Friday, February 20, 2009

Cruise Diary II: on the ship (don’t say “boat”!)

(First days of 2007)

About the ship, I don’t have as much to say, except that it was just great. Really, really nice. Everything was easy and accommodating. We were treated like royalty. We lived in luxury. We have many food options available 24hrs a day. It was so perfect I have little to report. One nice thing was that the crew was incredibly international. From just about every country you could name. They were young and seemed ambitious. They worked hard, but it seemed that they could really use this job as a stepping stone to see the world, meet others from all over the world, and get paid a decent wage. It felt like a giant melting pot with all these 20-somethings from so many countries. It felt like it really could contribute to more international harmony in it’s own small, grass-roots way.

One day, while eating at a window by myself in one of the dining rooms I hear the person next to me say:

“The ocean has a very unique beauty. Very, very beautiful.”

Is he talking to me?

“You could really loose yourself out here.”

He is talking to me. It seems so poetic and clich├ęd. Is this a pick up line? Just to be social, I nod, or acknowledge agreement in some way. He continues:

“There are no skyscrapers or landmarks. So it is hard to get oriented.”

Okay, so we’re being very literal. I point out some flying fish, my contribution to the beauty of the scene.

"I bet they taste good," he says.

Okay, so very, very literal.

This guy is in his twenties, and I’m beginning to understand that he is developmentally delayed. The cruise is a perfect place for a vacation for someone with disabilities. It is easy and safe with lots to see and do, all nearby. It can easily accommodate our large group with diverse ages (ranging from 2 to 84), interests, and abilities. The kids are happy, the teenagers are happy, the senior citizens are happy, the baby is happy, I am happy.

So I ask this guy next to me how many cruises he had been on. Six or so, it seems. Perfect for him and his family. Then he tells me that the big event that he is looking forward to is the upcoming release of the Transformers movie. He asks if I like the Transformers. It’s not that I don’t like the Transformers, but to be honest, I tell him that I have difficulty making sense of them, that I haven’t really paid attention. Well, he is going to help me with that. So he explains the backstory to his long-held interest. There are the Autobots who are good and the Deceptron who are bad. The Deceptron are trying to get the Autobots’ resources, their oil and energy sources. There is something about worlds colliding and getting caught in suspended animation for 1000 years. It’s definitely an insight into a new world for me!

Another night, we stay up to see some of the onboard entertainment. It is a sort of Broadway Musical smorgasbord/medley of songs. It was so serious and so intently done, that it was almost comedic. Felicity asked if one of the songs was from Spinal Tap. If only! But no, I'm afraid "sex bomb" was deadly serious.

Did help me to appreciate Queen more, though.

Small island, very Caribbean looking. Brightly colored side gallery houses. Poor too. Almost desperate seeming. Ursula got us two cabs to airport for our rented car. Aeropuerto is closed. No rental cars available anywhere. Avis is quiet. Not a soul. Ursula bargains and bargains with taxi drivers arranges for them to take us to beach and back for $40 per car. We do this.

Take a drive around the island. See lots of desperate poverty. Cabinetmakers too. The people were not starving, but their dogs were. A small island, very rocky and hilly, with little room for cultivation. What do you do? Where do things come from? Where do they go? That is probably why they invested in the huge Cruise Ship dock. An influx of money from outside. Corruption? Desperation. Beautiful beaches. Pollution. How do they survive?

Nice black and white pottery from Honduras. Looks very fragile. Take only pictures.

Costa Maya
I like the newspapers they used to wrap up the stuff. I like the bent wire frames covered with colorful plastic tubing that they used to display their T-shirts and dresses, I like the colorful and striped plastic bags they put purchases in. All the stuff, the mall feeling, I am less into.

Belize City
Belize City is actually a city and I am reminded that in this part of the world that means crowded living conditions and, in former British colonies, open sewers. My big find is the hardware store Simon Quan and Co., "You name it, we have it!" and a good selection of tablecloth material. Buy that and dustpan and rags. Cool. But know I am a wimp and that that is about all the cultural immersion I can handle. Return to tourist area tout suite.

People friendly, no hostility here.

Much more development here, but still a lot of shabby (i.e. real) underside. The bluest water ever. So beautiful. Visit a church, a supermarket, a bookstore, and Los Cinco Soles.

All these places are great to visit, but they also make me so happy to live where I do. Great for the kids to see other places, though, even in this highly artificial way.

My skin is doing its tropics thing. Yuk.

Sad there are only two more days on the ship…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cruise diary I: getting to the boat (last days of 2006)

We change our flight to avoid the coming blizzard. Really don’t want to miss the boat (a wonderful family trip that is a gift from Greg's father)! Rushing to get everything done 24hrs earlier than planned. Tension over "list" and what needs to get done. Table Mesa park-and-ride is full. We drive on to Broomfield park-and-ride. Hope our car won't be buried when we get back! Arrive at airport many, many hours in advance. Hang out near shops. Buy jibbitz, see Crocs boots and "hiking boots." Eat sandwiches. Was pleased to use up most of the perishables in fridge in sandwiches.

Kids enjoy playing on escalators and moving sidewalks. Board flight without incident. Flight takes off just as flakes begin to fall…

Tampa airport area
Baggage claim 12 at Tampa airport. I call La Quinta and they say to go to the door labeled Red One and catch a white van with lettering on the side that says The Blue One. We did. Watched the weather channel to see shots of Denver's blizzard. Walk across the “street” (read: huge, pedestrian-unfriendly, complicated, multi-lane intersection) to the "International Plaza." Rees says, "I hate plazas, I hate everything about them." Discovered the field we thought we were walking through turned into a lake. It was warm. The grass was green. I remember: we're in Florida. Hmmm. Might there be alligators in the water? Sure enough, we stumble across a sign: Warning, alligators may be present. Yes, we're not in Colorado anymore…

Find a food court. Kids are starving. I had eaten the last sandwich while waiting for the shuttle. Rees eats two 6" Subway sandwiches. Kadin eats his own sandwich then half of Greg's teriyaki chicken and sesame green beans.

Sleep well. Wake to have the hotel breakfast (avoiding some of the scary stuff and having a hard boiled egg, a banana, and an orange, which last me pretty well). Then back to the mall for haircuts and some sort of herbal concoction to stave off the cold Greg thinks he's getting. His plan: to work for the day at Starbucks. My plan: to amuse myself and the kids for the day. While waiting for the haircut place to open, we surf the web and find our originally scheduled plane had been canceled due to the storm. Phew! We are warm and happy, only a few miles from the boat that departs tomorrow. I look for info on public buses online. Find one site that says: the only people who take public transport in Tampa are those who have no choice. Hmmm.

Can't find an easy way to the Dali Museum across the bay in St. Petersburg, so instead, take the bus into town. We do okay, and even though the bus comes only once every half an hour, we only need to wait ten or fifteen minutes. I ask a girl who came to wait at the stop how much the bus costs. She snarls at me, almost like she couldn't believe I wasn't abusing her. I ask again, and she answers guardedly. It was clear she didn't want to talk to me or to any stranger.

We get a similarly harsh response from the driver and then we find out that for the kids to get the kid’s rate, they need ID. Kids? ID? And I just took their passports out of my purse this morning… So whatever, I pay the full rate for all of us and buy three day passes so we can take public transit at will. A man on the bus sees that we are here for the day and suggests that once we get into town, we take a trolley to Ybor city and walk around. That sounds like it would be suitably fun for the day. We transfer at the next mall to get the bus downtown.

We pass fast food restaurants and bail bond places and other marginal establishments. There is something called "The People's Church" where a bunch of people get on. Another guy asks some other passengers how to get to the Salvation Army. Then he launches into his story of his DUI conviction and how he had only had one beer. Everyone at the football game was drinking. Yes, he had refused the breathalyzer test, but that was because cops made him nervous and he didn't want to do what they said. He said it was about $700 to get his car back. Other passengers contributed their opinions, for example, that DUI was serious. That that was bad. Another woman, who I think got on at the church, told the guy that the only way for him to kick his addiction was through love of Jesus. Yes, that was the only way.

Downtown Tampa turns out to be a typical downtown: skyscrapers, office workers, luncheon places. I could see there was not going to be much to interest the kids. So we find one of the yellow trolleys and inquire. As luck (not) would have it, this particular trolley (there are 3 trolley lines and 1 streetcar line that are separate from the busses) was the “Hooters Express,” a free service from downtown to Hooters at lunchtime. Hooters in Tampa was just about the last place I wanted to go, but it was free. I perused the trolley brochure on board, and discovered that there were other places to eat near Hooters as it was in a complex called the Channelside development.

Channelside was near the aquarium and the pier our boat would leave from AND the streetcar that went to Ybor City. In the end, it seemed a fine place to go.

When we got to Channelside, it was past lunchtime. I had promised the boys we could eat at McDs or Burger King and amazingly, though we had passed several on the bus, we could find not a one anywhere near downtown Tampa. A good thing, really, but at this moment, for once, I wouldn't have minded.

We settled instead for a large, noisy Bennigan's. The food was not any better than McD's but about twice as expensive. The up side was that we got to sit with a nice view of the harbor and the docks.

After Bennigans, I thought we'd take the streetcar into Ybor City, have an ice cream, then return to the hotel. The kids had had enough and wanted to go back to the hotel right away. I was still thinking it was time to find IT, the cool part of Tampa. But even ice cream would not sway them. Just before we hopped back on the Hooters shuttle (ughh!) Kadin got a blister and stopped being able to walk. I remembered a CVS near the bus stop. We bought bandaids and sunscreen and waited for the bus back.

Some more interesting characters were in the park waiting for the bus. The wait this time was longer. The highlight came when we discovered there are tons of lizards in Florida, running in the grass, the bushes, and up trees. Salvation!

A person who wore a shirt with a restaurant logo—The Office—and JESUS tattooed on his arm was also waiting for the bus. He told me when he thought it would come. A couple walked by in full Penn State regalia and she even had blue and white painted fingernails. It was then I began to realize something was truly up, there didn't just happen to be more than a few Penn State fans in Tampa. The guy at the bus stop told me they were playing Tennessee that weekend in the Outback Bowl in town.

Ride back was relatively uneventful. One bus this time.

Get back to find note from Greg that he is at mall (plaza) with EET LT DST J and E. Wow! They're all here already!

I try to nap to Cartoon Network. Jack comes by. We go swimming. Greg comes back. We plan transportation to the ship the next day. We hear that Fe and Dan got on a plane from Denver to Chicago. It is good, but getting late. Where to eat? I check out the hole in the fence at the back of the hotel. Ruth Chris Steakhouse on the other side of hole looks formal and pricey. Figuring we'll have plenty of good food and fancy meals on the boat, we decide instead on a light meal ordered in from a local Italian place.

Next morning, Saturday, I had read about an open market in Ybor City. I want to try again. It is not far from the pier where the boat departs. I decide to go on my own and meet Greg and the boys at the pier.

Saturday, the buses only come once an hour. I walk from stop to stop, thinking I'd rather be walking than waiting. I hear the Penn State (or maybe Tennessee) marching band playing in a nearby hotel parking lot. I finally get to a bus stop that has a schedule and find that the next bus doesn't come for almost twenty minutes. When the time gets near, I find a stop and wait. As has been typical, a couple people show up just as the bus is supposed to arrive. This guy and his friend (brother?) are very drunk and suntanned/burned. It is only 11am. They ask me what time the bus comes and where it goes in town. I tell them they are lucky as the bus only comes once an hour and they hit it right on. I tell them it doesn't go to gaslight park in this direction because Kennedy is one-way there, but they could get off just across the bridge into town at Ashley. It's almost as if I really know what I am talking about. They are really out of it. I am counting the minutes until the bus comes. They keep talking about how stupid they are. Sad as it is, I have to agree (silently). One shows me his scar from the first Gulf War. He had been in the Marines. They seem so rudderless.

We get on the bus and after a little bit, it again stops near the People's Church, or Church of the People or some such. One of the women who gets on looks weather beaten but also strangely young and beautiful. She says hello to the guys from the bus stop. I gather that they recognize each other from where they were all sleeping at some underpass. "I had to leave when you guys started drinking" I hear her say. One of the guys says something about how, yes, he does recognize her and she had lent him two dollars. She starts talking about Jesus and how she was on the straight and narrow path now. It is all very interesting.

I get off the bus in town to transfer to the streetcar. Not sure it is faster, but it is more scenic and it runs just as often on Saturday. The streetcar is not part of the regular bus system, but much more tourist oriented.

Ybor City has some charm and the architecture is more interesting, but it doesn’t feel alive. It feels like a smaller, less happening version of the French Quarter. I think what bugs me about Tampa is that nothing seems really genuine. Things that are “nice” are sort of done up and revamped and “revitalized,” but there doesn’t seem to be any deep roots, any heart. Ybor city comes close, but it seems a has-been and it too had an attempted “restoration.” The Iguana bar was the one place that looked traditional and genuine. It had a bunch of oversized bikers out front in serious leather.

I meet up with everyone (including Dan and Fe who made it out of Denver!) at the pier and we “check in” in a massive hall, get our boat IDs, have our passports checked, and walk the long gangway to the gigantic cruise ship. We made it and all 17 of us are together. So glad we didn't miss the boat.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wind and marshmallows

(Early Summer, 2005, 4 years ago)

Kadin, who is usually very calm and stable and seems to have a sort of steady, internal rudder, is irrationally afraid of the wind. I say irrationally, because he is afraid that "everything" is going to blow away. And the more you reassure him and tell him calmly not to worry about it, the more he thinks he has to take on all the responsibility and worry about it for everyone.

If there is a piece of garbage that is about to blow away, he just has to run after it and retrieve it and put it in the garbage. And cleaning up litter is admirable, not something I really want to discourage, but we (that would be myself and a screaming, terrified child) have cleaned up the school playground several times now. Why does it always seem especially windy on Fridays when the teachers send home all the papers? And he will run out of the house, terrified, to catch flying plastic bags and such. I do not know how to save him from this internal burden he carries to keep things from blowing away. I have tried talking to him about the wind as the earth’s way of breathing. How is it refreshing and freeing. How it will come and it will go. How the wind helps birds soar and dandelion seeds disperse. And even if garbage does blow away, it may not be pretty, but it is really not that much of a tragedy. But he is clearly unconvinced of it’s positive merits.

And so when he came running home the other night terrified and in tears and it wasn't windy, I wondered what was up. He had gone over to the neighbors’ with Rees to make s'mores. S'mores are one of those American things that my kids have yet to be exposed to.

These are the same neighbors who reported back to me that Kadin refused an Oreo. They thought he was deprived. Okay, so I don't buy Oreos, but I could use the excuse that they don't have them in England. Then, when they mentioned that these were orange and black Halloween Oreos, it all sort of made sense. I mean, if they looked like poison and all... So when the kids had asked if they could make s’mores, I said sure!

I find s'mores sickeningly sweet and messy and always not quite perfect. But they bring back fond memories. Not just of camps and campfires. When we first moved to England some friends sent us a care package for the Fourth of July. It had silly stars-and-stripes hats, graham crackers, hershey bars, and marshmallows. We dutifully indulged. S'mores are cozy and comfy and silly and half the fun of them is that they don’t really make sense.

So when Kadin came running home, crying and terrified, I couldn’t think what the problem was. "Mom!" he cried through red and angry eyes, "they're taking marshmallows and…putting them in the fire!" As far as he was concerned this was just a horrifying thing to do. These gentle white fluffy balls and you stick them in an inferno! Injustice! So I went over to see what all the fuss was about. Sure enough, there were all these little devils sitting around a gas fire, blithely roasting innocent marshmallows and in the process waving flames around. They were actually HAVING A GOOD TIME! The nerve! Kadin was beside himself with vigilance. A little four-year-old alerting people to overly-brown marshmallows and commenting on and redirecting every wayward flame. Once again, it seemed it was his burden and his burden alone to police the event. Everyone else was so calm and relaxed! Insanity! He would have to redouble his efforts to keep the world safe and orderly. Poor, poor marshmallows...

It took some doing, but eventually, when his head wasn’t buried under my arm, he started to relax a little. [Many a campout later, I can report that he is now able to see the fun in s’mores. It took a bit longer (like several years) for him to finally come to terms with his wind phobia, but what a relief that’s been!]

Monday, February 16, 2009

Making do and the underdog (2006)

Wanted to share two small houses from our trip last summer (now almost three summers ago, 2006!) to Norway. The red one is a 20th century house from a small village that is now in one of Norway's outdoor museums. The yellow one is the guardhouse at the palace. I like them both. Which one is more authentic? Which one is more classic? Which house is more artistic? Which house deserves more attention? Which house is more alive? Which house should be preserved? Okay, enough with the art history questions that I ALWAYS get wrong! For some reason, I think I am supposed to like the yellow house more. I think it would be called the "better" house. The yellow one was likely designed and built by professionals and, this being part of the palace, money was not a major limiting factor. The red one was probably designed and built with limited funds by the self-taught. The yellow one is well-maintained, the red one is not. I would guess that both buildings were probably built around the same time. Both are charming, but I am in love with the little red one. I will choose folk over elegant every time. Why? I love that the red house is so funky and expressive and built with love on limited resources. I love it's faded color. It has a story to tell. It has personality.

On our more recent trip to the Caribbean, there was all this hype and publicity about shopping, and where to buy the best diamonds and tanzanite and how to collect fine art. This did not appeal to me at all. When I ventured out to the tourist shopping areas I liked the newspapers they used to wrap up the stuff. I liked the bent wire frames covered with colorful plastic tubing they used to display their T-shirts and dresses. I liked the colorful and striped plastic bags that they put purchases in. And I realized that I liked the "make do" stuff, the creative ways that people used what they had on hand. To me, that was where the life was. I enjoyed most my trip to the supermarket in Cozumel, the bookstore, the little shrines in the church we happened upon. I loved the cheap variety store in Belize City with the motto, "You name it, we sell it!" That was where I bought bright cleaning rags, a red tin dustpan, and tacky vinyl oil cloth printed with red and green fruit and gingham. No diamonds for me, please. Forget the palace. I like whittled wood and brightly painted houses, country music, and wine in a tin cup. I am rooting for the underdog. For whatever reason, I am happiest when I am making do. When things are too easy, something vital is lost.

Monday, February 09, 2009


(From probably about two years ago…)

One of Rees' friends gave him a handheld Tetris game for his birthday. I have co-opted it and am a bit addicted. Again (after a serious addiction in the '80s). I don't know what it is I love about the game but there is something so elegant about the five kinds of shapes that are made of four squares and trying to fit them together in the most efficient way. Efficiency, I love it! (See post Open, press, scoop, stir for more on this topic.) Or maybe it is addicting because the way the game is set up: you go along fine for a long time and then at the end usually everything goes haywire all of a sudden, so of course you have to try again. I don't know what the best strategy is, but I do have some thoughts about the game I'd like to share. Actually, I have specific feelings about each piece and specific purposes for each one. This is just a tad too nerdly to share face to face, but that is why this blog is so freeing.

The line
This has just got to be everybody’s favorite piece. Made of four squares in a line, there is never a time when you can't fit it anywhere. It will almost always be used vertically to fill in a hole, but I see it as a good sign when I can use it horizontally and I’m not desperate to use it to fill a hole. In fact, I try not to have too many deep holes to fill while waiting for those all-too-rare lines. Prevention is better than cure. Avoid the deep pits. Opportunities are made this way. If you depend on the line, you will be forsaken. But if you do fill a pit with one, it is the only shape that can get you four lines in one fell swoop. That sure feels good.

In games where you try to complete as many lines as possible in two minutes, it is definitely a waste to use the line vertically. In these games, I strive to keep things low and horizontal.

The T
To me, this is the next most friendly shape. It is bilaterally symmetrical and has one friendly square coming off of three sides. The final side is nice and flat and three squares wide. You can almost always find a nice place to slot in your T. If you don't have any steps, then you likely have nice flat space where three in a row will fit nicely. Symmetry, simple steps, a nice broad flat side, these are good qualities in a shape.

The Z's
The Z's can be a really friendly shape. Their good quality is that they also have just one square jutting out so usually there is an easy fit. But there are two bad qualities to the Z's. First, they are not symmetrical, so there are two different Z's. Because there are two, it is sometimes difficult to determine that a Z will fit and you don't always get the Z you need. The second difficult aspect of Z's is that they have no flat side. If you don't have any steps to sit them on, then you are forced to leave a gap. This is not usually a big crisis, but it can be frustrating.

I have found a really good use for Z's, though, and that is in helping to fill in the deep holes. I used to try to wait for a line, or barring that, use the long side of an L, but it turns out that Z's are even better. If you use an L to fill in a deep hole, its cap will almost always be left on top, blocking the gaps underneath. But, if the rest of your game is “tight” (no gaps), and you can put a Z into a deep hole, only the bottom half needs to disappear to keep the gaps below exposed. If you do this, your hole gets shorter, doesn’t get capped, and stays open so it can still be filled or “Z-ed” down to oblivion.

The L
The L I find slightly annoying. Like the Z’s, there are two different versions, which can be confusing and frustrating. Also, it has this long tail that can be great for filling in shallow holes, but can also really get in the way. Still, it does have a nice, short, flat side that’s two square wide, and a longer flat side three squares wide. These can be used to bridge gaps to complete a line, especially if the nose/tail does not get in the way and block gaps underneath. Also, the little nose is a nice one step that can often fit into spaces on flat surfaces. But when I have trouble is when the L's just keep coming. It can be hard to find place after place for an L. It has its purpose, but is best in small quantities. Not as friendly as the line, the T, or even the Z’s.

The box
The box is a tight little bundle of four squares, completely symmetrical all around. It is easy to comprehend and easy to place, if you have a place for it, that is. When you do have a double space, it is a great way to fill it in quickly and compactly, but if you don't have a double space, only steps, it can be trouble. It can also be a real problem when one box comes quickly after another. The temptation then is to build the dreaded tower. So, it is good to keep a double space ready at all times for the box. You will be glad you did and you will be able to quickly fill it in when the box arrives.

So here are some of my key strategies:

1) Don't create deep holes. Two squares is plenty deep.

2) If you do get a deep hole, try to fill it in with a shape that will disappear immediately, even if it doesn't completely fill the hole. This beats waiting for a line.

3) Leave a double-wide space whenever possible. This keeps your options open.

4) Don't build towers. This limits your options.

5) Don't panic.

While I prefer to have a “tight” pattern with few holes, I am currently investigating ways to use pieces to complete lines even when they leave a gap. It is often a better investment to have the piece disappear in a completed line and be rid of it than to fit it in somewhere that has no gaps but leaves a tower or a hole. I am trying to get out of my compulsion to “fit.”

If you found this readable (and perhaps even interesting) and have thoughts/strategies of your own to share, let me know, I am all ears! What is your favorite Tetris piece? What is your best Tetris strategy???? Together, we are stronger...