I didn’t know that America’s core was this ignorant, this racist, this misogynist. We outsiders always joke about it, all the rednecks and gun-totin’ Yosemite Sams leaning out of big pickup trucks and hollering about freedom and Jesus.
I hesitated about moving here. To this country where so many still think humans walked with dinosaurs. Where guns are easier to get than mental health appointments. Where we don’t want tax money paying for abortion but we pretend teen sex doesn’t happen and refuse to give them information they need. Where police can pull a man over for a broken tail light and murder him in “self-defense.” Weekly.
Living here for almost a decade, I found that this country does contain good people. So many of them. Working for change and for understanding, working for others, defending their rights. I’ve grown so much thanks to their patience and their guidance. So much can be achieved through kindness and compassion and open minds. I began to think that with enough effort, we could make a difference.
I’m not sure I believe that anymore. The numbers don’t lie: at its core, America truly is a hateful and selfish country. I am so very nervous for my friends who don’t have the privilege of whiteness, cis-het-ness, health, affluence, and geography. I’m nervous for everyone.
Hello too, enemies. Please enjoy your stay, and bless your hearts.
In an effort to cover the costs of maintaining my blog, I’ve decided to sign up for the Amazon Affiliate program. It isn’t likely to affect your experience here in the least, but anytime you click on an affiliate link and buy something on Amazon (anything at all – it doesn’t have to be the item I’ve linked to), I get a teeny tiny percentage of the sale. Your purchase price won’t change a cent.
I don’t want huge ads interfering with the flow of my thoughts (or your reading), so you’ll mostly be seeing text links. Even then, I don’t plan on overwhelming my posts with them, because I think it’s gimmicky and rude. I may use an occasional image link if it’s a picture similar to one I’d have used in the post anyway, or an object I am describing because I love it and recommend it to my friends.
I promise to be a respectful sellout and not abuse my linking powers. Please consider helping me out and buying through my site once in a while, if Amazon is a place you regularly shop. Every little bit helps.
Amazon requires me to clearly state the following on my site, so here it is in all its official legal boilerplate glory:
“Jen is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com”
On an average night, I wake up twice because my bladder only has a fraction of its former volume left.
I add to the problem by giving my kidneys a fresh cold glass of water to process every time I get up, because for unfathomable reasons, peeing at 1:45am makes me desperately thirsty. It’s usually as I’m climbing back into bed (yes, climbing – I need a step-stool to haul myself into the bed now) that I realize I’m too hot and sweaty to ever possibly get back to sleep, so my first wake-up ends with me turning on the ceiling fan. Even if it’s cool outside, and even if the air conditioning is keeping the room at a reasonable 75F. After my second wake-up around 4am, I give up on my PJs and end up half-naked and sweating on top of the sheets, gasping for oxygen like a dying fish while my husband snores beside me wrapped in a blanket.
It’s the hormones and the squirming heat-generating nugget in my uterus that are making me sweat, but I’m sure the pillow nest is helping to retain that heat and contributing to cooking me alive. I could probably hatch chickens in my bed. Or alligators. And they’d all be male.
The nest is a necessity, because apparently the worst thing you can do while pregnant is sleep in any manner other than on your left side. So you buy fancy giant pillows and prop yourself up all night and try not to roll onto your back and die. How humanity got through the dark ages before Snoogle pregnancy pillows is a mystery to me.
In Renaissance days, pregnant women stuffed a small yippy dog at the small of their back when sleeping, so the dog could warn them if they tried to roll over.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s nap time. So I have to go pee.
It’s been Christmas around here for a while, as far as the stores and restaurants are concerned. The Jingle Bells and Holly Jollies started weeks ago almost everywhere we shop or eat, and the aisles in Target and Wegmans and Michaels are full of already-discounted decorations and holiday-themed housewares.
What, you don’t have a Christmas-themed Spreader Set? You barbarian.
I hate that I’m always pressured into starting “Christmas” immediately after Thanksgiving, but that seems to be the way it works around here. Six seconds after your first post-Thanksgiving-turkey burp, an elf pops up and yells “CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS!!! GO GO GO!!!” while waving a Macy’s Black Friday Sale flyer as a starting flag.
BUY ALL THE THINGS!!
I usually resist decorating my own home and allowing the Christmas spirit to permeate my being until I can flip the calendar over to December. Too early and the music will annoy me too soon. All the snowman cookies will be eaten long before I’m supposed to leave some for Santa. And I’ll forget which presents I’ve bought for whom and end up buying much more than I need.
But this year, I started early.
I’m going to claim that this year’s super-late Thanksgiving coerced me into obeying the starting elf. A late Thanksgiving means that there are only four weekends between the holidays, which means a whole lot less time to get anything done, especially when you factor in parties and family get-togethers. I had a whole Friday to myself. I was kept from sleeping in by the army of leaf-blowers clearing the neighbor’s yard. I wasn’t going to fight the Black Friday crowds for discount cheese knives. Why not haul out all the Christmas crap and decorate?
Despite what my Pinterest boards may have you think, I don’t spend much of my time on craft projects. I often have the desire to paint or cut or stamp or otherwise make something, but I mostly stifle those urges because:
I’m not good enough at it to sell the junk I’d make.
I doubt anyone else needs junk any more than I do, so it’s silly to give crafty gifts.
The thing is, though, I like to do it. I enjoy making things. I suspect there’s a genetic component to that inclination: my mother paints, and makes beautiful handmade cards. Before her, my grandmother made jewelry and my grandfather worked with wood to make beautiful boxes and carvings. I feel like I should be working harder to keep all of that alive.
I recently bought some beads and wires at the craft store, thinking maybe I could make some jewelry. Sadly, I stayed true to my indecisive self and left the shopping bag in the backseat of my car for weeks as I argued with myself about whether or not to return it and get my $20 back to spend on more important things. It took a visit from my friend Michelle to remind me that things that make me happy are important things, too. Mostly, she played the reverse psychology game with me and bullied me into making things – and I’m grateful that she did.
Here’s the result of that creative push:
I made things! Wine charm things, to be specific. All I needed were a few bits and pieces, a set of small jewelry pliers, and a five-minute how-to video, and I made some pretty little things. These charms did not exist until I decided that they should, and that’s pretty great. No, I’m not going to be opening an Etsy shop for this stuff, and I won’t be unloading them on everyone I know. But it’s a way to get better at this sort of thing. And it makes me happy, which is pretty much the whole point.
If cooked tomatoes are going to get all soft and squishy, then let’s put them in a pasta dish where that won’t matter! You expect tomatoes to be soft and warm and squishy in a pasta sauce.
Normally, when I have too many cherry or grape tomatoes and can’t get them all into salads before they go soft, I use them in my Fish & Tomatoes dinner. But it’s nice to have other options, and this Spaghetti with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes seemed like an easy place to start.
It’s incredibly simple: just tomatoes, oil, and garlic to make the “sauce”, then some fresh mozzarella and basil added after the pasta’s tossed in. Because the sauce is so basic, the quality of the ingredients makes a difference. I used fresh basil leaves from my garden and found some of the good squishy fresh mozzarella at the cheese counter at Wegmans. I didn’t use “heirloom” tomatoes, as the goal was to use up my grape tomatoes that had already started to go soft, but I don’t think that took away from the flavor. Where I compromised was to use a store brand box of fettuccine. Oh, it was still a tasty dinner. But I think if I’d splurged on some fancier pasta, or gone all-out and made my own fresh pasta, it would have taken it to a whole other delicious level.
Yay, an excuse to try making fresh pasta again! I’ll just need a free weekend, because that’s a big project!
With all of the island visits over and nothing but sea days left as the ship turned northwards to bring us home, the party atmosphere came down a few notches on Day 6.
We slept in. Late. I kicked myself for it later, because there were some panels I wanted to attend, about writing and about quitting your job for a creative career, but the problem with an interior room is that there’s no daylight to tell you that you should seriously be getting your ass out of bed. Maybe it’s a sign that I should stick with my day job for a little while longer. Whatever the reason for the sluggish start, the result was that we missed a whole morning and woke up in time for lunch. We ate at the Windjammer buffet and the choices weren’t too bad, although I questioned their decision to add sliced red and green peppers – and no mushrooms or garlic to speak of – to their Chicken Marsala.
The upper decks by the swimming pools were crowded all week, so we didn’t get very much outdoor lounging done until we discovered the quiet open spaces on either side of Deck 4. There were fewer chairs there, but we could sit in the shade and listen to the water rushing by without having to deal with splashes and screaming toddlers. We spent an hour or two there that Friday before the 2pm show, reading and relaxing.
Randall Monroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic, told us all about the time he turned his living room into a giant ball pit. Seems to me that the trouble (and the expense!) isn’t worth the payoff, but to each his own! Live the dream! Then The Doubleclicks took the stage and made me giggle at Clever Girl (I’m considering making “Raaawr velociraptor!” my new ringtone) and cry at Imposter. The Doubleclicks play “silly” songs, but they’re tremendously good at making you feel feelings.
Luckily, Wil Wheaton was next up and had us in stitches with his first public attempt at standup comedy and a live reading of his definitely-going-to-get-made-one-of-these-days Robocop sitcom.
After the show we met up with our friends in their balcony room and enjoyed a bottle of wine together outside in the sea air. You’re allowed to bring wine on the ship as long as you don’t drink it in public areas – they’ll charge you a corking fee if you do – and a Sea Monkey by the name of Jeremiah had generously given Dave and I two bottles of fabulous Syrah from his wife’s vineyard. It was wonderful, as was the company.
With a huge movie screen hanging over the main swimming pool area, there was no way we would get off this cruise without having a movie night. We considered putting our swimsuits on so we could enjoy the show from one of the half-dozen hot tubs, but it was a pretty chilly night, for Caribbean standards, and we opted for lounge chairs instead. Laughing our butts off watching Paul and Storm’s Learning Town was the perfect way to end our lazy day.
We spent Valentine’s Day in Saint Maarten. Wow, that’s fun to say! Makes me feel like some sort of jet-setting rich girl. I’m going to hold onto that feeling for a little while.
On Day 5, we woke up incredibly early for our big excursion on St Maarten. Actually, we woke up an hour too early, because someone‘s phone synced to island time while in USVI and someone didn’t notice, which meant that two someones were up and swimsuited and sunscreened and complaining about how room service never showed up, when those someones could have had another hour of sleep. Sigh. We skipped the official Royal Caribbean excursions because a brave and incredibly organized Sea Monkey named Christina set up a private trip for 40 of us through the local St Maarten company Captain Alan’s Tours. This way, we ensured that everyone on our excursion was a Sea Monkey, so we could be weird and dorky and nobody was going to give us any uncomfortable side-eye.
We took up three boats with our gang, and Dave and I were lucky enough to ride with the Sea Monkey good luck talisman – the Yoda backpack.
Yoda backpack meets museum Yoda.
Photo courtesy Jeff “Oboewan” Kahan
Our boat was also the only one with an iPod dock, so we got to rock out and sing along to Skullcrusher Mountain as the boat bounced through the waves. We were soaked and hoarse by the time we anchored at the first snorkeling stop at Tintamarre. The bottom there was sandy and speckled with small patches of sea grasses, and we were told to look for turtles. Every few minutes someone would yell “TURTLE!” and 40 people would flipper and flail their way over for a look. Poor turtles.
Our second stop was at a breathtakingly beautiful reef. The choppiness of the water got to me a little and I felt pretty seasick, but I refused to let it stop me from enjoying the beauty of what was just beneath those waves. Dave took my hand and we floated together with the current, pointing out fish and coral and sea urchins to each other as we went. It was an hour I will never, ever forget.
Lunch was fabulous salami and cheese sandwiches, eaten in the calm, waist-deep water off the beach of Pinel island. The sun, the sea birds, the naked leathery old guy standing on the shore, balls-to-the-breeze without a care in the world… another memorable spot to spend our Valentine’s day.
You totally just zoomed in to look for naked guys, didn’t you.
Back on the ship, not nearly as sunburned as we could have been, we were treated to a wonderful night of comedy. First was Joseph Scrimshaw, whose self-deprecating style and sharp insights on geek life really resonate with me. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you laugh in the moment, and makes you think about it for the rest of the night. He should be a lot more famous than he currently is, if you ask me. Then we enjoyed the brilliant wits and fart jokes of Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Rifftrax as they mocked short educational films with the help of some guest stars.
My favorite part, though, was my husband’s performance.
The best part is how he pointedly did not dedicate this breakup song to me. I think he needs to play in public more often so he can be a super famous musician and we can travel the country together for a while, but I can’t convince him he’s good enough. Oh well, no rockstar-wife life for me.
I shuffled into the performers’ Q&A session ten minutes late and with far too little terrible cruise coffee in my system. The performers, in a very casual and down-to-earth chat, discussed some of the good and the bad about depending on creativity for a living. After listening to these guys, I feel like maybe I could really make it as a writer one of these days, if only I could get my shit together and really focus on it instead of just saying it’s going to happen.
Grumpy Cat did not approve of my tardiness.
We couldn’t spend too much time discussing creative energy, though, because Day 4 was another port day, this time an afternoon stop in the US Virgin Islands. Dave and I hopped off the ship at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and hopped right back onto another boat for a short cruise tour along the shores of the neighboring island of St. John.
It’s easy to spot other nerds in your group when your captain and tour guide is creative with language. Just look to see who winces when the loudspeaker announces that “Christopher Columbus, THAT’S RIGHT, the VERY SAME Christopher Columbus who discovered OUR VERY OWN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, arroved here in THESE BEAUTIFUL VIRGIN-DISLANDS in 1493.” Our Captain was a cheerfully angry local with a deep mistrust of the American government, a healthy love of Jesus, and a casual relationship with the rules of English grammar. We called him Cap’n ALL-CAPS and spent most of the trip mocking him from the upper deck where he couldn’t see us. He sounded like the guy on a game show who announces the AMAZING PRIZES, if that guy was a bitter and tipsy Tea Partier. He explained to us the PRISTINE BEAUTY of the arch pilay-goes of THESE VERY SAME VIRGIN DISLANDS. He showed us a historical site where AFRICAN SLAVES threw themselves from a tower and gave up their souls to OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST before the “abolination” of slavery.
Island of St. Thomas behind us
We enjoyed our little tour despite Cap’n ALL-CAPS and his blatant promotion of the CHOICE TAXIS that would be available for us to take all over St John. Dave declared that we deserved better and he’d hold out for a USDA PRIME taxi, so we explored the area around Cruz bay on foot instead. We had a delicious deli lunch with new friends and then wandered the town looking for souvenirs and trying not to step on any baby chicks.
Chickens cannot read.
I wish now that I’d had more time to spend in St Thomas. This was the first time I’d been in a place where I could look around me and see a dozen islands dotting the horizon. It was truly tropical and absolutely beautiful.
I never thought I would enjoy tropical vacations. I don’t generally like the beach. But out here, it’s not just sand and palm trees. These islands are green mountains in the water, and I love them. I sat on the little boat, leaning on my husband and feeling the wind on my face, and got to watch this happen:
It was hard to get back on the Freedom of the Seas after a day like that.
But that’s how cruises go: a day here and a day there and never enough time to really enjoy the places you visit. Luckily we were on a JoCo cruise and had more fun lined up for us that evening, or I probably would have moped as I watched the twinkling lights of St Thomas fade into the distance.
That afternoon, Wil Wheaton spent an hour in the Bull and Bear Pub, doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session. He was expecting maybe a dozen people, but we packed the joint because everyone loves to hear him talk about things he’s passionate about. He answered questions about homebrewing, acting, and tabletop games. I asked him a question about writing, and he was helpful with his response. I’m glad I found the time to make it to that event.
While we were at that AMA, a band of tiny pirates – kids from the daycare – stormed the Promenade with a song and dance routine. Wil stopped talking and everyone in the Bull and Bear turned to see what was going on. As Sea Monkeys are unable to resist all things pirate-y, we encouraged the kids with a hearty “Arrr!!”
Eek! Tiny pirates!
The evening’s entertainment was a spectacular live-band karaoke experiment. Jonathan Coulton and his rock ensemble played a dozen of JoCo’s songs while randomly-selected Sea Monkeys got to take the stage with them and sing like live rock stars! I could not in a million years have found enough courage to put my name in for such a thing, but the people who did perform were amazing. Some forgot the words, and some were visibly shaking in their sequins, but they were all rock stars for a few minutes and will never, ever forget it.
Edited on March 6, 2013 to add the stuff about Wil Wheaton’s AMA. I couldn’t remember what day it happened, but it’s in the right spot now.
I woke up on the morning of Day 3 early enough to get to breakfast in the main dining room, but I couldn’t pull myself out of bed. I was too tired, too stressed. I was waking up on a ship on the beautiful Caribbean sea, but at the same moment, my mother was undergoing a triple bypass operation back home in Montreal. I spent the whole day wrapped in a layer of guilt and worry. If you met me later that day, and I was distracted, distant, checking my watch: please know that it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in talking to you.
Day 3 was a sea day, which was a chance for the Shadow Cruise – activities not set up by the official performers – to take over the ship. Sea Monkeys are incredible at self-organizing and making things happen, and Day 3 was full of happenings. Dave attended a meeting of the Ukulele Melee, a group brought together by Molly Lewis and Alice Lee (developers of the “Stormy G Chord”) to maximize the dramatic impact of the 30+ ukuleles on the ship. They were generous enough to let him join the group even though he decided to leave his uke at home and bring his guitar on the cruise instead.
Alice and Molly teaching the class the “Stormy G”
The room contained musicians of all skill levels, each having a ton of fun playing in this mostly-ukulele band. Oh, and in the room? Sci-fi author John Scalzi, strumming along with a big grin on his face, clearly having as much fun as everyone else. I may have squeed a little. I was too shy to approach him and tell him I enjoy his books, because he wasn’t an official performer and I felt rude bothering him while he was on vacation.
Dave and I spent a little time in the game room trying to learn some new games. I got frustrated too quickly and stuck with Cards Against Humanity because it’s easy and familiar and funny, but Dave put in a little more effort and tried some new things. As you can see, we had options:
The game room is one of the best parts of the JoCo cruises. It’s open around the clock and there’s almost always someone in there, playing a game, eager to teach strategy to newbies. The walls get rapidly papered with notes and pictures – people trying to organize a group for dinner, or warning others to avoid the free Promenade pizza. For those who take the WiFi Temperance pledge and forswear electronic communication for the week, this is the place to visit every morning to find out what neat things are happening with the Shadow Cruise. We had a shipboard version of Twitter set up (dubbed “Twitt-arrr”, because if we can make something into a pirate joke, then by golly, we’re gonna), which is how I stayed on top of events, because temperance pledges are for chumps.
Dave’s guitar got a workout a little later when we joined the “Bardic Circle”/”Jam Session” in an annex off the game room. A dozen or so folks showed up with instruments and voices, and we hung out in each other’s company for an hour, taking turns playing songs while others joined in. Well, while they joined in. I just tapped my foot and mumbled along to the tunes I recognized, and clapped heartily after every one. Some folks brought us songs they’d written themselves, and they were great. I wish I could be that creative. One of my favorite moments of the whole cruise was when Leslie Hudson sang her song “Tatooine Blues” and everyone started joining in even though they’d never heard it before. Some percussion, a couple of guitars, and the song came to life. You couldn’t miss how much Leslie was loving hearing the song come to life in that room, and I’m so glad I was there to see it happen.
Leslie singing “Tatooine Blues”
There was a show that night, featuring Mike Phirman, John Roderick, and Zoe Keating. I’d seen the first two before, and I was a little disappointed that Phirman’s set was almost exactly the same as when he opened for Paul and Storm at the Birchmere. I suppose it was new to most of the crowd, though, and it was still funny and I still think he’s probably one of the nicest (and smiliest) guys in the biz. John Roderick is unmatched when it comes to stage presence, and he brought the rock as he always does. That said, over the course of this cruise, I found I enjoyed him so much more in his interactions with everyone else onstage than just performing his music for us alone. Zoe Keating was completely new to me and blew me away. An incredibly gifted cellist to begin with, she takes her music to another level with some fantastic technology. I’m loving these cruises for introducing me to new music in such a dramatic way. Marian Call last year, and Zoe Keating this year. They’re very different, they possess astonishing talent, and both can now consider me a big fan.
Zoe Keating performing “Escape Artist” on JoCoCruiseCrazy 3:
I missed the last bit of Zoe’s performance (I’m so sorry, Zoe), because I ducked out early to run to the Online Lounge on Deck 8 and swipe my card for a quick look at Gmail. With that, I finally had word that my mother’s surgery was over and she was going to be okay, and the relief made my legs weak and my heart light.
With that pressure off my spirit, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the final act of the evening: Celebrity Artemis. Artemis is a starship bridge simulator game, where each position has its own technical readouts that only they can see, and must relay information to the rest of the crew to complete their missions. So, of course, the best way to showcase this game is to have a bunch of celebrities, fuzzy with whisky and rum punch, play it in front of everyone.
The crew of the Maltose Falcon
The game, of course, was not the point. Watching these celebrity-type people get tipsy and silly and ridiculous like the rest of us was a huge highlight of this cruise for a lot of us.
If you’ve got half an hour to kill, check out the videos on youtube. This is the second crew, with Captain Roderick. Probably full of curse words.