Sunday, March 6th, 2016

We spent a whole week on a cruise ship, but we hardly ever went to any of the activities that the cruise line arranged for the passengers. There were too many activities arranged for the Sea Monkeys that we didn’t want to miss, so our days were jam-packed with those. We didn’t go to the casino or see a movie. We didn’t even swim in one of the forty-seven pools, or however many there are. The cruise line says there are only ten, but I was there and I think there were a whole lot more. Forty-seven sounds about right.

Unless you count the hot tubs, then we did one ordinary cruise-ship thing. And when I say “hot tub,” I’m not talking about the little cedar-sided bathtub that you’re probably thinking of. The ship we were on, Freedom of the Seas, has two hot tubs on either side of the pool deck big enough to fit maybe twenty people. Thirty, if they don’t mind getting cozy. Each tub is a half-circle, with the flat side up against the edge of the ship and the round side sticking out over the side, I guess because there wasn’t enough room on deck with all the other pools. They didn’t have glass bottoms, which would have been awesome, but they did have wrap-around windows.

B and I changed into our swim suits and went up to try out the hot tub one night when we had some time after dinner. The ship was en route from Coco Cay to Saint Thomas, and the sea was not calm. It wasn’t especially rough, either. Tables and chairs weren’t sliding across the deck or anything like that, but when you tried to walk in a straight line, you couldn’t do it. You found that you had to walk a drunken path. Luckily, everyone else had to walk the same path. It was like you and everyone around you was doing the same dance number in a musical.

There was no one in the tub when we got there — we had the whole tub to ourselves! SCORE! There was nothing to see outside the big wrap-around windows because there was no moon, or it was overcast, or both. But there was plenty of action inside. The pool deck is way up at the top of the ship, a little more than a hundred feet above the water line, so all that pitching and rolling the ship was doing got magnified to the point that we could see the water sloshing around in the pools. The hot tub was much smaller than the other pools, but the water in it was sloshing just as much, often slopping over the edges of the tub onto the deck. Looked like fun.

At first we sat on the round side of the pool, hanging farthest out over the ocean, but most of the wave action seemed to be happening in the corners of the pool where the curve met the flat side, so we slid in closer. There was a seat molded into the bottom of the tub all the way around the sides, but we didn’t sit on it much. It was more fun to try to float and let the water shove us around. It was a lot like being in a bathtub full of water when you suddenly slide from one end to the other. All the water ran away from us, then came rushing back to lift us up and spin us around before running away again.

We soaked in the pool for maybe an hour. By then, we were pruning up enough that it seemed like a good idea to climb out and dry off.

hot tub rock and roll | 9:08 am CDT
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Saturday, March 5th, 2016

I used to read fiction almost exclusively. The only time I would read non-fiction was when someone made me, like for school. And even then, I blew off most of my assigned reading to read fiction.

I loved fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Those stories had what seemed like limitless possibilities. What would a society of intelligent bugs be like? A writer could take that idea and run in just about any direction with it: Would they get along with humans? If they didn’t, would humans win or lose a war with them? If they did, would humans have sexual congress with them? (Sooner or later, even the most far-out ideas come back to sex.)

And then, for reasons I never quite understood, a switch flipped in my brain about twenty or twenty-five years ago and I began reading non-fiction. Mostly biographies, or American history. I think it started when I wanted to know more about American history during the second world war. I knew a lot about bombs and planes, but almost nothing about why America made the bombs and planes. Turned out there was a lot to learn. I think I’ve read more about that period of American history than any other, and I still wouldn’t dare say I know much about it.

But maybe five years ago I made a conscious effort, every now and then, to pick up some fiction that came with the recommendation of a friend or a critic, and read at least the first fifty pages, just to see if there was still some magic in the pleasure of reading made-up stuff. It would be a pity to miss out on a new voice as engaging as some of my old favorites. And waddaya know, I did find fiction that still raised my eyebrows in surprise, that was fun to read.

Most recently, I started reading The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. An epic fantasy (660 pages! Run, Will Robinson!), it’s not the kind of book I would normally have tried to read for fun, and I say that as a guy who not only has all of Le Guin’s Earthsea books in hardback, but who takes them down from the shelf every couple of years and reads every page from beginning to end. I also say that as a guy who has started reading the epic tomes of Saberhagen and Martin, but could never get any further than the first fifty pages. Pure fantasy, with magic and swords, was never something I automatically loved the way, for instance, a story with a rocketship would.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I curled up on the sofa with The Name of The Wind one night and found myself immersed in a story that I didn’t emerge from until it was time to put on my jammies and turn in for the night. And even then I took the book with me, as it’s long been my custom to read a chapter or two in bed. It relaxes my neck, which lets my head sink into my pillow. Far from putting me to sleep, though, this is one of those books I have to read just one more chapter of, until I glance at the clock and warn myself that if I don’t stop, I won’t get enough sleep and I’ll be a grumpy cat in the morning.

I probably never would have looked for this book, or even heard of it, if I hadn’t gone on the JoCo Cruise. Rothfuss was there to read some of his work and to sit on a couple of panels to talk with the other authors who came along, and he was such a pleasure to listen to that I resolved to check out all his books from the library and try out every one of them, believing that surely at least one will appeal to me. Well, now I’m facing the daunting possibility that they will all appeal to me and I’ll soon have a whole shelf filled with them in hardcover. Oh well. There are worse compulsions.

The Name of The Wind | 9:56 am CDT
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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

True story: As the bus taking us from our hotel to the cruise ship neared Port Canaveral, the driver turned around and asked us, “Which cruise line are you guys on?” The frigging driver didn’t know which terminal he was supposed to drop us off at!

And yet somehow we still got there.

Tell you what: the cruise line has every last thing figured out about how to get a couple thousand tourists aboard a big ship in a hurry. The terminal was as wide open as a sports stadium. When we got there, which was still pretty early, we could easily see one end of the room from the other, and yet there were uniformed attendants every fifty feet or so to direct us along our way. We hardly stopped moving until we got to the check-in desk where they took our photos, handed us a couple of magical plastic cards and pointed toward the gangplank.

Those plastic cards were magical because we could wave them at bartenders to get all the drinks we wanted. There’s a pro tip for you: Get the ultimate drinks package. For two good reasons:

First, imagine taking all your meals at the airport for seven days. What do they charge you for everything you drink? Every cup of coffee, every glass of orange juice, every bottle of water, and all at airport prices. What if you want a cocktail in the evening? How much would a week of that cost you? Yeah. We didn’t want to have to think about about how much we were spending, so we got the drinks package. That way, we’ve already spent it. No worries.

Second, because starting every day with a mimosa or a bloody mary is the best way to start your day.

I made a pact with My Darling B that we would stop at the first bar we could find after going aboard so that we could toast the start of our vacation with a couple glasses of champagne. As luck would have it, we didn’t have to go looking at all: There was a bar just inside the doorway as we entered. Almost like they knew what we wanted most at that moment.

all aboard | 12:01 am CDT
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Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here’s something I really didn’t expect: At the end of our vacation when our ship tied up to its pier in Port Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday morning, the temperature there was forty-six degrees. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, temps were in the fifties. What the hell was that about? When we left Wisconsin, it was cold there and warm in Florida, as it should always be. Florida should never be colder than Wisconsin. That’s just a natural fact. And yet, it was. I knew we would have to snap back into harsh reality at the end of our vacation, but I didn’t expect the universe to be that perverse about it.

What the hell, Florida? | 8:04 pm CDT
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Monday, February 29th, 2016

Here’s something I can share real quick about going on a cruise: Take lots of cold & flu medicine with you: decongestants, pain killers, all that over the counter stuff that you take when you start feeling fluey but believe that you really have to keep going to work for at least another two or three days so you can tell everyone how sick you are and sneeze and cough and spread your germs all over the place. (Have you ever done that? If so, please stop. Stay home until you’re better. Thank you.)

I don’t know how many people are on a cruise ship, but I’ll bet it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand passengers and crew. Possibly I’m lowballing that; could be a whole lot more. The only crew you ever see are the service staff, but someone’s got to be running the engines, keeping the lights on, fixing the computers, and so on. And it looks like an enormously big ship, but it’s really pretty close inside. You’re constantly bumping into other passengers, breathing each other’s air and grabbing the same door handles that everyone else touched. So even if you don’t take my advice on the cold medicine, at least get yourself a six-pack of those little pocket-sized bottles of Purel, and use it often. Even if you’re washing your hands.

Actually, the ship’s crew don’t give you much of a choice on the Purel. Every time you go into one of the restaurants, even the swanky main dining room, you’ll find at least one crew member waiting at the door for you with an upended bottle of Purel poised to give you a shot. You might try to sneak by without reaching for any, but if they can see your hands, those crew members are going to try their darndest to squirt some Purel into them. On top of that, there are Purel dispensers everywhere. I would say it’s a fair bet that just one cruise ship goes through a metric butt-ton of Purel every day.

Having said that, the odds are about even that you’re going to catch a bug that will get up your sinuses or down your throat and fill you up with phlegm and mucous, if in fact those are two different things. Even if they’re not, a double dose is not unlikely. Everywhere I went, I heard people coughing up crud or telling somebody how they just got over a case of the coughing crud. It seems to be part of the cruise experience.

I may have caught a watered-down version of the crud. My nose got a little stuffed up and I had some phlegm and/or mucous caught in my throat for a day or two. My Darling B, however, caught the giant industrial sized version of the crud that manifested itself on the last day of our cruise. A sore throat kept her up most of the night and we went to see the doctor in the morning, who charged us a hundred eighty bucks for the tests to see if she had strep throat (she didn’t, thank dog) and three packets of Theraflu. It helped, but the moment she laid down in bed that night, her pretty little head filled up with fluids and she tossed and turned until we had to get up the next morning. She’s still getting over it.

So, to recap: fill a bag with cold medicine, buy so much Purel that the company sends you a Christmas card every year, and every time you pass a faucet, wash your hands. Then maybe, just maybe you won’t get what everyone else will get. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

sniffles | 10:45 am CDT
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Hi, we’re back from our cruise to the Bahamas and we had a great time, thank you very much for asking. This was the first cruise either of us had gone on, so we had no idea what to expect, other than we were going to be on a great big ship that was going to take us to some islands in the general vicinity of Florida. We knew they were called the Bahamas but, embarrassingly, neither of us could say just where the Bahamas were or how many islands were in the Bahamas. Turns out there are 700. 700! And we didn’t know they existed until we went on this cruise. This is not the first time that travel has revealed to us how stupid we are about the world.

The ship we took was Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. If you’ve never been on a cruise ship before, or been around ocean-going ships at all, your mind isn’t ready to take in just how big they are or how much stuff is crammed into them. It’s as if the designers combined The Mall of America with a five-star hotel. The inside of the ship is hollowed out, leaving room for shops and restaurants and taverns and a wide pedestrian walkway, just like a mall. At one end of the mall there’s a theater showing movies, theater reviews and concerts, and at the other end there’s quite a grand dining room where liveried service staff bring you all the food you ask for. Oh, there’s a dance club in the middle, too. Because they had some extra room, I guess.

The outside of the ship is the hotel. Hundreds and hundreds of hotel rooms, maybe thousands, I don’t know. More than I’d care to count. We had a room that was really very small and ordinary, because we didn’t plan to spend much time in it (turned out this was the one of those rare times that our plans matched up with reality; we were in our room to shower, change clothes, and sleep, and we didn’t do much sleeping), and yet it was still a very nice room. It even had a window, which I learned was not the case in every room. Our window faced the water and was at the front of the ship, so we could see the waves crashing off the bows as the ship plunged through choppy waters, or see the islands as we approached. Other rooms had windows that faced the inside of the ship, overlooking the mall. All things considered, I’m glad we got one looking out at the sea.

The islands we visited were Coco Cay, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Coco Cay is really just a part of the cruise ship that doesn’t go anywhere. Royal Caribbean owns the island, and the ship’s service staff gets off with the passengers to serve food, drinks, and otherwise cater to their every need. I guess a sandy beach was the one thing they couldn’t shoehorn into the boat, so they bought an island. St. Thomas is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten is a Dutch territory. From what I could tell, they exist only because cruise ships stop there.

We didn’t sign up for the cruise to visit the islands, to tell the truth. We signed up because some of our favorite musical performers and authors were going to be on the ship. It was a themed cruise, and for want of a better term, I’ll use the phrase that the other passengers used who signed up for the themed cruise: Nerd Boat (in real life it’s called JoCo Cruise).

The authors were all writers of science fiction (John Scalzi) or fantasy (N.K. Jemisin, Patrick Rothfuss), or were involved in science fiction or fantasy writing in some way (Wil Wheaton). (The names in parens are examples only, not meant to be pigeonholes. Scalzi also writes fantasy, and although I’m not familiar with Jemisin, I understand she writes science fiction as well. I know next to nothing about Rothfuss, but I will soon. And Wheaton, besides being an actor and writer, is a dynamite comic presence. Really.)

The musical performers may be a little harder for me to describe, but I’ll give it a shot: it’s comedy (Paul & Storm), but it’s also nerdy (Jonathan Coulton), and I think the easiest way to describe “nerdy” in this case is to give you a few examples: Paul & Storm opened their musical show with a song urging George R.R. Martin to write faster so we wouldn’t have to wait to find out what happens next on Game Of Thrones. Also, their most popular song by far, and sort of the theme song for this cruise, is The Captain’s Wife’s Lament, a sea shanty about pirates. I would be spoiling the song to go any further, but suffice to say if you don’t like puns, or double entendres, or both, then the payoff won’t work for you.

The most well-known song (and again, a kind of anthem to the people who go on this cruise) by the headline act, Jonathan Coulton, is about a person who writes code for a living. Another song is written in the form of an inter-office memo from a bureaucrat who has recently become a zombie. And my favorite song of Coulton’s is a love song to Pluto from Charon (the planet and its largest moon, respectively) that makes me puddle up every time. I guess that makes me a nerd.

The comedy and the nerdiness is all well and good, but this is to say nothing of how musically awesome the performers are (and besides the comedy and nerdery, we were also treated to (for want of a better term, again) more mainstream artists such as Aimee Mann, whose pop hit Voices Carry almost everybody my age knows, even if they don’t realize that Aimee Mann was part of the group Til Tuesday). Really, if you could see all these guys come together to play a David Bowie tribute, as they did on the last night of the cruise, you would be blown away by just how amazingly accomplished they are as musicians. The musical shows by themselves were well worth the price of admission.

Anyway, that’s the quick & dirty summary of where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing for the last week. I’ll be writing more drivel about it eventually, but it’s going to take a while to go through my notes and I’ve got to divide my time between that, unpacking, washing clothes, and nursing My Darling B, who contracted a case of the coughing crud that was going around the boat. Also, the floor won’t stop rolling back and forth, so every time I stand up, I feel as though I might topple over, and I can’t cross the room without walking like a drunkard, so there’s a slim chance I’ll crash into a wall or tumble over a piece of furniture in the next few days, but if, knock wood, that doesn’t happen, I’ve got a few stories I can tell.

cruise crazy | 9:05 am CDT
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Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Our trip from the hotel to the port did not go quite the way I pictured it.

I was under the impression that the shuttle we booked from the hotel to the port would be a Ford Excursion, or a stretch van, possibly as big as one of those sixteen-person shuttle buses that hotels send you to the airport in. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know how I got that impression. Certainly nobody told me what kind of vehicle we would be riding in. I just assumed. Turns out what they mean when they say “never assume” is true.

On the recommendation of the people organizing the cruise, I called the phone number Florida business and spoke to someone about chartering a “shuttle” from Orlando to Port Canaveral. No one said anything about how we were getting from point A to point B, but maybe the mom-and-pop feel of the business was what made me think the owner herself, or her brother Merle, would show up in a panel van, load our bags into the back and off we’d go.

Nope. A whole lotta nope.

There was a huge gaggle of people milling about in the lobby when we went down there around nine-thirty, a half-hour before we were supposed to leave. There was no sign of anything resembling a line of people waiting to go. I assumed — there I go again — that they had all arranged their own transportation and a long line of vans and stretch limos would soon appear in the drive to take them all away.

Because there was nothing that bore any resemblance at all to a line, we dragged our bags out to the curb and sat in a comfy chair by the driveway to wait for the Ford Excursion/van/shuttle bus that would pull up to take us away. We’d been sitting there all of ten minutes when I happened to notice there was a lady in the lobby moving through the gaggle of people and checking off names on a clipboard. I don’t know what made me think she had anything to do with our ride to the port, but I said, “Be right back,” to B and went inside to see what she was doing.

Turned out she was lining up sixty or so people to get on a chartered bus, which coincidentally happened to be the shuttle we had booked a ride on.

We dragged our bags back inside and searched for the end of the line, ending up behind a thick knot of people who were bunched up around a cluster of chairs. Every so often, someone would walk by with their bags and ask us whether or not this was the line for the shuttle, and we would say something flip like, “Well, I certainly hope so.” That happened three or four times before one of the people in the cluster ahead of us turned around and said, “Oh, we’re not in line.”

So all shuffled three or four feet to the left and waited for clipboard lady to work her way down to us. As she approached, she moved through the cluster of people to our right who said they weren’t in line, ticking off their names. So apparently they were in line after all. We had to practically grab clipboard lady and drag her over to our side of the line to make sure we got checked in. Then, when the line started moving, we all merged as we neared the door.

True story: As the bus taking us from our hotel to the cruise ship neared Port Canaveral, the driver turned around and asked us, “Which cruise line are you guys on?” The frigging driver didn’t know which terminal he was supposed to drop us off at!

And yet somehow we still got there.

Tell you what: the cruise line has every last thing figured out about how to get a couple thousand tourists aboard a big ship in a hurry. The terminal was as wide open as a sports stadium. When we got there, which was still pretty early, we could easily see one end of the room from the other, and yet there were uniformed attendants every fifty feet or so to direct us along our way. We hardly stopped moving until we got to the check-in desk where they took our photos, handed us a couple of magical plastic cards and pointed toward the gangplank.

Those plastic cards were magical because we could wave them at bartenders to get all the drinks we wanted. There’s a pro tip for you: Get the ultimate drinks package. For two good reasons:

First, imagine taking all your meals at the airport for seven days. What do they charge you for everything you drink? Every cup of coffee, every glass of orange juice, every bottle of water, and all at airport prices. What if you want a cocktail in the evening? How much would a week of that cost you? Yeah. We didn’t want to have to think about about how much we were spending, so we got the drinks package. That way, we’ve already spent it. No worries.

Second, because starting every day with a mimosa or a Bloody Mary is the best way to start your day.

I made a pact with My Darling B that we would stop at the first bar we could find after going aboard so that we could toast the start of our vacation with a couple glasses of champagne. As luck would have it, we didn’t have to go looking at all: There was a bar just inside the doorway as we entered. Almost like they knew what we wanted most at that moment.

After toasting our cruise, we wandered down to the gaming room to check in, get our sea monkey passes and our swag bag. Our sea monkey passes get us into all the JoCo Cruise events, and the swag bag was filled with games and a plush toy as mementos to remember our cruise.

I had to make a special trip to the chapel where there was a meeting of all the sea monkeys taking part in a game of assassin that was specially-made for this cruise. When I played assassin in college we used squirt guns to kill our targets; in this game, they used a deck of cards and rules for using them that went completely over my head. I went up to Martin, the creator of the game, to ask for his help, but he was in a pretty intense discussion with someone protesting one of the rules, so I tagged Martin’s wife Mandie and let her know that I wanted to talk with them when we picked up our cards later that night.

Then I had to run all the way back to the other end of the ship to meet up with My Darling B at the New Monkey Orientation, where Paul and Storm welcomed us and told us a few things about the cruise, mostly stuff we already knew. JoCo and Scarface joined in after for a Q&A that was, again, mostly stuff we already knew. We had done our homework before the cruise.

There was a mandatory lifeboat drill at four. When it was done, we ducked inside to grab cocktails that we took back to the rail to watch the ship pull away from the dock and head out to sea. The port was not the prettiest part of Florida by any stretch of the imagination. Besides the terminal and acres of parking, there was a fuel dump, warehouses and all other kinds of servicing facilities, but out at the end of the canal, just before we sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean, there was a small park where dozens of people had set up their lawn chairs along the shore to watch the ships head out and wave at the passengers lined up on the rails. Each ship blasted its horn as it went by, answered by the horns of the dozens of cars parked along the shore.

We both went to what was billed as a cocktail mixer but was really more of a general melee for drinks and noshies as Paul and Storm read more announcements, introduced the guests and cracked wise from the stage. Directly from that we went to dinner in the main dining room. Slight hitch there: We wandered for fifteen minutes or so looking for a table with open seating. All the tables that had any room had been mislabeled “Staff Only” when they were supposed to say “Open Seating.” We finally found a four-top where we sat with Ryan and Scott, a couple of Canadians who came on the cruise primarily to play games and hadn’t heard of JoCo or Paul and Storm before.

Our last activity of the evening was the JoCo concert. I wonder why the headline act went on the first night? Seems like something they’d save for last, but apparently they had different ideas.

We had a teeny tiny little roomette. A king bed took up about half of it. The other half was a small sitting room, closet and bathroom. There was a love seat, a desk and a tiny coffee table. The closed was just big enough to hold all the clothes we brought. After we emptied the suit cases, I was able to stash them under the bed, so that we would have more room in our small world. There was a television, but most of the channels were information about the ship or about shore excursions, and rest were children’s cartoons or were in a language I couldn’t identify.

Cruise Monkey Day Two | 9:13 am CDT
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Saturday, February 20th, 2016

I managed to get to sleep around nine-thirty on the Friday night before we were going to fly out for our cruise. I even kept on sleeping until about two in the morning, but after that I was just lying in bed awake, so I got up at about two-thirty and read a book until four when B got out of bed. We washed up and left the house at five, just as we planned, and our flight left on time a little more than an hour later. Like hitting every green light on a trip across town, it felt somehow like we were getting all the breaks. We even got through security without either of us being selected for “special attention.”

Our layover in Chicago was just long enough for us to get from our arrival gate to our departure gate and start to gobble down a bagel before they called for us to start boarding. Just as quickly, they put a hold on boarding, explaining that they were trying to settle “safety issues.” No problem. You go ahead and take as long as you like to settle those “issues.”

That was the only hitch we experienced along the way, and even though they delayed boarding for a short time, every flight left on time, the airlines didn’t lose our luggage, and the shuttle from the airport to the hotel showed up within ten minutes after we piles all our bags at the curb. Slick as snot, as one of my tech school instructors used to say.

We arrived at our hotel (which the sea monkeys are calling the JoCotel, after the cruise’s namesake, Jonathan Coulton) in the early afternoon. The clerk who checked us in apologized for how cold it was, then asked where we were from. She laughed a bit when we told her Wisconsin. “So this isn’t exactly cold to you,” she said. The temp was seventy-five degrees. We set the thermostat in our house to sixty-nine this time of year. Not exactly cold, no.

We had a bite to eat in the restaurant downstairs, then went back up to our room to change into our swim suits to spend the next several hours by the pool, basking in the sun. One of the perks of being a cheesehead on vacation in Florida is realizing what a treat it is to lie half-naked in the sunshine in February. Still, an hour of that was more than enough for me, and I went looking for a seat in the shade where I could sip a fruity drink and write some drivel. B took a dip in the pool to cool off, then stretched out to soak up another hour’s worth of sunshine.

After washing off and changing into dry clothes, we took a short walk around the hotel, but because I had so little sleep the night before, I was running on fumes and had to hit the hay. My Darling B was all in, too. We stopped off at the bar for a nightcap before turning in for the night.

Cruise Monkey Day One | 6:00 am CDT
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