Saturday, December 28, 2013

July 1995

It may seem strange to you that I should be writing about July at the end of December. I was prompted to do so by the photos from my father's Flickr account, which popped up when I was setting up my Flickr account on one of my Christmas gifts: a Kindle Fire tablet.

It may also seem strange to you that my father, who passed away well over a year ago, should still have a Flickr account. I know it seems strange to me. (It seems even stranger that Facebook still asks me if I would like to suggest friends for him. I know Dad would enjoy chatting with Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, but they both refuse to respond to my friend requests.)

The pictures were from the end of June and the first week of July, 1995. Loretta and I had only been living in California for a few months when my father flew out to San Jose to celebrate his brother's 75th birthday. We drove up for my uncle's party, and Dad came back with us to spend the first week of July with us in Southern California.

We visited all the usual tourist spots. Here's a picture Loretta took of Dad and me at the Griffith Park Observatory:

Griffith Park

And here's one of the two of us at the beach:

Zuma Beach

We visited Dad's cousins and his aunt—my Great Aunt Louise—in Thousand Oaks. Aunt Louise lived to be over a hundred years old. I wish my father could have lived as long.

Dad and Aunt Louise

We took the ferry to Catalina. Here's a great picture Dad took of Loretta and me at the Blue Parrot in Avalon, where we had lunch:

Lunch at the Blue Parrot

And here's one he took of some fish we saw on the "submarine" tour:

Fish in Catalina

One day when Loretta was at work, I took my father to Universal Studios. He loved the backlot tour and behind-the-scenes stuff. I think my favorite—the Back to the Future ride—may have been a little too thrilling for his taste. But he was a good sport about it—as he nearly always was about nearly everything.

Universal Studios

We never got to "The Happiest Place on Earth." I wish we had. My father, who was as much a child at heart as I am, would have loved it.

And I would love to have a picture of him wearing mouse ears.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Driving with Douglas Adams

About this time twenty-six years ago, I was making my annual ten-hour drive from Indiana to Virginia to visit my parents for Christmas. After Christmas, I drove north on I-95, through Baltimore and New York City to Connecticut—a terrible drive, especially in winter. But I didn't mind, because I was going to see the woman I loved. We had been seeing each other for a little over a year—that is, as much as two people who lived 750 miles apart could see each other. I was nervous, because on this particular New Year's Eve, I was planning to ask her to marry me.

I won't keep you in suspense. She said "yes."

When it came time to leave, I was not looking forward to the long, lonely drive back to Indiana. I took comfort from the thought that, by the end of the year, Loretta and I would be married, and I would never have to make that long, lonely drive again. I also took comfort from the lovely parting gift Loretta had given me: an audio book to make the miles go by more quickly. The book was Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, written and read by Douglas Adams. I knew who Douglas Adams was, of course. I was a great fan of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I had not heard of Dirk Gently, but I was intrigued by the description on the cover: "THE FIRST EVER FULLY REALIZED GHOST-HORROR-DETECTIVE-WHODUNIT-TIME-TRAVEL-ROMANTIC-MUSICAL-COMEDY-EPIC."

Once I was headed west on the interstate, I popped the first tape into the cassette player. (Back in those days, kiddies, there were no iPods or MP3's. Audio books came on cassette tape, and the only audio option a car had besides a radio was a cassette player. If you were lucky, it played both sides of the cassette without your having to turn it over!) A cultured, slightly nasal English voice issued from the car stereo. "High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse," it said.

"An Electric Monk?" Certain that I had heard incorrectly, I was about to back up the tape and play it again, when the phrase was repeated:

The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.

Unfortunately this Electric Monk had developed a fault, and had started to believe all kinds of things, more or less at random. It was even beginning to believe things they'd have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City.

After that, the story got really weird, with an "impossible" magic trick, a ghost, a famous 19th century romantic poet, aliens, and a time machine.

A time machine?

As a long-time Whovian, I recognized recycled plot elements from two Doctor Who stories written by Adams: "City of Death" and the famously lost "Shada," which never aired due to a strike at the BBC. However, those plot elements were imaginatively combined into something completely new and unique. And while the character of Dirk Gently may have borne a superficial resemblance to Tom Baker's Doctor (both had a child-like curiosity and a penchant for hats that were "a remarkable rather than entirely successful piece of personal decoration"), he was clearly the illegitimate literary offspring of Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes.*

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency never became the hit Hitchhiker's Guide did, but it did inspire a very good sequel (The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), a radio adaptation, and a television series. It also made several hours of my long, lonely drive much more bearable, and nearly caused me to miss several exits.

I recently purchased the Kindle version, and I look forward to reading it. Of course, it won't be the same as having it read to me by Douglas Adams, and someday—perhaps on my next long (but not lonely) drive with Loretta—I hope to listen to the cassettes again. Of course, I will first need to find a working cassette player.

Or a time machine.

*"Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Not One of My Favorite Things

Don't worry, Carrie Underwood fans; I am not going to criticize her recent television performance as Maria von Trapp. First of all, plenty of other people have already done that. Secondly, I didn't watch the show, because—I know this will shock some of you—The Sound of Music is not one of my favorite musicals. There, I said it. And guess what? I'm not the only one who feels that way. One critic of the original production complained that it was "not only too sweet for words but almost too sweet for music." A director I once knew always referred to it as "The Sound of Mucus."

As a child, I loved the movie. I already had a crush on Julie Andrews, having seen Mary Poppins the year before. I loved the music, too. I played the soundtrack album again and again until it was so worn out and badly scratched it was almost unplayable. (It always got stuck at the yodeling part of "The Lonely Goatherd," which I found hilarious.)

Maybe that's why it's difficult for me to listen to the music now—especially "My Favorite Things." Unfortunately, it's difficult to avoid that song this time of year, because for some reason it has become associated with Christmas. This is a pet peeve of mine. "My Favorite Things" is not a Christmas song. It's a song about—well, favorite things. So what if those favorite things include "snowflakes" and "sleigh bells" and "packages tied up with strings?" Just because you have snowflakes and sleigh bells, doesn't mean it's Christmas. And if those "packages tied up with strings" were Christmas packages, wouldn't they be wrapped in something besides plain old "brown paper?" But I digress.

Because TSoM is not one of my favorite musicals, I tend to forget that I was once in it.

It was the summer of 1989. Loretta and I had been married less than a year, and I was having difficulty finding work in the Buffalo area. (Not an uncommon problem, which is how we ended up in Southern California.) I answered an ad for a paid acting job at Artpark, a beautiful park and open-air theater located on the scenic Niagara Gorge. All of the major roles in the musical were to be played by professional Broadway actors, but the children and supernumeraries (chorus members without lines) were to be locally cast.

I was given several minor roles—the largest of which was the priest performing the marriage ceremony between Captain von Trapp and Maria. I was also a tuxedoed guest at the party where the children sing "So Long, Farewell," and a runner-up in the Kaltzberg Festival contest, during which the von Trapps make their escape near the end of the play.

1989 Kraltzberg Festival Runners-Up (I'm the one on the left)

It was an amazing experience. The professional actors were all very down-to-earth and treated us amateurs as equals. (One, I recall, was the daughter of famed travel guide author, Arthur Frommer. I looked up Pauline Frommer while writing this and discovered that some time ago she gave up acting to go into the family business, and is now a well-known travel writer herself.) The pros from New York seemed to enjoy hanging out with us locals—whether it was a picnic in the park before a matinee, or a bowling alley in Niagara Falls after an evening performance. (Bowling, it seemed, was a time-honored tradition for actors who performed at Artpark regularly.)

1989 TSoM Bowling Team

Unfortunately, I don't remember much about the show itself. I do recall several of us listening on the speaker in the green room as our Mother Superior forgot the words to "My Favorite Things" and repeated the same stanza over and over. I also remember that, as a party guest, I had to learn to waltz, and that the song we waltzed to was—you guessed it—"My Favorite Things."

And now that I think about it, I suppose it's not that bad a song. It may not be one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best, but it's certainly better than "Do-Re-Mi."
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles plus warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are my favorite things

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are my favorite things

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are my favorite things

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember all of my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Christmas Video List

Last week I posted a list of my favorite music of the season. I now present my list of must-see Christmas videos:

The Nightmare Before Christmas. Only the mind of Tim Burton could have produced such a perfect blend of my two favorite holidays. Apologies to Thanksgiving fans who complain that their favorite holiday gets lost in the rush to Christmas, but seriously—can you imagine how dull this movie would have been if Jack Skellington had fallen through the turkey door instead of the one with the Christmas tree? A bunch of monsters eat a big turkey dinner and then fall asleep on the couch while watching football. (Yawn.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas. I grew up with this classic, and I still like to watch it while decorating the tree. Because, let's face it, any tree looks good compared to Charlie Brown's. My favorite moment comes when Schroeder begins pounding out Vince Guaraldi's jazzy score during the Christmas play rehearsal, and the other characters spontaneously break into a dance of pure joy—each grooving to the music in his or her own way. Then Charlie Brown has to go and ruin the moment by screaming at everyone. What a blockhead. I've had directors like that.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Another childhood favorite, but sometimes I honestly have to wonder why I still watch it every year. It helps to think of this disturbing story of bullying and intolerance as a period piece—a sort of North Pole Mad Men with Santa as Don Draper. Thank goodness we now live in more enlightened times. These days, anyone encouraging an openly hostile work environment such as Santa did in the 1960's would be subject to legal action. And if an elf wants to be a dentist, he can now do so without fear of being condemned by society—in most states, anyway.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The original, of course—not the Jim Carrey movie (which I have never seen and probably never will see, because—Jim Carrey). As many times as I've seen it, I still thrill at that harrowing sled ride down Mount Crumpit and get a tear in my eye when the Grinch's heart grows three sizes—thanks to the brilliant animation of Chuck Jones and the heartfelt narration of Boris Karloff. "Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand."

The Snowman. Raymond Briggs' magical tale of joy, love, and loss is told, like the book, without a single word of dialogue. The flying sequence, accompanied by Howard Blake's haunting Walking in the Air sung by boy soprano, might just be the most perfect piece of animation ever created. And if you don't shed a tear or two at the end, well, perhaps you need to be visited by a Christmas ghost or three. Speaking of which...

The Three Scrooges. There have been about as many adaptations of A Christmas Carol as there have been Christmases since it was first published in 1843. I've probably seen at least a dozen of them (though not the recent animated version, because again—Jim Carrey.) In my opinion, the following are the cream of the Christmas Carol crop, and I must watch each and every one of them every year:

Don't laugh. Critics generally agree that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol is one of the best adaptations. (At least one says the best.) It was my introduction to Charles Dickens, and probably has a good deal to do with the fact that he is still my favorite author. I love the way the story is framed by the opening number ("It's Great to Be Back on Broadway") and curtain call as if it were a stage musical, the "camera" zooming back at each scene break to show the "proscenium" and "audience." Mister Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus, who also played Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island) makes a fine Scrooge, and Jack Cassidy an equally fine Cratchit. The songs by Broadway composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (whose next project was Funny Girl) are unforgettable. My favorite is "All Alone in the World," a touching duet between old Scrooge and his younger self:
A hand for each hand was planned for the world
Why don't my fingers reach?
Millions of grains of sand in the world
Why such a lonely beach?

Leslie Bricusse's songs for the 1970 film Scrooge are also, for the most part, unforgettable. (I would prefer to forget Tiny Tim's sappy "The Beautiful Day"—especially when we hear it in a muffled reprise at his grave, as if the poor child had not only been buried alive, but still singing.) There are fine performances by Albert Finney as Scrooge, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as an eccentric portrayal of Marley's Ghost by Alec Guinness. A stage version exists, and if anyone ever produces it around here, I would kill to play the Ghost of Christmas Present. He has a fantastic song ("I Like Life"), as well as some of the best lines in the show:
Scrooge: (at the home of Bob Cratchit) I want to look in the window.

Ghost of Christmas Present: It will cost you nothing, which I'm sure is good news for you.

Scrooge: Will they be able to see me?

Ghost of Christmas Present: No, which I'm sure is good news for them.

In my opinion, the epitome of all Christmas Carols, the one by which all others should be judged, is the 1951 Alistair Sim version. Gorgeous, atmospheric black and white cinematography (beware of colorized versions!), a haunting score, and superb performances by a bevy of brilliant British character actors led by Sim. Oh, he's marvelous as the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner" at the beginning of the story, but it's his performance as the transformed Scrooge at the end that makes this version so delightful. His irrepressible laughter is infectious; you can't help but laugh along with him.

A Child's Christmas in Wales. I particularly enjoy watching this on Christmas Eve in front of a cozy fire, although there is so much warmth in the story that the fire is optional. It reminds me of the Christmases of my childhood (which is strange, because I did not grow up in 19th century Wales) and, like a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day, makes me feel all warm and happy inside. By the end, as Denholm Elliott puts his grandson to bed with the following words, I'm usually dozing off, too:

Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

I have other holiday favorites—It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Polar Express, Elf, Bad Santa (hey, a healthy dose of cynicism is good from time to time; besides, the ending is sweet in its way), and more—but I don't need to see them once a year. Those in the above list must be viewed no later than Christmas day, every year, without exception.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have videos to watch.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Christmas Playlist

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it's time to break out the Christmas music—and I don't mean the latest albums by Susan Boyle and Kelly Clarkson. When it comes to Christmas music, I prefer the classics. Here's what's on my playlist...

First, there are the two quintessential Christmas classics that have been played on the radio every year since before I was born (and are still just as popular as ever): Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song. Both are available as downloads and on countless CD compilations—and will never go out of style or print.

During the early years, my parents had only two Christmas records, both ancient, scratchy 78's: Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride and A Christmas Festival, performed by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. One of my earliest Christmas memories is of my mother playing these old records on the portable phonograph my parents had before they bought their first stereo. Both pieces are available—in stereo, non-scratchy versions—as downloads and on CD.

For some reason, when I was a kid, all of the tire companies—Goodyear, Firestone, BF Goodrich—came out with Christmas albums every year. They were all good, but Goodyear's The Great Songs of Christmas—Album Three, from 1962, is my favorite. All of the classic tire company Christmas albums are out of print, but you can find most of the tracks on other CDs or as downloads. My favorites from this album include Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Percy Faith, and the Christy Minstrels—but Carol of the Bells, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, tops the list.

Here's another great tire album: BF Goodrich's Something Festive, from 1969. This one's all A&M artists: Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, The Baja Marimba Band. My mother's favorite was Pete Jolly's jazz piano version of It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. My brother, sister, and I listened to Liza Minnelli's schmaltzy Raggedy Ann & Raggedy Andy over and over again. It's laugh-out-loud funny—especially when played at a faster speed. I'm sure most of the tracks are available as downloads or on other CDs—I know the Herb Alpert tracks are. I found a pristine copy of the LP at a swap meet years ago and digitized it. The Pete Jolly track reminds me of my mother, and the Liza Minnelli track makes me think of my brother and sister—and still makes me laugh at any speed.

My all-time favorite Christmas album is A Christmas Sound Spectacular, from 1959. This collection of sacred and secular Christmas music, played on carillon backed by orchestra and chorus, is truly spectacular. A few years ago I found the CD on the Internet and was disappointed to find that it was not nearly as "spectacular" as I remembered it: the CD had been made from a monaural master. But this year, I found it on iTunes in stereo! Considering the album was originally part of RCA's "Living Stereo" catalog, you really need to hear it in glorious stereophonic sound.

I have many other songs on my Christmas playlist (even a few from this century), but these are my favorites. They bring back happy memories of Christmases past, when I was a child and the house was always filled with music, laughter, and love.
And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two;
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Doctor and Me

Sarah Jane: You're serious, aren't you?
The Doctor: About what I do, yes—not necessarily the way I do it.
(The Time Warrior, 1973)
The above exchange between the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his latest companion, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)—neatly sums up the essence of Doctor Who and helps to explain why I have been a fan for over thirty years. And yes, I am about to get all nerdy fanboy here, so if you find that sort of thing annoying, you probably won't want to read any further.

I can't help it. Today is a huge day for us Doctor Who fans. It's the fiftieth anniversary of the program's first broadcast. (Think about it. How many television programs can you think of that have been around that long?) If you aren't familiar with the program—well, first of all, where have you been? Secondly, if you want to know what Doctor Who is all about, you will have to read about it elsewhere (Wikipedia is a good start), because I won't be telling you who the Doctor is, what a TARDIS is, why it looks like a police box, or what a police box is. Instead, I will be telling you about my personal relationship with one of the most extraordinary and longest-running programs in television history.

Sarah Jane: You're being childish!
The Doctor: Well, of course I'm being childish! There's no point being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes.
(Robot, 1974)

It was some time in the late 1970's when I first stumbled across Doctor Who on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station. I thought I was watching a low-budget British horror movie, complete with laboratory, mad scientist, and hunchbacked assistant. The doorbell rang, and the hunchback answered it. At the door, in the pouring rain, stood a petite brunette and a tall, curly-haired man wearing a ridiculously long scarf and holding aloft a broken umbrella. "Can you spare a glass of water?" the curly-haired man asked.

I instantly became a fan—one of that select group of Americans ("we few, we happy few") who had discovered the best worst-kept secret on public television. Doctor Who struck a chord with us that programs like Dallas or Dynasty never could.* (I strongly suspect that, like me, most "Whovians" grew up on Mary Poppins and Doctor Dolittle, and as teenagers preferred such British imports as The Avengers and The Prisoner to domestic fare.) Almost overnight, Doctor Who acquired cult status with Americans in my age group. There were comic books, fan magazines and conventions, and volunteers began showing up to answer phones at PBS telethons wearing the Fourth Doctor's trademark floppy hat and scarf.

I did not dress up like any of the Doctors or attend any conventions. I did, however, save up to buy my first VCR so that I would never miss an episode. I watched companions come and go, Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison, Peter Davison into Colin Baker. Between new seasons, KCET aired as many of the old William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee stories as were available at the time. A decade slipped by in my personal space-time continuum; Sylvester McCoy had just taken over the TARDIS when I got married and moved to Western New York. (I tried to make a fan of Loretta, but she never really took to the original series. She does, however, enjoy the new series.) It felt like losing an old friend when Buffalo's PBS station stopped carrying the program after Sylvester McCoy's first season. Sadder still, shortly thereafter the program was canceled by the BBC.

The Doctor: I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there.
(Doctor Who, 1996 TV movie)

Doctor Who fans around the world got their hopes up when there was talk in the 1990's of the program being revived—only to have those hopes cruelly dashed when the result was a single TV movie that, although it had some good moments (including a wonderful performance by Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor), did not measure up to fans' expectations or achieve decent network ratings. We were forced to admit that our favorite television series was dead, with no hope of regeneration. However, there was some consolation in the fact that Doctor Who lived on as a series of audio adventures featuring original cast members.

The Doctor: One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.
(The Dalek Invasion of Earth, 1964)

When, in 2003, the BBC announced that Welsh producer Russell T. Davies would attempt to again revive the series, I was determined not to get my hopes up. But this time I was in for a pleasant surprise. Not only was the new Doctor Who good, in many ways it surpassed the original series. While true to the original's spirit, the writing was tighter, the stories faster paced. (As the Tenth Doctor's companion, Donna, remarked, "there's an outrageous amount of running involved.") The special effects were light years beyond the cheesy rubber-suited aliens and chroma key effects of the original series, and the music—I could probably write an entire post describing Murray Gold's by turns exciting, soaring, and hauntingly beautiful Doctor Who scores.

I liked Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor; I liked David Tennant's Tenth Doctor even better. I liked the way the stories explored the relationships between the Doctor and his companions. Although a part of me resisted the idea of the Doctor becoming romantically involved with a companion (unheard of in the original series, where the Doctor's relationship with his companions had always been strictly avuncular), I had to admit that his evolving relationship with Rose moved me in a way the old series never had. In the old days, the departure of a Doctor or a companion was always poignant, but in the program's history there had never been anything like the heartbreaking departure of Rose at the end of the second season.

I'll admit it. I cried.

In fact, I found myself shedding a few tears during many episodes of the new series. There was an emotional aspect to the stories that the original series never had—which I'm sure is why it quickly became more popular than the original series ever was.

The Doctor: I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.
(The Almost People, 2011)

I was a little worried when Tennant and Davies both left the show at the end of the fourth season, but I needn't have been. "The Eleventh Hour"—the episode that introduced Matt Smith's Doctor and Karen Gillan as his new companion, Amy Pond—was quite simply the best introduction of a Doctor or companion I had ever seen. And as the series progressed under the leadership of Steven Moffat, it delved deeper into relationships than it had even done under Davies. By the sixth season, the Doctor had managed to acquire an entire family, comprised of Amy, Rory, and the mysterious River Song—the nature of whose relationship with the Time Lord was finally revealed by Moffat at the end of the season, three years after her character was first introduced.

Now, after three seasons in the TARDIS, Matt Smith has decided that it is time to move on. Peter Capaldi will be taking over the role, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he will bring to the character next season. But right now I'm looking forward to another ride with the Eleventh Doctor and his latest companion, Clara (who reminds me a great deal of Sarah Jane Smith). And what a ride it promises to be—at least two other Doctors (David Tennant and John Hurt), one former companion (Billie Piper as Rose Tyler), and possibly the long-awaited answer to a question that has been troubling us since the first season of the new series: how did the Doctor become the "Last of the Time Lords?"

The Day of the Doctor will air in just a few hours, simultaneously, all over the world. Check your local listings.

The Fourth Doctor and Me (Madame Tussauds, 1985)

*To my surprise, when I visited England in 1985, I discovered that Dynasty and Dallas were also more popular there than Doctor Who. There's no accounting for taste.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

In Space, No One Can Hear You Clean

I was a child of the space age. Sputnik went up when I was a two years old, and I was six when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. I eagerly followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and I remember the thrill of watching Neil Armstrong make his "one small step for man." Like most kids from my era, more than anything else I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

Space Boy, circa 1959

Science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where terrible things happened in space, didn't scare me because that was science fiction. Even real-life disasters like the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle didn't discourage me. I knew that some day, I would have the opportunity to go into space—to be a Rocket Man, like the guy in the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song (though hopefully not as lonely).

Then I saw Gravity.

If there is a piece of debris on the road—the tiniest piece of debris—I am sure to hit it. That's just the kind of luck I have. The worst case scenario when you hit the tiniest piece of debris on the road is that you end up with a flat tire. Now, thanks to Gravity, I know what the worst case—or, in fact, the any case—scenario is when you hit the tiniest piece of debris (or the tiniest piece of debris hits you) in space.

You die.

Astrophysicist (and second coolest "Neil Something Something" after Patrick Harris) Neil deGrasse Tyson found plenty of flaws in Gravity, but one of the things he thought the film got right was the danger of orbiting space debris. According to Wikipedia, NASA is currently tracking "about 19,000 pieces of debris larger than 5 cm...with another 300,000 pieces smaller than 1 cm below 2000 km altitude."

Computer-generated image of stuff orbiting our planet, approximately 95% of which is debris. (Wikipedia)

After seeing Gravity, you couldn't pay me to go into space—at least not until somebody goes up there and does some cleaning. And why don't we? We have scores of brilliant people working in the field of space exploration, and probably just as many equally brilliant people working in the field of cleaning. (Okay, I can think of two: Heloise and that Dyson vacuum cleaner guy.) Surely, they can put their heads together and come up with a solution.

Then, and only then, will I dream once more of becoming a Rocket Man.

And I think it's gonna be a long, long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I'm not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no, I'm a rocket man
Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone*
—Bernie Taupin

*Until I looked up the lyrics for this post, I never knew what that last line actually was. "Burning off his face, I'll never know?" "Burning all the things I've ever known?" I have a similar problem with the lyrics of other Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs. For years, I thought that Daniel was "a star in the felt of the sky," that Yellow Brick Road was "where the dogs are society's hounds," and that Benny, of Benny and the Jets, had "electric boobs."

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Fanfare, please...

This is my 100th post. It's been nearly two years since I started this blog, and here I am, still plugging away, still trying to come up with something to write about each week.

It isn't always easy.

This week was particularly difficult. I wanted this post to be special, like the 100th episode of a popular TV show—say, the "My Way Home" episode of Scrubs (a clever homage to The Wizard of Oz), the "Unusual Suspects" episode of The X-Files (in which we learn how Mulder met the Lone Gunmen), or Phoebe giving birth to her brother's triplets in Friends (which was not nearly as wrong as it sounds).

To be honest, I didn't feel like writing anything this week. All I wanted to do was read. I am currently immersed in A Dance with Dragons, book five of George R. R. Martin's sprawling fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO's sprawling fantasy, Game of Thrones. (I realize the book has been out for over two years. I was waiting for it to go on sale, which usually happens when the next book in the series is released. It finally went on sale last month, although there is still no sign of book six. What's up with that, Mr. Martin?)

I had not read the books when Game of Thrones premiered two years ago. I watched the first episode with Loretta and frankly, I didn't care for it. There were too many characters—none of whom made a favorable first impression. The story was confusing. And where was the fantasy? I had heard that this was a fantasy series, but there were no wizards, no dragons, no heroes—just a lot of brutish, foul-mouthed louts trying to kill each other. I quit watching after the first episode, but it caught Loretta's interest. She was between jobs at the time and watched most of the first season while I was at work.

Then I happened to catch the last scene of the final episode, "Fire and Blood," and what I saw immediately grabbed my attention: a naked young woman emerging from the ashes of a fire with three baby dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen and Friend

Now, I know what you're thinking got my attention: the naked woman, right? Wrong! Naked women are a dime a dozen on HBO. It was the dragons!

I was hooked. I made Loretta sit through the entire first season again with me. As I got into the story, I realized that there actually were a few noble characters. One, in particular, stood out: Eddard "Ned" Stark, reluctant "Hand of the King," played by Sean Bean. Here was an honorable man who, surrounded on all sides by ambitious, deceitful, treacherous people, stood by his principles at all costs. Just in case you haven't read the books or seen the TV series, I shouldn't tell you what happens to Ned, largely due to his cherished principles. I shouldn't, but I will.

He dies.

Lots of people die in George R. R. Martin's world, I discovered as I got deeper into the TV series and books. Fans quickly learn not to get too attached to any character, because there's a very good chance that that character will be killed—most likely in a horrible way. A good many Game of Thrones fans who had not read the books were deeply disturbed this past season by events in the episode titled "The Rains of Castamere." Those of us who had read the books weren't disturbed at all. We knew what was coming. We looked forward to it with an anticipation bordering on glee—which, when you think about it, is a bit disturbing in itself. (A rather cruel video on YouTube features a montage of the horrified reactions of people who did not know what was coming, captured by their friends who did. A second video features George R. R. Martin on Conan O'Brien's show, laughing as he watches the first video.)

One of my favorite characters in the story is Hodor—the sweet, simple-minded hulk who has served as young Brandon Stark's legs since Bran was crippled in a tragic fall in book/season one. "Hodor" is not really his name; he is called "Hodor," because the only thing he ever says is "Hodor"—whatever "Hodor" means. I am hoping that George R. R. Martin will eventually tell us what "Hodor" means, and that he will allow Hodor to survive to the end of the story—if he ever gets to the end of the story. (He'd better get busy. He isn't getting any younger, and neither am I.)

I have reached Chapter 15 of A Dance with Dragons, and so far, I am happy to report that Hodor is still alive. I am hopeful that he will remain so. If you have finished the book and know otherwise, please keep it to yourself.


(By the way, in case you're wondering—at ten episodes a season, with each season roughly equivalent to one book, and with George R. R. Martin promising seven books, Game of Thrones will probably never reach the 100-episode milestone. On the other hand, the story has already turned out to be much longer than he originally anticipated. If there is a 100th episode, I hope it features Hodor.)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Don't diss my kisses!

Halloween is over, and once again Loretta and I are left with the task of finishing any candy that was not given out to trick-or-treaters.

It's an unpleasant job, but somebody has to do it.

This is why we always buy Halloween candy that we like. Loretta's favorite is Peter Paul Almond Joys. I prefer Peter Paul Mounds, or for that matter, anything with dark chocolate. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are good, too—especially the dark chocolate ones.

David Ng and Ben Cohen didn't consult us when they made their "The Candy Hierarchy" chart. They have been posting a version of this chart every Halloween since 2006, claiming that it "represents a thoroughly authoritative attempt to scientifically measure and classify Halloween Candy." Ha! Have you seen it? If not, you should. It's amusing, albeit utterly subjective. Some would go so far as to say biased. I know I would. In fact, I will: The Candy Hierarchy is completely biased.

And completely wrong.

As you may have guessed, I take issue with some of Mr. Ng's and Mr. Cohen's candy rankings. Granted, Reese's deserve a place in the first tier. But where are Almond Joys and Mounds? Arbitrarily assigned to the second tier, along with Tootsie Rolls and Whoppers.

I ask you, who in their right mind would rank Almond Joys and Mounds with Tootsie Rolls?

Now, before you Tootsie Roll fans jump all over me, let me just say that I have nothing at all against Tootsie Rolls. When I was a child, I loved those rock-hard cylinders of—well, whatever it is Tootsie Rolls are made of. "But when I became a man," as the saying goes, "I put away childish candies." I no longer eat Tootsie Rolls, but they will always have a place in my heart, as do all of the favorite candies of my childhood.

Which brings me to my point.

As a child, my favorite Halloween candy was peanut butter kisses—PBK's for short. You know—those chewy nuggets of peanut butter taffy wrapped in orange and black wax paper? And where do you think Ng and Cohen rank my childhood favorite every single year?

At the very bottom, with the dregs of Halloween.

Surely, if they are going to put Tootsie Rolls in the second tier, PBK's deserve a place there. I would even settle for third tier, which would place them on a par with Milk Duds and "Licorice (not black)."* But they aren't even in the bottom tier, which includes "those odd marshmallow circus peanut things"—oh no. They are relegated to the "so low it does not register on our equipment" tier, along with "Pencils," "Generic Acetaminophen," and—gasp!—"Hugs (actual physical hugs)!"

Worse yet, Ng and Cohen have the effrontery to describe my childhood favorites as "anonymous brown globs!" At the very least, have the courtesy to refer to them by their proper name.

"Anonymous brown globs," indeed!

I find such flippant disdain for a perfectly innocuous confection unwarranted and intolerable. I welcome your opinion on the matter. Send me your choices for top-tier Halloween candy. Better yet, send me the candy—especially Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, anything with dark chocolate, and those delightful "anonymous brown globs."

*I assume they mean Red Vines or Twizzlers, which I believe are referred to by some as "red licorice"—a misnomer I have always found infuriating. Licorice is a flavor derived from the root of a plant. So-called red licorice has no licorice in it and tastes nothing like licorice. (I'm not sure what it does taste like—presumably something red.)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Day in Venice

It was September first; our cruise was officially over, but we had one last day of vacation to spend in Venice. After breakfasting at our hotel, we went looking for the tobacconist where the hotel clerk had told us we could buy bus tickets into the city. A block from the hotel, we met a gentleman on a bicycle who spoke no English, but who nevertheless understood what we were looking for and tried to help. Unfortunately, this being Sunday, the tobacconist was closed. However, when our new friend realized that we wanted to ride the bus and not buy cigarettes, he guided us to a newsstand where we could buy tickets. The owner of the newsstand didn't speak English either, but one of his customers did, and helped us communicate that we wished to purchase four round-trip tickets to Venice.

We had been warned that the city would be crowded. This was the day of the annual Historical Regatta, and the Venice Film Festival was also going on. I could have sworn there wasn't room for us on the bus, but we managed to squeeze in—and at each stop between us and Venice, more passengers squeezed in. When we reached the end of the line at Piazzale Roma, we burst out into Venice like circus clowns exploding from a tiny car.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes his arrival in Venice by gondola:
We reached Venice at eight in the evening, and entered a hearse belonging to the Grand Hotel d'Europe. At any rate, it was more like a hearse than any thing else, though to speak by the card, it was a gondola. And this was the storied gondola of Venice!—the fairy boat in which the princely cavaliers of the olden time were wont to cleave the waters of the moonlit canals and look the eloquence of love into the soft eyes of patrician beauties, while the gay gondolier in silken doublet touched his guitar and sang as only gondoliers can sing! This the famed gondola and this the gorgeous gondolier!—the one an inky, rusty old canoe with a sable hearse-body clapped on to the middle of it, and the other a mangy, barefooted guttersnipe with a portion of his raiment on exhibition which should have been sacred from public scrutiny.
Things have changed since Twain's visit. Although there are still enough gondolas to satisfy the tourists, the primary means of transportation for locals is the vaporetto, or waterbus. At the terminal, we purchased four 12-hour passes that would allow us to ride the bus and vaporetto for the rest of the day. Our first stop was Piazza San Marco. Between the vaporetto stop and the piazza, we passed the famous "Bridge of Sighs," where prisoners supposedly sighed at their last glimpse of Venice as they passed from the Doge's Palace to prison. Judging by the size of the windows, they couldn't have seen much to sigh at.

Gondolas Beneath the Bridge of Sighs

There were lots of people in the Piazza San Marco. There were also lots of pigeons and winged lions. The pigeons were real; the lions were not. Of the lions, Twain wrote:
They say St. Mark had a tame lion, and used to travel with him—and every where that St. Mark went, the lion was sure to go. It was his protector, his friend, his librarian. And so the Winged Lion of St. Mark, with the open Bible under his paw, is a favorite emblem in the grand old city. It casts its shadow from the most ancient pillar in Venice, in the Grand Square of St. Mark, upon the throngs of free citizens below, and has so done for many a long century. The winged lion is found every where—and doubtless here, where the winged lion is, no harm can come.

Winged Lion in Piazza San Marco

It was lunchtime, so we stopped near Piazza San Marco for our first taste of real Italian pizza. We ordered two: one with ham, artichokes, and mushrooms, and one "frutti de mare," with mussels, shrimp, and calamari. Knowing that we were Americans, the waiter did not think that would be enough food for the four of us. He recommended the Venetian Special, with shrimp and arugula.

Venetian Pizza and Boots of Beer

From Piazza San Marco, we headed to the Rialto Bridge. Venice is a maze of canals and narrow, winding alleyways. Fortunately, if you want to get from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge—or vice versa—there are prominent signs to direct you. (I'm not sure what you are supposed to do if you want to go anywhere else.) Along the way, we passed many shops selling the beautiful carnival masks that Venice is famous for. While we were in one of the shops, the power went out. I imagine that this is a frequent problem in a city whose infrastructure is under water. (You don't even want to think about the plumbing. Being a plumber in Venice must be a nightmare.)

Carnival Masks

Rialto Bridge was packed with spectators for the regatta, so we did not venture onto it, for fear our additional weight after consuming three pizzas would cause it to collapse. We took some pictures, then boarded another vaporetto. We wanted to ride down the Grand Canal before it closed for the regatta.

Ponte di Rialto

We got off near Ponte degli Scalzi and found a quiet cafe, where we stopped for espresso. We then walked back to Piazzale Roma and took the bus back to the hotel. We would miss the regatta, but we were all tired of crowds—and just plain tired.

After a few hours' riposo at the hotel, we were ready to return to the city. This time, we avoided the mob of tourists near Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, instead losing ourselves in a maze of narrow alleys and canals that were less traveled. We weren't afraid of getting lost—we knew that sooner or later we would find a sign directing us to Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.

Venice in the Afternoon

At dinner time, we stopped at Birraria la Corte in Campo San Polo, where we were seated in a lovely courtyard lit by the setting sun. I decided to be adventurous and try Venice's specialty: spaghetti with cuttlefish, in a sauce made from cuttlefish ink. It had a subtle flavor that is difficult to describe, so I won't bother trying. I'll just say it's not bad, and was officially the strangest thing I ate on the entire trip.

Cuttlefish Pasta with Ink Sauce

When we arrived at the restaurant, we had noticed that temporary walls had been set up, fencing off about half of the piazza. When we left, we discovered the reason. This was the location of a temporary outdoor movie theater for the film festival. We didn't stay for the movie—a documentary about Bernardo Bertolucci—but headed back towards the Grand Canal. As we left the piazza, we met our first and only Venetian cats. Three of them greeted us from the open second floor window of a house on the piazza. They had barely a trace of Italian accent.

Back at the Rialto Bridge, we stopped to admire the work of a local artist. We bought a small painting from him to remind us of our visit. We climbed the steps of the bridge, and, at the top, found a crippled, hunchbacked beggar, to whom we bequeathed what was left of our change. On the other side of the bridge, we boarded a vaporetto back to the bus terminal at Piazzale Roma.

When Mark Twain visited Venice in 1867, he was appalled that what had once been "a haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic" had "fallen a prey to poverty, neglect and melancholy decay." And yet, he described a magical night on the Grand Canal, when "Every gondola that swam by us, with its crescents and pyramids and circles of colored lamps hung aloft, and lighting up the faces of the young and the sweet-scented and lovely below, was a picture; and the reflections of those lights, so long, so slender, so numberless, so many-colored and so distorted and wrinkled by the waves, was a picture likewise, and one that was enchantingly beautiful." Our trip down the canal was nothing like that—and yet it was. Modern Venice is still "enchantingly beautiful" in its way, and it's not difficult to picture its former glory.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone—but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade—but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

—George Gordon Byron

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Murano and Burano

We arrived in Venice, the final stop on our cruise, while we were having our final breakfast on board the MS Ryndam. We went out on deck to watch the sun come up over the city as we pulled into the harbor.

Sunrise in Venice

We left the ship for the final time and boarded a boat for our final excursion—a visit to two of the Venetian Lagoon's forty islands: Murano and Burano. On the way, our guides pointed out the sites: Piazza San Marco, the Arsenal (Venice's navy shipyard), San Michele (the island that serves as the city's cemetery), and—of greatest interest to the majority of us—Elton John's house on the Grand Canal.

Piazza San Marco

On the island of Murano, which is known for its glass factories, we visited... (wait for it) a glass factory. We saw a glassblowing demonstration that was fairly interesting (if you had never seen a glassblowing demonstration, which most of us had), but the real purpose of the visit was, of course, to get us to buy something from the gift shop. Most of the beautiful art glass was outside our budget, but Loretta found a few small trinkets that did not require taking out a second mortgage.

Beautiful Murano Art Glass We Did Not Buy

On the island of Burano, which is known for fishing and lacemaking, we were told by our guide that, if we wished to skip the lacemaking demonstration, we could have an hour to explore on our own. I felt sorry for the lacemakers, because I don't think anyone went to the demonstration. We were all far more interested in exploring the streets lined with brightly colored shops and houses. According to our guide, the reason the houses on Burano are painted so colorfully is to keep the fishermen from going home to the wrong house (and wife).

Colorful Burano Houses

Kevin and I enjoyed a beer at a quiet cafe while Susan and Loretta did the obligatory shopping. We may have escaped the lacemaking demonstration, but we weren't about to leave Burano without something made of lace.

Colorful Burano Lace Shop

Our tour boat returned us to the harbor, where we retrieved our luggage and boarded a bus to take us to our hotel just outside Venice. Remembering what a nightmare the check-in was in Barcelona, Susan and Loretta raced into the lobby to be first in line while Kevin and I stayed outside with the luggage. We were fortunate that our bus was the first to arrive. As bus after bus stopped to unload more guests, the line got longer and longer. It was nearly an hour before Loretta came out to tell us that we had rooms, but to keep quiet about it because no one else did. They were checking people in as rooms became available, and it was a slow process. People were losing patience. Tempers were running high. We quickly and quietly moved our luggage up to our rooms, so as not to be at the center of a riot.

Cruisers Waiting to Check in at NH Laguna Palace

By the time we were installed in our rooms, it was after 3:00 and we had not yet had lunch. We sneaked past the angry mob in the lobby and walked up the street in search of a restaurant. We found several, but most of them were closed for the afternoon "riposo." There was only one place that was open: a quiet little wine bar with a limited menu. The waiter didn't speak English, but he was friendly and eager to please. He recommended the chicken and the "boofalo mozzarella," and we ordered both. Showing him our map, Loretta asked him what we should see in Venice. He replied, pointing out the locations on our map: "Piazza San Marco... Ponte di Rialto... Grand Canal vaporetto." (A "vaporetto," we had learned on our morning boat tour, was a water bus—the primary means of transport in Venice.)

It wasn't long before we started to see people from our cruise wander by, looking for a place to eat. As they passed the open door, we waved them in and told them this was the only place that was open. Soon our quiet little wine bar was packed. We gave up our table to a group of our fellow cruisers and adjourned to the hotel for a riposo before dinner.

Dinner was at another nearby restaurant called "BEFeD," which advertised itself as a brew pub, although they only served two kinds of beer: lager and "red." The menu informed us, in fairly good English, that the name came from the initials of the four owners, and that their specialty was grilled chicken: "the ideal food to be eaten in a genuine way according to local tradition and to the Mediterranean diet"—"genuine way," we deduced, meaning with the fingers. The chicken was tasty, and the beer wasn't bad. There were also bowls of peanuts, the shells of which, the menu told us, "must be thrown rigorously against the floor."

It was pleasant sitting outdoors by the canal, drinking red beer, eating chicken in a genuine way, and watching the little girl at the table next to us rigorously throw peanut shells against the floor, then rigorously stomp on them.

Tomorrow: Venice!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Kotor and Ravenna

The next port of call on our APHC cruise was Kotor, Montenegro. Here is a picture Loretta took from the deck of the ship:

Kotor, Montenegro

It's a lovely scene, isn't it? That's all I ever saw of Kotor. It's what I could see from the window of our cabin, which is where I spent the entire time we were in port.

In my last post, I wrote that when we left Naples, I felt like I was coming down with a cold. The first symptoms weren't so bad: just a cough and sniffles. However, approximately twenty-four hours after we witnessed the eruption of Mount Stromboli, I was awakened in the middle of the night by rumblings in my bowels signaling an impending eruption of my own.

I will spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say, I had a rough night. When morning came I felt much better, but I had taken the last of the Imodium. The ship's sundry shop would be closed until after we left port, so I made my way down to the ship's medical center to see if they could provide me with some, just in case.

The doctor on duty said she had "good news" and "bad news." The good news was that she had Imodium, which she gave me (or rather, sold me)—along with Tylenol and Dramamine (neither of which I needed) and several disposable thermometers (although I did not have a fever). The bad news was that I would have to be isolated for twenty-four hours from the time of my last "eruption." I was not allowed to leave our cabin, and no one was allowed to visit (not that anyone would want to)—except for Loretta, who was free to come and go unless she got sick. Not even our steward was allowed to enter the cabin. Instead, a "sanitation team" would do the cleaning.

As I returned to the cabin, I thought of Mark Twain and his friends who, in The Innocents Abroad, sneaked ashore when their ship was quarantined at Athens. These days, with magnetic ID cards that track everyone who boards or leaves the ship, such a thing would be impossible.

At least we didn't have an excursion planned. Susan and Kevin took a tender ashore to do some exploring. I told Loretta she should go with them, but she insisted on staying on board with me. We began filling out the six-page survey the doctor had given me, listing everything I had put in my mouth for the past three days. (You should try it sometime. It's a real test of your memory to recall everything you have had to eat and drink in the past 72 hours.)

When the sanitation team arrived, Loretta had to leave. There wasn't enough room. I felt like Groucho Marx in the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, as men in masks and plastic gloves piled in, stripped the bed, bagged all towels and linens, and sprayed and wiped down all surfaces with disinfectant. Oddly enough, they did not remove the towel origami pig our steward had made us the night before. They left it on Loretta's bedside table. They did, however, spray it with disinfectant.

I discovered that being sick on a ship isn't all that bad. The ship's crew pampered me almost as much as my mother did when I was sick as a kid. Room service brought me a tray with broth, crackers, and ginger ale. The front desk called and offered to send down books and DVDs. I told them "no thanks." I had Mark Twain on my Kindle, along with several dozen other books, but I spent most of my time watching the ship's satellite TV—mostly made-for-TV movies I would never have watched at home. I slept a lot, too—often dozing off during one movie and waking up during the next. I was confused when King Arthur and Sir Lancelot in The Mists of Avalon suddenly turned into Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicon Valley, and when Bill Pullman as The Virginian metamorphosed into Mandy Patinkin as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Loretta came and went. She saw some of the shipboard entertainment and went on deck to take pictures so I could see more of Montenegro than could be seen from our window. The sanitation crew came and went, stripping the bed again (though I had not slept in it), wiping everything down again, and giving the pig another spritz of disinfectant.

I slept well that night and awoke feeling fine. It was our last day on board the MS Ryndam, and I intended to make the most of it. I paced the cabin, waiting for permission from the medical center to leave "the brig." Finally, the call came at 7:45: I was free!

Over breakfast (just oatmeal and bananas for me), Susan and Kevin told us about Kotor, and Susan showed us her pictures. It's a quaint, pretty city, known for its large population of cats. We were sorry to have missed the cats. We talked about how much we all missed our own: Molly and Murphy, Dickens and Zorra.

Kotor Cats Dining on Sardines (photo by Susan Logue Koster)

After breakfast, there was a meet and greet on the Lido Deck with Garrison Keillor. Susan and I stood in line: Susan with a copy of his latest book, I with the souvenir t-shirt Loretta had already gotten most of the other entertainers to sign. When my turn came, I told him what a wonderful time we were having (not mentioning the twenty-four hours I spent in quarantine), and how much we enjoyed the Alaska cruise seven years ago. I asked him how he thought this cruise compared with Alaska. "This one's good," he replied. "Anywhere you can be on a boat with people singing." I handed him my t-shirt and told him my name; he signed it and handed it back. I looked at what he had written:

Hi Don! It's you.
Garrison Keillor

While we were having lunch, the ship arrived in Ravenna. We took a bus into the center of the city and explored it on foot, without guide or guidebook, map or GPS. I don't know if it was because I felt so much better after being sick for twenty-four hours, or because it felt so good to be outside after being cooped up in the cabin, but I loved Ravenna. The city was charming, the weather was perfect, the crowds—well, that was the best part. There were no crowds. We strolled through peaceful, quiet streets, alleys, and piazzas—past Dante's Tomb, Teatro Alighieri, the house where Byron once lived, and another leaning tower (apparently there are leaning towers all over Italy). When we were tired of walking, we found a quiet cafe in the sun-drenched Piazza del Popolo, where we sat in the shade and drank prosecco.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

Before we left town, we went into a grocery near the bus stop and bought several boxes of cookies to bring back to co-workers. We thought they were Italian cookies, but it turned out they were imported from Germany.

Someday, we hope to visit Germany and buy some Italian cookies there.

Courtyard in Ravenna

Adieu! Adieu! yon silver lamp, the moon,
Which turns our midnight into perfect noon,
Doth surely light thy towers, guarding well
Where Dante sleeps,
where Byron loved to dwell.

—Oscar Wilde, Ravenna

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Ruins of Pompeii

In Napoli, where love is king,
When boy meets girl here's what they say—
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
That's amore!
We had hoped to sample a big pizza pie in Naples, the fifth port of call on our Mediterranean cruise, but there just wasn't time. We had to see The Ruins of Pompeii. Here's the description from the brochure:
From the pier, it’s a 45-minute ride by motor coach to the remarkable ruins of Pompeii, perfectly preserved since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79. On a guided walking tour you will learn about the excavation techniques that have uncovered this city remarkably intact and what the residents were doing at the time of the eruption. You'll gain an insight into the lives of the ancient Romans as you discover baths, theatres, temples, markets and the huge forum.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people on the ship wanted to see Pompeii, and multiple buses were required. Susan and Kevin were assigned to a different tour than ours. Our guide's name was Massimo. As we set out, he pointed out Mount Vesuvius and explained that it was dormant, but not extinct. He said that it probably would not erupt today, but if by chance it did, we were welcome to join him in running a brisk half-marathon back to the ship.

Mark Twain visited Pompeii in 1867. (You can read his account here.) Little has changed since he was there—including what he refers to as "the only building in Pompeii which no woman is now allowed to enter." Women are allowed to enter it today, of course, and it is one of the most popular attractions in Pompeii. Susan and Kevin's group saw it. Our group didn't, but Massimo told us about it: the sailors who frequented it, the "friendly girls" who worked there, and the naughty illustrations that still adorn its walls.

What we did see was what was left of the baths, a typical house, the temple of Apollo, and several bakeries and restaurants. Massimo kept us moving. Whenever another tour was about to overtake us, he would exclaim, "Andiamo! We are being invaded again!" and off we'd go.


And then we came to the bodies.

At the show that evening, Garrison jokingly boasted that he did not go to Pompeii. He accused those of us who did (including his wife) of having a ghoulish interest in dead bodies. I suppose there may be something to that. When our group came to the glass cases holding the bodies (actually plaster casts of bodies, but here and there you could see a bone peeking through), we were all drawn to them like moths to a flame. What was fascinating, horrifying, and heartbreaking about them was that, from their poses, you could see the surprise and terror in which they died.

Victims of Vesuvius

But to me the most interesting thing about Pompeii is not seeing how the people died; it's seeing how they lived: their houses, temples, businesses, streets, and elaborate plumbing and drainage system. Their engineering was remarkably sophisticated. Unfortunately, Massimo told us, their lives were shortened by the toxic lead they used for just about everything; it can be found in the paint, the mortar between the stones, and, most unfortunately, the plumbing. This was probably their second biggest mistake. (Their biggest mistake, of course, was building their city beneath a volcano.)

Vesuvius and the Ruins of Pompeii

That night, the captain announced that we would be passing by an active volcano—Stromboli—and if we got up early, we might see an eruption. We set our alarms, and at five a.m. we stumbled out of bed, threw on some clothes, and made our way up to the bow of the ship. Ahead of us we could barely see the outline of a mountain against the dark sky, with a dim orange glow at its peak. We all stared at it for several minutes. I believe everyone was thinking of Mount Vesuvius and its victims. I know I was.

That morning we squeezed past Sicily through the Strait of Messina, rounded the toe of Italy's boot, and headed north toward the Adriatic Sea. This was our "at sea" day, and I planned to spend most of it sipping mimosas (for the vitamin C) and napping. I had returned from Pompeii with a hacking cough, and now I had developed a runny nose. Clearly, I had picked up a virus, but it was only a cough and sniffles. It could be a lot worse, right?

As it turned out, it was.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rome Overnight Experience

The fourth port of call on our Mediterranean cruise was Civitavecchia—"Gateway to Rome." Once again, we had many excursions to choose from. The four of us who were traveling together—my sister Susan, brother-in-law Kevin, Loretta, and I—chose the "Rome Overnight Experience," which included a tour of the Colosseum, a walking tour of Rome, and a tour of the Vatican. Our guide's name was Alessia. On the bus, she handed out beautiful, detailed maps of the city, which we put away and never looked at again. She explained that ancient Rome was on the left bank of the Tiber River (which was on the right side of our map), while Vatican City was on the right bank (the left side of our map).

Once we were in the city, we stopped to pick up another guide: Alessandra. Apparently, Alessia was not licensed to guide us within Rome, and there are strict laws about such things. (I found this account of an unlicensed guide who was arrested in the middle of a tour, leaving her group stranded at the Forum.) Like our guide in Pisa, Alessandra warned us about pickpockets. However she told us not to worry too much, because "the worst pickpockets are in the government." We were equipped with state-of-the-art radio receivers which ensured that we could always hear Alessandra's voice. They did not, however, give us any indication which direction her voice was coming from; we soon learned that if we did not keep up, we could easily get lost from the group.

Our first stop was the Colosseum. By the way, did you know that "Colosseum" was not the actual name of the building? The actual name was "Flavian Amphiteatre." It became known as "The Colosseum" because of the large statue ("colossus") that once stood outside it. Of it, Mark Twain wrote:
More vividly than all the written histories, the Coliseum tells the story of Rome's grandeur and Rome's decay. It is the worthiest type of both that exists. Moving about the Rome of to-day, we might find it hard to believe in her old magnificence and her millions of population; but with this stubborn evidence before us that she was obliged to have a theatre with sitting room for eighty thousand persons and standing room for twenty thousand more, to accommodate such of her citizens as required amusement, we find belief less difficult.
What sort of amusement did those citizens require? According to Alessandra, the lunchtime executions were popular, as were the wild animal hunts. At times, if some accounts are to believed, the amphitheater was even flooded to portray naval battles. However, the most popular events were the gladiator matches. The best gladiators were like the rock stars of today, and if they were very good (and very very lucky), they might live long enough to win their freedom and retire to live lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Alessandra shows us where the Roman sports fans sat.

We boarded the bus again and drove by other landmarks: the Circus Maximus, the Forum, Caesar's Palace (the real one), and the Victor Emmanuel Monument. We then got off the bus for a walking tour that took us past the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon, and ended at the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

We were told we had an hour of free time, and to meet back at the fountain. We retraced our steps for a closer look at the Pantheon, then returned to a sidewalk cafe next to our rendezvous place. Our timing was perfect. We had felt a few sprinkles on our walk; as soon as we were served our drinks, it began to pour. I think my favorite memory of Rome is of the four of us sitting in that cafe, sipping espresso and watching people in the piazza run for cover.

After the brief downpour, the city felt cooler, fresher, and cleaner. We met up with our tour group and walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch, after which the bus took us to our hotel. Once we were checked in, we had a nice nap. We had been told that it was common in Italy to take a siesta—or "riposo"—in the afternoon, and as they say, "When in Rome..."

In the evening we gathered in the lobby and were herded, along with several other tour groups staying at the hotel, onto buses to take us to dinner at Tanagra Caffe Concerto—a sort of operatic dinner theater. Between courses, we were entertained by a pianist and singers performing a selection of popular arias, duets, and quartets. There was some audience participation, and I had the honor (no doubt due to my lack of hair) of being chosen as a customer by Figaro, the famous "Barber of Seville." Thanks to my stellar performance, I became a minor celebrity on board the ship and learned not to be insulted when strangers asked me if I needed a shave.

A Close Shave (photo courtesy of David Lawrence)

After dinner, we were to have a night-time bus tour of the city before being returned to our hotel. We four were among the last to board. We got on a bus that supposedly had four empty seats, only to find that a woman was saving an empty seat for her husband. Loretta and I got off and found seats in the last row of another bus. There was a delay getting started; the guides had to check each bus to see if the lady's missing husband was on one of the other buses. I'm not sure they ever found him. He may still be in Rome.

Rome is beautiful at night—I suppose. I can't say I enjoyed it much. The woman sitting across from me wasn't enjoying it, and she was determined to make sure nobody else on the bus—at least nobody within earshot—was going to enjoy it either. A few minutes into the tour, she began to fidget and sigh, then to yawn loudly. Finally, she began not-so-quietly whining, to herself or to anyone who would listen (and believe me, we all tried our best not to): "This is pointless! ... Didn't we see this this morning? ... Does anyone really want to be doing this?"

Clearly someone did not get her afternoon riposo.

(I was reminded of the stories my Aunt Vonna used to tell about her great-aunt—my Grandfather Shorter's Aunt Flo. By all accounts, Aunt Flo seldom had anything positive to say about anything. When she returned from a trip to Europe, my grandmother asked her how she enjoyed it. "Oh, June," she replied, "It was nothing but ruins. Nothing but ruins!")

After breakfast the next morning, we checked out of the hotel and boarded our bus for the Vatican tour. (By the way, if you plan to visit the Vatican, I recommend you only do so with a guided tour. People were lined up around the block to get in, but we zipped past them in our own special line and went straight to the front.) Our guide this time was Sylvia. Once we were inside the Vatican Museum, she told us that it would take decades to see everything, even if you only stopped for couple of minutes at each exhibit. I don't see how it would be possible to stop for a couple of minutes at each exhibit. The museum was so crowded, it was like being swept along by the current in a river of people. I vaguely recall seeing some statues and tapestries. It was impossible to get good pictures.

It's impossible to get any pictures in the Sistine Chapel, because it's not allowed. Basically, nothing is allowed in the Sistine Chapel—not even talking. Sylvia had to tell us what we were going to see before we went in. The ceiling was impressive, of course, but what I found most fascinating was Michelangelo's face on the flayed skin of a saint. Sylvia had told us that this self-portrait in The Last Judgment was a rarity. Unlike other Renaissance artists, Michelangelo almost never painted himself into his works. If he was truly that ugly, I can see why. If he hadn't been such a great artist, he could have gotten a job posing as a model for gargoyles.

Sylvia tells us what a brilliant, unattractive man Michelangelo was.

What can I say about St. Peter's Basilica? Well, for one thing, it's big. When it comes to architectural beauty, I'll take Notre Dame de Paris or Barcelona's Sagrada Familia, but you certainly can't beat St. Peter's for size. And it has something else those other churches don't: popes—loads of them, from St. Peter himself to John Paul II. They thought so much of this pope that they covered him in silver and put him on display like the crown jewels:

Silver-Plated Pope

I believe there were even a couple of live popes somewhere in the vicinity, but we didn't see them.

We had lunch at Papa Rex, a restaurant just outside the Vatican. Then it was "Arrivederci Roma," as we boarded the bus to return to the ship. We were all pretty much exhausted by our visit to Rome. You're probably exhausted reading about it. I know I'm tired of writing about it.

Time for a riposo.