think I want to hear and the truth. This bullshit's everywhere and I'm perpetually battling it.

...We will keep your resume on file for future consideration...
ˆ
Not that I've had that one recently, but it came to mind. Has ANYBODY ever got a call out of the blue a year after they applied somewhere and got a letter like that in response? "Hello, sir? Yes, you submitted a resume to us on Novemberary the 33rd of last year and I just wanted to let you know that a position better matching your skills and qualifications has come available?"
Pshaw. Tell the truth. We will keep your resume in the circular file for future consideration as compost.
Actually, I'll go you one further with the job market: often, positions are posted pro forma. The desired candidate is already known before the job is posted, but you're not allowed to say this, for some reason: you have to go through this elaborate game of pretending to accept resumes from other people that you're not even going to look at. Who does that serve, exactly?

Thinking back to our failed adoption bid, we were told we weren't going to be allowed to adopt children because--I'll never forget this--"your house doesn't feel like a house with children in it".

(In other words, apparently you can't adopt kids unless you already have them.)

That fresh bullshit still rankles eight years later. It was obviously fake on at least two levels--one, of course our house "didn't feel like a house with kids in it" because there weren't kids in it at the time, and two, Tom the Friendly Social Worker cooked up all kinds of praise before he served us that plate of bile. "You two are extremely intelligent and quotable; I like your philosophy of childrearing; you're open to birth parents, you're extremely honest and forthcoming"...and on and on for about fifteen minutes: all the reasons we should have children, but...can't. It's bullshit and while I've mostly gotten over it, it recurs like acid reflux whenever I get to reflecting on topics like this.

I'm really weary of lovely words that prove to be nothing more than wind--promises that both  parties know (or at least one of them should know)  will never be kept,  beautiful sentiments that will blow away if I make any effort to reciprocate. I heard such things many times this past summer; I never want to hear them again. Sadly, I'm sure I will, because society runs on them.

This conflicts with something I've written before and often about having no expectations, and I've had to amend that as I've grown up a little. I expect, and feel I have a right to, the truth... especially when it comes to people's feelings and intentions towards me. This is probably at least as naive as having no expectations at all, since we're all continually being told one truth and shown another...

(Wow. I wrote that more than eight years ago. Time's fun when you're having flies, said the anteater.)

I think now that there are certain minimal expectations I have of people, at least when they lay claim to me in some capacity. I expect to be paid by an employer. I expect a friend to make some effort to see me. That kind of thing. Reasonable? I think so.

The way I've come to define it is that if you want a relationship to last, both parties have to take for granted that it will. This is NOT the same as taking the relationship for granted.

Obviously, you can't take a relationship for granted. Relationships take work, on both sides.  It doesn't feel like work when the relationship is close, because it's choices freely and joyfully made--but it is effort, at least. No, taking the fact of the relationship for granted is a different proposition entirely. It means that the thought of dissolving the relationship is not a valid thought. If both of you come at it from this angle, your friendship/marriage/what have you will most likely endure. The moment one of you stops taking the fact of the relationship for granted...it's probably doomed.

I like to know where I stand, even if you have to kick me to the ground to let me know. I'll crawl away licking my wounds, to be sure, but better to crawl away and stand another day.





23 September, 2014

Random ramble: good/bad life update

MUNCH PUNCH


Eva and I went to a munch last week, a couple of days after we got back from our cruise.

A munch is just a meeting of like-minded people over food, usually held at a restaurant or bar. This one was at the Huether Hotel, a place I hadn't been to since my first week in this city almost twenty five years ago. There are dozens of them monthly in our city alone, covering every conceivable interest; it seems like a good way to get out of the house and meet people.  Eva had been to a completely different munch a couple of weeks before, and had a great time. This one was something we would share, and hopefully enjoy. It was also my first opportunity to put my words from the last blog into practice.

It did not go well. At all.

I guess it says something that I'm willing to put myself out there and meet people. Though I have to tell you, the mere thought of walking into a room full of strangers with the express intent of making them not-strangers ties my stomach in knots. It's another one of those glaring contradictions: put a piano in that room and I'd play it, happily; give me a speech to make to the group and I'll carry it off without a hitch, but ask me to interact socially with any of them and...let's just say it took more courage than you'd think for me to walk into that room. More than I thought I had, actually--I almost chickened out of it several times. In the end I realized that I was never going to get over this social block if I kept it right in front of me, so I meekly and tentatively stepped over it.

The munch was held in a long and narrow space. Two rectangular tables filled most of it. We got there a little late and the first table was full, so we started the second.
There were about twenty people there all told, which was twice as many as I was expecting. Everyone seemed to know each other, or at least know a large segment; there was a lot of hugging and enthusiastic greeting as each party came in.
 The host of the munch greeted us, shook my hand, and returned to his conversation. Everyone was neck-deep in conversation--nobody so much as made eye contact with Eva or I. We nibbled on some garlic bread and waited for some sort of acknowledgement. Nothing came.

I thought about how I could insinuate myself into some conversation--the ones going on around me, to the extent I could hear them and make them out, sounded quite interesting--and then realized how rude I would appear if I tried. Everyone was so intent, so focussed on the people around them that breaking that focus was unthinkable. And so I sat and stewed. Despite my best efforts, awful thoughts rushed in.

You were afraid of  this? This is your normal leper shunning, nothing you haven't lived through countless times before. Gotta admit we didn't expect this shit with Eva here--that repulsive forcefield you carry around with you is even stronger than you thought it was, if it so effortlessly overcomes your wife's charisma.  Look at those people over there--they're standing, and have been for the last half hour, rather than come over here and sit next to you and pick up whatever disease it is you have.

And so on...my mood got worse from there, and after an hour of complete isolation we just got up and left. I was in a foul, foul temper: angry, bitter, depressed, and totally and completely self-centered. It didn't occur to me to comfort Eva at all, which is unforgivable--she was right there with me and experienced exactly the same ignorance I did, but I was so caught up in my own drama about this that I ignored her myself entirely. It turned out, of course, that she was feeling the same hurt and neglect I was (although nowhere near to the same degree, rejection not being as big a bugaboo for her as it is for me.)

Now, I hasten to tell you I didn't expect a grand hurrah when I came in. Best case scenario, I thought the host might silence everyone and let us introduce ourselves--I'd gladly do it for both of us if Eva wanted me to, that's public speaking and I can do that. Barring that scenario, I thought somebody--anybody--would notice us looking all newbie like deers in the headlights and come over and introduce themselves.

Didn't happen. Nobody made the slightest move; hell, nobody even looked at us. You get to musing on existential questions at times like this: are we here? Are we invisible? And I was so terrified of making an ass of myself that I sat, immobile...making an ass of myself.

It turns out that I did pretty much everything wrong.

The best advice I got was this:

Find the least intense conversation in the room. At a brief pause, say "Hi, I'm really sorry to interrupt, but this is my first time here and I'm not sure if I need to introduce myself to the organizer." People will generally either take that as a request and welcome you themselves. Or flag down the organizer/host and introduce you so you have someone to shepherd you into the group if they aren't inclined to do so themselves.
It's scary at first, but in my experience very, very effective. Admitting you're unsure of yourself like that tends to feel intimidating, but everyone has gotten nervous in a new situation before, so people emphasize and will usually give you a leg up.

Actually, admitting I'm unsure of myself is ever so much easier than acting as if I'm sure of myself.

Staying away after one bad experience is the worst thing I could do. We need to go back, possibly several times, so our faces look familiar. And yes, we need to actually approach people. I can't expect strangers to do it for me, and I shouldn't expect Eva to do it for me either. We're a team.

WE'RE A TEAM


Shortly before our cruise, our washer died in the middle of a load. This is one of life's serious annoyances--things like this never seem to happen when they'd be easily accommodated, and a washer is one of those things you kind of need.
A dear friend offered the use of hers, which was really nice, but her life is beyond busy and we really didn't want to impose, there being a laundromat just around the corner from our house.

Advantage laundromat: you can do ten loads in the time would take to do one at home. Disadvantage: it costs, it's tedious, and you can't exactly leave and make lunch the way you would at home.

 There's not much choice for appliances in this town: if you don't want to pay an arm and a legging, you're stuck getting your washer at The Brick.

Oh, how I hate The Brick.

The day before the cruise, we went in to the nearest Brick to us, an almost brand new store that wasn't around when we had that linked experience. There was a washer there for $348. By itself. Like holy crap, grab that before they tack a 1 on the front of the price.
"Oh, don't buy that one", the woman told us. "It's broken. It's been broken for weeks."
Plus five points for honesty, considering the tag didn't say anything like "AS IS". Minus twenty million points for WTF?
She left and said a salesman would be with us shortly. My guts were acting up, since I was getting on a plane in less than twenty four hours. A man appeared, greeted Eva and I, and directed me to the customer restroom.
Then he walked away...without serving Eva at all.

The Brick.com it is.

We found that if you buy a washer, you may as well buy a dryer as well: the pair deal makes the dryer about a third of what it would cost on its own. Plus, with my luck, we'd get the washer installed and the dryer would die the following week.  There was a nice GE pair on sale.

We paid extra for the disposal of our old washer and dryer and the hookup of the new one, remembering this. My father had rained blood, sweat and curses all over our basement getting the damn pipes to fit properly, and Eva and I wanted no part of a similar experience.

The pair was delivered last Friday, of course after Eva had gone to work. The litany of excuses started immediately. 'We will be unable to hook this dryer up because the vent to the outside is too small, it's exactly the diameter of the pipe." This was, of course, the problem my father had, and why we were paying them rather than doing it ourselves. How they determined this by eye alone was a mystery, but since it was true, I couldn't exactly call them on it.  They explained that they are only contracted to do simple hookups, and this didn't qualify. Then they announced they couldn't take our washer away because it was wet and too heavy and had soap on it which was too slippery which constituted a serious safety hazard and blah blah blabbledy blah.

I don't like confrontation. I don't do it well. It was patently obvious I wasn't going to get the services we'd paid for. What I should have done here was refused to sign the paperwork, or at least amended it to show that the washer and dryer were not delivered (they were left in our basement, but not in the laundry room since the old washer was in the way) nor installed, nor was the old washer removed. Instead I signed their damned paperwork as it stood just to get them out of the house, and resolved to at least start the process of doing their work by myself.

It wasn't easy.

Silly of me, I know, but I hadn't realized there was water in the washer's innards when I'd unplugged it for removal. There was none in the tub itself where the clothes go: it was all somewhere else.  I tipped the washer on its side to drain it. Very little water drained. The rest of it just sat there, sloshing at me from somewhere while I swore at it.
I slowly and oh-so-painstakingly righted the machine and dragged it out into the basement proper. That took about twenty minutes to accomplish. If you Google "how much does a clothes washer weigh", you will get numbers that aren't even close to what this one does, especially with water sloshing around in it. Trust me on this. I was angry enough -- at the Brick and at myself -- to carry that washer up the stairs, but not stupid enough to try...especially not without a dolly (which the Brick people had effing taken with them, crisse de câlice de tabernac d'osti de sacrament. Moving the new washer and dryer in wasn't much easier. They're both half again the size of the old ones, and they barely fit through the door. But I managed it.

The next day, Eva and I tackled installation.

I am proud to say it took under an hour, washer and dryer both, and it only involved one expletive-filled do-over moment. I can thank my father for laying some of the groundwork here--we cannibalized parts of his setup. I can also thank this stuff. But mostly I can thank Eva for her patience and understanding as her sad sack of a husband tried his best to contort himself into laughably small, dark spaces and fail to perform the simplest tasks.  A handyman I'm not. Inverting Red Green, at least my wife finds me handsome.


20 September, 2014

A Key To Ken

I mentioned in one of those cruise recaps that I came to an epiphany in Key West.

I am a man of contradictions. I'm fairly intelligent (he said, modestly), but at any time I'll unwittingly do something ridiculously stupid. I'm extremely empathetic, but even more absent-minded, which can make me appear rude and uncaring at times. My heart is an open book (actually, it's more like a library), but around strangers I tend to seal myself off. And I thrive on touch...but only if I know you.

I can explain all those contradictions, and they all make sense in the context of who I am. But I became aware of one in Key West that makes no sense at all. Oddly enough, I've written about both halves of this contradiction several times...but never linked them.

We were on the trolley tour and the guide (who was a real hoot) was talking about Fantasy Fest, an annual celebration very much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This one happens to feature a hundred thousand naked people.

Well, not quite naked: going around in public without some kind of covering is still obscene (sigh).  But during Fantasy Fest, we were told, body paint is a covering. "Once a month," the guide said, "somebody misses their cruise ship here. At the end of October, it happens intentionally."

I turned to Eva and said "cool".
And it is. Were it not for the alcohol that would turn the swinging dicks into a bunch of swinging dicks, I'd be booking a return engagement in Key West for the end of next month. Hell, I'd participate. Eva would paint me gold from bald head through Buddha-belly to toe tips and I'd sit in full lotus...okay, that part wouldn't work. But...yeah. I like it.

I'm not, as I have said repeatedly, a naturist. I actually like the feeling of comfy clothes on me, for one thing; for another, my body lacks suitable pockets; for a third, it's either too damn hot or too damn cold around here to be nude most of the time. But I have no problem whatsoever with the philosophy behind nudism. It is, as I've said, just skin, and we all have it. No big deal. I could get up right now, disrobe, and walk down the street in the altogether, except the human body we all have is considered indecent for some reason I'll never really understand. I can write about this for an hour, but you've read it all before.

But I have a profoundly negative body image. It's been polished to an ugly sheen over decades.

This next part: I'm not fishing in the pity-pool, okay? The fish you catch in that pool are sunfish: they look nice, but they're nothing worth keeping. These are just hard, cold, dry facts.

I get a lot of compliments from people, and they feel good. Everybody likes compliments, right? Here are the sorts of nice things I've heard from people just recently:

"You're a really likeable guy. You're capable of talking about a wide range of things."
"You're kind and generous..."
"You make me laugh...
"You help me see myself better, know myself better. You are so fearlessly self-aware that you make others so as well."

(Not as self-aware as you think. Keep reading.)

I could go on, but even things like that make me feel a little uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to hear them. I even happen to agree with them. I just don't feel right repeating them.

But to make a point: all of these are inner-things. So is virtually every other compliment I've ever received in my life.  I married the first person who ever said something nice about the way I looked. Took me a long time to realize she was serious. At first I thought she was full of shit. Then I thought, "well, it's nice that she thinks that way." And fifteen years later I'm still in that second stage. Only because it's hard to take the word of one person -- even Eva -- over the non-words (and more than a few disparaging words)  of several hundred others going back a long, long way.
This is the root of my social anxiety: the iron-clad conviction, reinforced over years, that I am physically repulsive. It's why I'm so much cooler online. (That song...that video...the guy in it even looks a little like me at that age.)
I never misrepresent myself online. I just discard that repugnant outer shell and let my inner qualities out where people can see them. That I've had a fair share of success with people this way tells me that yes, I do have those inner qualities...but it also suggests (to me) that my appearance negates every last one of them.

You've heard all this before, as well. It's tiresome, I know. I'm tired of it too. But it's why I'm so uncomfortable out in public where people can see me. I have to forcibly and repeatedly remind myself that (a) Eva never knew me online, and she married me and doesn't seem to have any problem being seen with me; (b) I have other friends who don't act as if I'm radioactive. Sometimes it even works, for a while. But most of the time I feel like the Phantom of the Opera and I want to hide myself away lest somebody look at me and unconsciously --sometimes quite consciously, I'm convinced -- recoil. No surprise I was obsessed with the Phantom of the Opera when I was a teenager. I memorized the entire piano score, put it on tape, and presented it to the girl I was also obsessed with at the time...a girl who, in today's parlance, had kicked me so deep into the friendzone that I was barely even on the field, in favour of your standard hunka hunka burning love (who treated her like shit, I might add).

Anyway.

This is not the normal mindset of someone who says he could walk around buck naked without a care in the world.

If I really feel this awful way about my physical appearance, how is it that I can bare all of it without blinking? That makes no sense at all. What makes even less sense is that I'd never so much as noticed the glaring contradiction.

It went off like a bomb in my head when I did notice it. I immediately set about thirty mental tracks to figuring out (a) how this had evaded notice for so long and (b) how I could resolve it, preferably in a way that helped my self-image.

I eventually decided (a) didn't matter, but (b) mattered a great deal. And what I've come to is this. I don't care how other people look--never have, never will. If someone is beautiful inside, it makes them beautiful outside, to me. And if someone is ugly inside, she could be Miss Universe and I wouldn't look twice at her.  I've always been convinced that this attitude makes me pretty much alone in the world, given just how much value our society seems to place on the outermost layer of a person.
You've heard me say, many times, "mine is not a better way, mine is only another way?" In this, and almost this alone, I say, no, "mine is a better way". If everyone really thought the way I do on this it would heal so much pain...
...including mine. Not once have I ever thought to apply this to myself.

I've always tried to focus on other people's pain to avoid dealing with my own.  I specialize in self-image problems. You think you're ugly and worthless? Come to me, I'll convince you otherwise. Countless times I've offered advice and emotional support (that's another thing I'm great at, I'm told) that really, honestly helped people...and would have helped me if I'd ever bothered to notice what was spilling out of my mouth or fingers. If I ever tried to do such a thing, I'd scoff at myself. It's different with you, I'd say. YOU'RE ugly. Not like ____ at all.  When's the last time you ever heard somebody say otherwise? She just heard otherwise...from you. Because she's beautiful, and YOU'RE...

Cue self-destructive mental loop.

So.

I'm not capable of adopting that macho strut that alpha males have mastered, the one that says I'm going to rape you later and you'll thank me after I'm done and beg for seconds.  That kind of self-confidence is well beyond me: also, I find it disgusting. But I can adopt my I-don't-care-what-you-look-like attitude to myself. I think I do it without thought every time I think about walking around naked. It's just skin.

So maybe I can walk around in clothes pretending I'm naked.

It strikes me as beautifully ironic, proof of how gloriously ass-backwards I am. Most people, I think, could only walk around naked themselves if they could first convince themselves they're fully clothed. Me, in order to feel comfortable walking around fully clothed, I have to pretend I'm naked.



18 September, 2014

Cruisin', Part III

It was obvious from early on Mexico morning that Cozumel was going to be the highlight of this trip for most of our fellow passengers. The energy on the ship was palpable.
At least half the ship hadn't even bothered debarking at Key West.  I figured their all being from Florida had something to do with it (seriously, the number of people from Miami alone I ran into was staggering)...and I'm sure the 7am port time in Key West had even more to do with it. Seven in the morning, on Carnival Victory, was a time one would start thinking of going to bed.
I'm sorry to disappoint you, dear reader, but Cozumel was not such of a much for us, and even less of much when we actually got off there.
Victory is on the left. The ship on the right is the Carnival Elation, and there was a third Carnival ship (Vision of the Seas) a couple of piers over

Now, I kind of wish we'd done the Mayan ruin excursion. But it was a hundred bucks a person and Eva has historically had problems with extreme heat. The last thing we needed was her passing out on some temple pyramid. So Cozumel was, for us, a chance to set foot in a different country, eat a genuine Mexican meal and do a little shopping. 
To get on shore there, you walk down that pier  and enter this incredibly long duty free store (you don't have a choice, you have to walk through here):
Coming from Canada, I find it hard to understand Mexican duty free stores. The prices, while remarkable by Canadian standards, certainly don't seem to be cheaper than they are Stateside. (Somebody's sure to correct me here). The products, too--enough alcohol to keep the Victory party going for at least a week; cigars, perfumes, and jewellery. These four categories were in all the shops on board the ship, not to mention in every duty free store I've ever seen. It's kind of weird. There's obviously a big market for booze (just on my ship alone)...but how much perfume can people be expected to buy? 
Once you're out of there on Mexican soil proper,  you find yourself in this oh-so-touristy (albeit pretty) little plaza area.
Check out that Spanish place, UN TOQUE DE ORO!

We were feeling peckish. To the left was Fat Tuesday's, to the right the Three Amigos. I suggested right because at least one of those words was Spanish. (Of course, as I found out later, Fat Tuesday's had the only free wifi in the area, but hey. Can't win 'em all.)


The service--I've never been to Jamaica, but I'm pretty sure it would have been considered slow there. The waiter was visibly pissed that we didn't order any alcohol and probably even more pissed when all we bought was an appetizer. Painfully slow service (we were there for about 90 minutes and ate one appetizer); insanefully high prices. The cheapest food on the menu was eight dollars (all U.S. pricing, of course) and it went up like Speedy Gonzales from there: most of the mains were $25-35. This place is not fancy. It's roadhouse food.
The decor was interesting, though. 

Para el gigante

There were a couple of claw bathtubs next to our table. I wasn't sure what they were for until a shithawk flew in under the awning--the whole place was completely open to the air--and took a dump in one before landing on a table a few away from us. Very considerate of it. I wasn't sure its friends and family knew to use the bathtub, though, and it kind of put me off my meal-priced appetizer. 
As did the mayonnaise packets.
I have never seen mayo packaged like ketchup, in little squeeze packets, in my entire life. Answers.com claims they're safe, but lacking wifi I couldn't check that for myself. Rationally, since mayo bottles say "refrigerate after opening", they're okay. But the thought of warm mayo was vaguely disturbing.

Appetizer finally finished and paid for, we went out into the plaza to shop.
Beautiful gardens in the center of the plaza

Maybe I just shouldn't travel outside the U.S. and Canada. And Europe, I suppose. 

Shopping in Ameranada is (mostly) fun. And I say that as a "get-in-get-out" sort of person. My ideal shopping experience involves being left alone until I need help, at which point someone should decipher my body language and be there to help me. Then I pay, preferably the price indicated, then I leave.
Shopping in Puerta Maya, Cozumel, Mexico is not like this at all. Before you can even get into a store, people are accosting you like beggars in the street. And they're aggressive. One of our fellow passengers was actually grabbed. If that had happened to Eva, both of us would be rotting in a Mexican jail right about now.
We weren't grabbed, but we had people actually step directly into our path and urge us to buy things we had no interest in buying. And a simple "no" didn't seem to convince them we had no interest in buying. It was infuriating. 
And then when we did find something--my dad had warned me to haggle--well, the first price offered was an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has ever bought anything. We walked away when we couldn't get the guy below the point we were willing to start at. 
I understand that this is normal for most places in the world. As usual, I don't like normal. I like my own normal.

We were back on board Victory within three hours of docking. The ship was pretty much empty: it was fantastic. We had a couple of hours of the kind of cruise experience I couldn't have hoped for. Then I realized I had forgotten Nicole entirely.

My friend Nicole had come back from a sojourn in Australia with a little Aboriginal boomerang for me. I had to get her some sort of Mexican something-or-other...and I knew just what to get. Eva had a nap and I set out for Mexico alone this time.

I contain a multitude. One of the Kens inside me is about nine or ten years old and considers being alone in a whole 'nother country to be an adventure akin to interstellar travel. I let that Ken take the con as I debarked again and made my way down the pier, through the duty-free, and into the plaza...which, if anything, was even more packed than it had been before. 
That's the thing about this aggressive confrontational shopping that I don't get. You can't lack for customers when you have thousands of people teeming off cruise ships every day. If your little kiosk isn't attracting the business, there's got to be something wrong. And collaring people  won't fix it. Soapbox, soapbox, get off the soapbox.

After the seventh or eighth store, venturing further into the plaza, I finally found what I was looking for. (Sorry for the secrecy: she reads this blog, schedules have not jibed and I haven't been able to give it to her yet.) As I was reaching for the package, a stranger (they were all strangers, of course) tapped me on the shoulder. I almost dropped what I had in my hands, and that would have been ugly. 
"Yes?" Curtly. As touchy-feely as I am, I really don't like being touched by people I don't know, especially in whole 'nother countries when I'm all by myself.
"For my commission, por favor". The staff member thrust at me a piece of cardboard with the name "Mike" inscribed on it. Took me a second, but then I understood. I was supposed to present this with my purchase at the till. Mike hadn't actually done anything to earn his commission besides being the first person to me, but hey, whatever.
The line was ridiculous...almost half an hour long. Nicole, I hope you like these things.

Back on board Victory. The "dive in movie" on tap that night was Gravity. It was to be shown on the big screen overlooking one of the pools. 
I had seen Gravity alone back when it was in theatres here, and loved it to pieces. (Eva was at her Mom's that weekend, as I recall). I babbled endlessly to her about how incredible the special effects were and how tense the whole thing was and please please please can you see this with me? 
No interest.
I was made to understand that George Clooney tarnished this movie with his mere presence and that was an end to it.
"But he dies!"
(Sorry for the spoiler.)
Didn't matter. He had to live to die, and Eva Breadner has zero interest in seeing George Clooney living or dead.
Unless she can maybe watch him in a pool.
See, a pool is like docean except a pool is not the shark's house. The shark doesn't come in our house so we don't go in the shark's house. It's fun to sail over the shark's house and look at the shark's house, but actual swimming should happen somewhere that is not the shark's house. And actual swimming is something Eva was born to do. She could endure anything if she could swim while doing it. Even George Clooney.

Alas, neither swimming nor Clooneying was meant to be.
The pool was drained, and in any event was almost directly underneath the screen. And the screen was--

Well, here's the thing. When we read reviews of Victory on cruisecritic.com, the thing that kept coming up over and over again was how "dated" everything was. The decor was "hideous" (as if pink tile in the cabin bathroom is going to put me off my cruise). The ship is scheduled for refurbishment next year and yes, it could use it. But some of the amenities really ought to have been fixed by now.

Like the movie screen.

There are entire fist-sized splotches of pixels burned out. Like fifteen of them. You simply can't watch a visual SFX extravaganza like Gravity on a screen like that.

I managed to extract a promise that we'll see this movie when it comes out on the Movie Network, and then I hit the whirlpool on the Lido deck...which I had all to myself. Heaven. After that, we went up to Serenity:



Of course, "adult" was 21 and over, and 21 is also drinking age...but I needn't have worried.  The few people here were mostly older than us. Loved it up here. If we'd had an interior stateroom, this is where I would have been spending most of my days.

SEA DAY

was fantastic. Exactly what we were hoping for when we booked this cruise (with the caveat that if anybody was supposed to be suffering sea stomach, it was me, not Eva.)
Most of the day was spent lounging and chilling (quite literally) in our cabin and steaming and Reclucing out on our balcony. But I did go here


and do this

twice. Would have done it four or five times, but it was salt water and it burned my eyes something fierce. (Going down with my eyes closed: not an option. Can barely see as it is without my glasses and I didn't want to be completely blind.)

At the end of the day, we figured we'd go see Vrroooom...


which was fantastic. But now I'm confused re-listening to this because there didn't seem to be a trumpet in the pit in the show we saw and the trumpet I heard was so clean it almost had to be pre-recorded. Here you can definitely hear a live trumpet clenching some notes. Hmm. 
It was an hour long show and people were flooding in fifteen, twenty, even thirty minutes through the runtime. I couldn't believe it. It was just one more piece of rudeness to try to ignore and forget.

The next morning we were up at 4 am and rolling back into Miami not long afteri: 

We were told to be in the Atlantic Dining Room at 7:30 a.m. if we chose z"self-assist" debarkation, meaning you carry your luggage off the ship yourself. We figured that would be easiest.
In that room with us (in half of it, we were packed in like sardines), there was a handicapped gentleman in a motorized scooter. A Carnival staffer approached him, then turned to his family or travelling companions and asked "can he walk as far as the entrance" or some such thing. She was informed he couldn't. and once she was out of earshot the handicapped gentleman muttered

"They never ask the man in the wheelchair"

in a tone of voice I know far too well. I've used it myself to deflect hurtful remarks for about thirty five years. Affable on top, with a lifetime of pain underneath it. 

Why is it people assume that physically handicapped persons must be mentally handicapped as well? I've observed it before, and I used to make a point of chatting up any wheelchair-bound customers I came across. Eva, too, was specifically trained for this in nursing school.  They never ask the man in the wheelchair. This left my heart hurting as we disembarked. 

We were almost the first off the ship, and we were at Miami airport and through customs four hours before takeoff. Unlike Pearson, the wifi in Miami International Airport was not free. I was a day out of touch already and this really irked me. Oh, well. I finished the last of Recluce and started 1Q84, read the Miami Herald, and listened to CNN blather about how ISIS was going to kill us all. Lovely thing to hear before you get on a plane. America was at war again, and from the tone of the reportage the country was pleased as a roundhouse punch. Never mind that Mexican cartels operating right on America's doorstep are at least as vicious as ISIS. They don't count. These guys are...brown. Bomb 'em. Get all excited about it. 

God, I needed to be home.

We landed in Toronto almost half an hour early, but it took almost an hour and a half to claim our baggage and get through Canada Customs. I was put in mind of the American I'd chatted with on our way out, who said that Pearson International was the worst airport he'd ever flown into, including many in Third World countries, and he avoided it whenever possible. I couldn't blame him. The place is like a perpetual Chinese fire drill. You have to show the same piece of I.D. no fewer than four times when you're a Canadian citizen arriving home. You have to line up each time. It's lunacy. And to pay for this lunacy you're charged the highest airport fees on the planet. Ugh.

We were home by 8:30 p.m., home to some very relieved puppies, and very glad to be.

Thank you, Ande, for taking care of everyone. And thank you, love, for a trip I'll never forget. It had its warts, but we made it our own.

-------------------

For those who may be interested in seeing more of the ship, this is the best video I've found on YouTube.

17 September, 2014

Cruisin', Part II

I think I've given the impression that I really didn't enjoy myself on this cruise. That's not true at all. I had a very good time that happened to be marred by many tiny issues, any one of which would have passed almost unnoticed. And furthermore, most of the issues were mine, not Carnival's or Victory's.

There was, of course, the matter of that first day. It started at 11 p.m. for me and not much later for Eva. Travel is always stressful...well, for me, leaving home always gives me a low-grade case of stress. The three-hour delay in boarding certainly didn't help. By four o'clock, as we gathered at muster station H for a mandatory safety briefing that nobody took seriously (and to be fair, they could just as easily have announced it all without passengers needing to leave their staterooms), I was ready to start pitching people overboard and so was Eva. Our irritations fed off each other...we were both exhausted, and all my worst personality traits come out to play when I'm that tired. Hers, too.

Little things, tiny things that pissed me off beyond all reason. Like that every time there was a ship-wide announcement (and there were plenty of them as we were getting underway), the televisions in the cabins would mute themselves...and then, after the announcement was over and no matter how quietly they'd been set, they'd come back at EARSPLITTING VOLUME. It got so that every time there was a bong indicating an impending announcement, Eva or I or both of us would make a mad scramble for the remote.
Speaking of the TVs, ours had a sleep timer that didn't work and a volume control that wasn't much better. You had two options when it came to the loudness of that TV: too loud or too quiet.

The bathroom light flickered every time you turned it on, like something out of a horror movie, before it would catch. The light switches all over cabin seemed designed to confuse fumbling fingers--both of us were still turning on the wrong lights on day four. The little hallway that led from our cabin door to the room proper was impossibly narrow (nothing to be done about that, and yes, I get that I'm nitpicking). And those announcements! I really don't mean for this to sound as racist as it's going to come out, but if your job involves public speaking to a large number of people whose first language is mostly English, it would be nice if you could speak coherent English without too thick an accent.
All these things and a bunch more combined to make me pretty much impossible to live with that first day. Anything past that was also (mostly) me and my utter distaste for the manners and methods most of humanity seems to have concocted to have "fun".

A friend asked me last night why we had sailed with Carnival. They're known as the party cruise line...and yes, we knew that. The biggest reason we went with Carnival was simple logistics: they were going where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go there. The cruise was bought and paid for three days before I lost my job; I was trying to plan around various work-related issues, none of which ending up mattering at all....but we didn't know that, then.)

Where did we want to go? Mostly Key West. As I said last time, that town has a special place in the fiction that bonded Eva and I together (quick plug: if you haven't read the Callahan's series...I'm speaking as a fellow human being here...it would do you good.) We really wanted to see the real Key West.

It didn't disappoint, but it sure surprised us.

We arrived at 7 a.m on the second day of the cruise. We were only slated to be in port for six hours. Eva and I purchased our only shore excursion for the cruise: a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour that took an hour and totally immersed us in the atmosphere, history, and more trivia than you could shake a conch shell at. (Kate: I looked for shells, but the beaches of Key West are all man-made--no shells to be had.)
Some of the trivia I knew about, like that there are 360 bars in a town of thirty thousand people (and at least one of those bars is clothing-optional). Some I had no idea about, like that there ten thousand chickens wandering around the city, and every one of them is protected by law.

The real estate values are absolutely friggin' insane. Homes that would be lucky to fetch $200K here go for $2 million there. It's not the land, because there isn't any. Houses are built practically right on top of each other, worse even than Vancouver. Many of the homes are run down, the sort of things referred to in real estate guides elsewhere as "fixer-uppers"...and it doesn't seem to affect the price. The median income in Key West is only $52K, so it really makes you wonder how these people live.

Looking down on Key West from the ship


Riding on the bus, riding on the bus...
U.S. 1 runs all the way up the eastern seaboard to, uh, Canada.

Pretty self-explanatory.

I wish more pictures had turned out--we took a bunch more, but it was absolutely raining chickens cats and dogs out for most of the tour. Key West, it turns out, gets just as much annual rainfall as Seattle, except they get all theirs within four or five months of the year. 

We hit a few of the T-shirt stores on Duvall. Spider Robinson jokes (maybe not a joke?) that there are so many of them, they must be fronts for the Mob or something. He's right. Next to bars and chickens, T-shirts must be Key West's prime calling card. Sadly, I couldn't find a T-shirt that I really wanted, despite the myriad on offer. I ended up purchasing one later...back on board Victory.

Key West also turned out to be the last place I could find and use free wifi, so I went incommunicado after this.  We wanted to get back on board anyway...we were told that at least once a month, somebody from a cruise ship misses the embarkation. That thought scared the almighty crap right out of me. I suppose I could deal -- somehow -- if it happened to me there, but it would be a nontrivial problem. And if it happened in Cozumel, our next port of call...disastrous. Best be present and accounted for long before the ship pulls out.

Back to the balcony... 
...where I re-immersed myself in The Magic of Recluce, lent to me by my friend Nicole and very much enjoyed. You could say I was feeling a little Reclucive on this trip. I'd read three or four pages, put the book down, take a swig of water and watch docean play against the clouds, then repeat the process.

Docean. You probably should know that "docean" is the way Eva and I have contracted "the ocean" since time out of mind. The word that spawned that was actually "doreo", as in the cookie. I yoinked one of her Oreo cookies away from her--had to have been the first year we were married, if not earlier--and she whined, pitifully, "give me back doreo". That stuck. "Docean" came later--it means as much to Eva as 'doreos' used to, and that's saying something.  

Starting to get an idea why we coveted that aft balcony?

We are precisely the opposite of many people. Lots of people go on cruises to have fun, and we did too, but  our species of fun involves lots of alone time together and, well, docean.  The awning kept the worst of the sun off--I'm no more tanned than I was when I left, which is to say "not at all", and--sorry again, folks, but that's a good thing. The words "healthy" and "suntan" don't belong in the same sentence unless the words "really" and "not" are in there somewhere too. 

I re-learned about something else in Key West...something Spider had briefly alluded to in Callahan's Key called Fantasy Fest. It happens at the end of October, and it's basically a hundred thousand nekkid people (nekkid except for body paint, anyway) taking over the city. Cool. I am not a naturist, but I could certainly be one under the right conditions, and musing on that led to a epiphany of self-realization that, as far as I'm concerned, was worth the price of the cruise several times over. I'll get to that after this travelogue is done, so as to not interrupt its flow any more than I already have. (Yes, I'm a tease: but this striptease is much more soul than body.)

TOMORROW: the concluding volume of the Victory trilogy, comprising Cozumel, Mexico, our sea day (more pics) and final thoughts.





16 September, 2014

Cruisin', part I

I don't think I've ever been so glad to be home.
Eva and I just got back from our first cruise. It was, shall we say, an experience.

Before I get into it, I'd like to explain a few things, (sort of) acknowledge one you-told-me-so, and rebuff another.

There are two cruises on my bucket list. One is Alaska; the other is the Danube River cruise. Before we could even think of starting to save up for either of those, we thought it might be a good idea to try a little starter cruise, to wit: four days and nights aboard the Carnival Victory, itinerary Miami-Key West-Cozumel-Miami.
As with all our vacations, a lot of thought went into this one. Not enough thought in a few areas--I'll get to those later--but a lot of thought nonetheless. For instance, we chose an aft cabin with a balcony.

Now this was questioned by one of Eva's colleagues, who wondered why we would spend all the extra money on a room when it's just a place to sleep.
The thing is, for us, it isn't. There were things we knew going in that we were not going to like about this cruise. Things, or more to the point, people. Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty two of them, to be exact, not counting (a large) crew. To mitigate this somewhat, we picked a goodish sized room at the stern, with a suite on one side and only a few rooms on the other. The balcony was very important to us. It was our oasis, our sanctuary from the madding crowd, our chance to see sea up close and personal.

One of my former colleagues asked me why I would go on a cruise at all, since I don't drink and I don't gamble and "that's all you do on a cruise". Fair question. I'll cite that room with that balcony as a partial answer, while also noting there are some other things you do on cruises. 

Most notably, eat. You can stuff yourself silly on these things, waddling from one buffet to the next and rolling into your room for the free room service. None of my pants fit me now. After four days.

(Also, it should be noted that the kind of stuff I drink--lemonade, iced tea, and coffee--was unlimited and free, whereas alcohol costs. A lot. So does pop, which I have luckily weaned myself off of). 

What else do you do on cruises? Relax. I keep coming back to that balcony. And of course there are the ports of call...which were something else we put some thought into.

Eva and I bonded over Spider Robinson's Callahan's Place series, one memorable volume of which is set in Key West. Robinson describes the place as a sort of heaven on earth. It's a big reason we selected Old Key West for our tenth anniversary Disney trip, and that experience only motivated us further to see the real one. 

Cozumel wasn't high on our list of places to see, but for two things: one, it allowed us to visit a third (in my case a fourth) country; two, it gave us an all-important day at sea. Back to that balcony again.

-----------------

They can't even make a car that flies...

That's the thought that circles around in my gut like a morsel of rancid meat every time I'm in an airplane. I have two friends who between them have flown to the moon and back a few times in terms of distance. I know, intellectually, that next to elevators, airplanes are the safest mode of transportation yet invented. And one of those friends--the one who used to be a flight attendant--drily told me before I left that "you know, Ken, the pilot wants to survive the flight too".
I know all this. Intellectually. But my gut says "they've been promising flying cars since the 1950s. They can't even get those off the ground, and yet here you are in a loaded 737 weighing almost 94 tons, floating on...faith...about 3800 storeys up...
Needless to say, I'm here now, so my faith was evidently sufficient. But let's just say this...I'm mighty glad airports have lots and lots of bathrooms. They come in handy.

-------------------

Our plane to Miami left at 0630 hours on Thursday. And yes, that's early: our airport transport picked us up at ten to three. I was up by 11 pm the previous evening, and surprised I slept that long, on the grounds that I don't normally go to bed at 6:30 p.m.
Miami International Airport is...well, it's an airport. They feel vaguely like giant hospitals. Nobody wants to be in either; there are signs everywhere directing you to places you hope you need to get to; despite all those signs it's pathetically easy to get lost. Miami's wrinkle to that effect is to give their baggage claim carousels the same nomenclature as their gates, and then plaster 'Baggage Claim' signs every which way. It didn't help that our luggage came through on a different carousel than we'd been told it would. Luckily it was only one carousel over; even more luckily, Eva has the eyes of an eagle.

From there it was an easy bus ride to the Port of Miami. We arrived next to the  Carnival Victory at 10:30




 and were told we'd be boarding in "a few minutes".
I don't know about you, but "a few" to me isn't 180. Even worse, it wasn't until 1:00 that we were distributed pieces of paper informing us that the ship was undergoing "routine tests" and boarding wouldn't proceed until 1:30.
Routine, sure. Routine means normally scheduled. Let me on the damn ship.
Nope.
We were sitting in a giant room with the other 2452 passengers. About half in each ear, I'd estimate. Thank God for the free wifi provided by the Port of Miami.
Finally, at 1:30, we tromped on to the ship -- at the front -- and made our way to cabin 6-436 --at the back. 272 meters. It felt like we were walking forever.

The view from our room at the stern, looking forward



But the reward was that room...


...and the view from the balcony will wake you up...


..

This was on the day of departure...the sea was almost a flat calm, and the wake was visible for miles. 
The ship was solid as a rock in the water. After that first day, however, the wind picked up and we lost all our illusions...and in Eva's case, nearly her lunch.
That was something of a shock. We brought lots of Gravol (Dramamine for my American readers) to combat what was supposed to be Ken's motion sickness. Ken partook on occasion. Eva, who has in the past comported herself perfectly well on sailboats in gales, was considerably worse off. It took us most of the voyage to determine why this was. Bariatric surgery strikes again.
That surgery happened less than a year ago, and before that point Eva was actually Eva 2. In her mind--and pertinently, in her inner ear--she is still Eva2, and probably will be for some time yet. It screws with her balance at the best of times. Lose a third of your body weight and see what happens to your equilibrium. 
The wind topped 35 knots on our sea day (that's 65 km/hr or 40mph, sustained). We experienced pretty much every weather condition you can get at that latitude, from thunderstorms to steamy fog to powerful sunlight. Predominantly, though, it was heavy overcast...which was actually something of a blessing. It eliminated the need for sunscreen and made the balcony more than comfortable. 
Actually, the balcony was often pretty much mandatory. We knew we'd need some introvert time out there, but we never considered (and I never packed for) the air conditioning.  
My prime packing rule, first hammered into my head on a trip to Ottawa at the end of May 1986, reads as follows: no matter where you're going and no matter when you're going there, pack long sleeves, pants, and a jacket. 
I observed the weather forecast for our destinations over the cruise--the lowest temperature was 24, with highs in the 30s and humidex  values well into the forties--and decided my rule could be discarded just this once.
Bad move.
There was supposedly a thermostat in our cabin. If so, we couldn't find it. It was frigid in there, and the rest of the enclosed areas of the ship were as well. I never thought I'd be making a beeline for hot and humid, but I did. Several times. And at night we both slept under sheet and thick duvet.

If it wasn't the temperature driving us into and out of our room, though, it was the people. 
The people.
Rudeness abounds on cruise ships. Every kind you can imagine. There's your standard unthinking rudeness found everywhere (hey! let's stop in the middle of the  narrow hallway and have a chat, blocking it completely for the people trying to get past!) There's the rudeness that inconveniences huge numbers of people (they must have paged everyone to the mandatory safety briefing seven or eight times before everyone actually showed up; it delayed our leaving Miami by an hour).  Then there's the kind of potentially catastrophic and highly illegal rudeness of throwing a lit cigarette overboard from a balcony two levels up from us. It missed Eva by inches and landed on our deck, still lit.
Add alcohol (we may as well have been floating in an ocean of it) and the rudeness multiplies. I'm not sure what it is about booze that makes people want to scream at each other and stampede down hallways at 3:30 in the morning, but it's something, all right. Our stateroom location at the very stern kept most of that at bay. But not all of it. I got up one morning at 4:30 to walk around the ship, thinking it would be as close to deserted as it would ever get. Yes...for the most part. But one of the pools was absolutely jam-packed full of screaming, shrieking and roaring first year university students cruisers. So much for enjoying a coffee at poolside.
It really did put me in mind of Mac 2 West dorm at Wilfrid Laurier University. That's not a good thing to be put in mind of. Eva saw the worst of it: a man in his late sixties groping and grinding against a woman young enough to be his granddaughter while someone else filmed the action...after thirty seconds the young woman turned around and returned the favour. Consensual, I guess--though after that much alcohol that point might be arguable--but gross. Oh, yeah, and a woman's top materialized on our balcony one morning. It might have been thrown by the same person who threw the cigarette, who knows.

So yes, we mitigated the rudeness as best we could. We hit the breakfast buffet the instant it opened, which spared us from dealing with huge numbers of people and ensured the food on the buffet would be hot. (In theory...in practice, most of it was lukewarm. Sigh). We didn't spend a huge amount of time on shore with everyone else, preferring to have the ship mostly to ourselves. And as I said, we retreated to our room whenever it got overwhelming.

A view of the main atrium at 4:45 in the morning.

The stairways are full of these mosaic-like murals. Lovely.

Eva in the Mediterranean Restaurant on Lido Deck 9.

We ate most of our meals up here, again trying to time things to avoid the crowds. There are numerous buffets (most of them serving the same food, which mirrored the food served in the formal dining rooms in many cases). 
We did have a couple of meals in the Atlantic Dining Room on 3 forward. The food was hit and miss. Some of it was absolutely incredible--the beef brisket I had on the first night was to die for. Other food was not so good...buffet or sit-down service, they seemed to have a real problem keeping it warm. It might have been that air conditioning, I'm not sure. 
I made a point of trying things I wouldn't normally. I had a cheese plate for dessert one night, shocking my wife who had pointed out the Black Forest gâteau on the menu. I tried cold mango and ginger soup (refreshing!), crab cakes (yum), filet mignon for breakfast (just so I could say I had filet mignon for breakfast) and chocolate sushi (which was one of the most disgusting things I ever put in my mouth). 
In addition to the buffet and sit-down dining options, there is a pizza place open 24 hours a day, a tasting bar, a deli, a Chinese food place, and that free room service. Then of course there are the bars. For $7.75 and up a drink, it truly amazed me how much alcohol got consumed. 

There was one deal even worse than the alcohol: internet. The internet access on board ranges from pay as you go at 75 cents a minute to 12 hours for 33 cents a minute (that's $159!) And for the three or so minutes we used to check important stuff, it was almost dial-up speed. Yikes. Then again, you're on a ship. At sea. Getting access to the internet is a feat of technology...

We didn't bother with the casino--setting money on fire has never really appealed to us, for some reason--but you have to walk through that casino to get to a not-so-surprisingly-large number of places. Actually, it was kind of amusing how easy it was to get lost. You can get turned around without much effort and in many cases you can almost see where you're trying to get to, but "you can't get there from here". 

The ship's library, which we were looking forward to checking out, was open one hour a day. The shops were better, although most of what was being sold was waaaaaay out of our price range (seriously, do people go on cruises to buy jewellery and perfume? I'd've never guessed.) 

Back to the room we'd go...


...to find our steward, Ketut, had turned the bed down and performed some towel origami. 
We were highly impressed with his work, his friendliness and his memory. Well, I'd expect him to know my wife on sight after seeing her once, but he managed that feat with me, too. 

The crew on this ship works their butts off, and it shows. I didn't see a single female steward, for some reason, and most of the crew seemed to hail from places like Bali (Ketut) or Malaysia or Indonesia. The officers were almost entirely Italian. Most of our fellow passengers seemed to hail from Florida, which kind of surprised me. In any event, the ship felt very cosmopolitan. 

Part II, tomorrow: More ship pictures and Key West.