Friday, April 28, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Independence Day: Resurgence

Just in case you thought that all of these reviews were going to be positive, I'll just warn you now: they're not. This movie was a waste of my time. There was exactly one part of this movie that I enjoyed, and that was the relationship between Doctors Isaacs and Ogun, and one of these characters doesn't have a first name. Also, not like this is an actual spoiler, but their relationship doesn't last through the end of the movie (one of them dies).

My time would have been better spent had a repeatedly closed my hand in a door for two hours. This movie is not just willfully dumb, but it assumes that it's audience is as stupid as it is. It was a good thing I had work to do or I might have swallowed my own tongue just to get away from this movie.

And it wasn't even in the "so bad it's good" territory (which I would debate doesn't actually exist, but there do seem to be people who enjoy bad movies for being bad, and what the hell, some people juggle geese); it was just bad. The directing was bad. The plot was bad. The acting was wooden and caricaturist at the best of times, and simply absent at the worst of times. Given the money spent on special effects, the movie never bothered to show us anything; it had to be explained, usually by one (presumably) intelligent character to another (presumably) intelligent character, often in words so small and concepts so simple that I was beginning to think this was a movie designed for five-year-olds.

I would have watched with all my attention the story of two gay scientists working together in the lab as an old married couple, with the sniping and the love and the slapstick comedy, especially if that story starred Brent Spiner and John Storey, both of whom are really quite good comedic actors. There would have been pathos and emotion and a real connection to the audience. You could even have stuff blowing up and aliens invading off-screen, and that would have given them an interesting reason to be working together after so many years.

There were some very sweet moments between these two characters.

Everyone else was terrible. Which makes me sad, because so many of these actors are people I like and admire as actors and I know can do good work: Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, William Fichtner, Sela Ward (criminally underused in this film), hell, even Chin Han. Who was, by the way, specifically put in the film to appeal to the Chinese audience, and who utterly fails to be in any way interesting.

Given the way the movie ended, as a setup for a sequel/franchise, I'm so very glad this movie did horribly at the box office. Perhaps we'll be spared from another two hours of pablum.

Then again, it mostly starred white dudes, so they're probably going to make five of them.

Friday, April 14, 2017

DEEP Nerdery: The Last Jedi Speculation

So the trailer for The Last Jedi dropped today, since it's Star Wars Celebration weekend. And it got me thinking seriously about my favourite little corner of the Star Wars (possible) continuity, the idea of the (historically heretical) concept of the Living Force.

Sidenote:
Me, to Jean: have I mentioned my ideas behind the Liv--
Jean: YEEEEESSSSSS.

For those (three) of you whom I haven't talked to about this: in the Old Republic series of games (most strongly in the Imperial-side stories of the Star Wars: the Old Republic MMO), they talk about the idea that the Force, far from being a mystical inchoate field, has a will and a mind of its own, and gives direction to those who know and believe in it, and trust in the Force.

A careful (read: crazy-ass nerd) watch of the prequels also seems to indicate that Qui-Gon is a believer in the Living Force... his disagreements with the Council and his willingness to bend the moral compass he's ostensibly following in the service of (as he claims) the Force do seem to indicate a somewhat heretical bent. And Qui-Gon trained Obi-Wan, who has a, shall we say, relaxed relationship with the truth...which could also indicate that he is also a believer in the Living Force. And Obi-Wan trained Luke, who we've already seen (in Return of the Jedi) isn't particularly attached to doing things in a traditional way, so it would make sense that in his unorthodox approach to combining the Dark and Light sides of the Force he feels that he's being driven by "what the Force wants", which is the core tenet of the Heresy of the Living Force.

So the end of the Jedi, the Last of the Jedi, are an act of renewal and synthesis into something greater, something more in line with the Will of the Living Force.

THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL! THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL!

As a Heretic myself, this makes me really, really happy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Arrival

I want to talk about Arrival and how amazing it is as a story, but before that, I have to talk about how amazing it is as a film and how amazing it is that the film got made exactly how it got made.

Arrival is based on a short story, "Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang. It's a short story about a woman linguist who handles a first-contact situation without guns or explosions or lasers or really anything science-fiction-y. Just a woman and her colleagues talking (and talking about language). No man takes over from her, no conflict is spurred by her relationship with anyone, nothing weird or strange. So in that, the short story itself is rather odd and special. Special because it is a fundamentally beautiful story, exceptionally well-written, clear and gorgeous and worth reading even on it's own. But I'm not sure you should read it without seeing the movie first, because the movie is amazing in its faithfulness to the story.

And that, in and of itself, is remarkable. I mean, let's be clear. Someone in Hollywood was convinced (after, I understand, something like a decade of fighting) to give the writer of Final Destination 5 and the director of Polytechnique forty million dollars to shoot a science fiction film that stars Amy Adams as a linguist and no one actually fires any guns. The closest thing to a male lead is Jeremy Renner as a physicist who never takes his shirt off or punches anyone, and the climax of the film involves finding a cellphone that makes overseas calls. The biggest chunk of the special effects budget is spent on making circles appear on a piece of glass. This is the kind of movie you expect to see coming out of SXSW that was made with gaffer's tape and flashlights and gets shown in five theatres at film festivals. Except that it stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, and grossed a hundred million dollars domestic. So yes, just the mere fact that this movie exists is in itself remarkable.

But more than that, Arrival is in and of itself a remarkable film because it is really good. I mean, not just OK, not just "good for an SF movie", but seriously, no-kidding good. It's written incredibly tightly and clearly. No characters carry the "idiot ball"; no characters are evil just to drive the plot -- in fact, no characters are actually evil, it's just that some are misguided at points; no characters make nonsensical statements; and at no point does the script resort to technobabble. The closest thing to technobabble is the linguistic discussions around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has lost some of its support since the story was originally written. Like the really good films that play with linearity, like Memento or Primer, Arrival makes even more sense when you see it again, while also being a really great movie the first time you see it.

Amy Adams does this amazing job of playing Doctor Banks as this quiet, careful, precise person, who is shaped (and reshaped) not just by the big things that happen to her, but also by the small things, the little intersections of daily life. Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly mostly hovers in the background, doing math and being confused, and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber is the reluctant military man, who is willing to go to war but recognizes it as a failure rather than a methodology. No one is unreasonable or stupid or lazy or unthinking. This is a movie that is, at its heart, what John Rogers has called "competence porn": the experience of watching people who are really, really good at something doing what they're really, really good at in a way that's enjoyable to those that aren't as good. The whole parable of the kangaroo is both funny and smart, and makes a point that is important to the plot.

I said on Twitter when I first saw this movie that this was possibly a perfect movie because the plot is incidental to the story. And here's what I mean by that: plot is what happens to the characters. And the plot in Arrival is really great, and the growth of the characters on screen is amazing and enjoyable to watch. The story, on the other hand, is what happens to the audience. Story, a good story, changes the way that we the audience see ourselves; it changes how we see the world; and it can change the way we see movies. Arrival does that, too. It asks the audience a question: is there such a thing as determination? Is free will possible? And can those two ideas co-exist at the interface of human and not-human?

There are not many movies like Arrival. And I am very glad that there was a production company that was, however long it took, willing to let artists be artists together. And I'm glad Ted Chiang wrote the short story that inspired the movie that prompted me to read it. So I guess we know where I come down on the question of Free Will...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

So Here's the Thing -- Mass Effect: Andromeda

I put a crap-ton of playtime into the latest entry in the Mass Effect universe. It's explicitly NOT a sequel; it is a separate game with a separate timeline set in the same universe, but much removed from the events of ME 1-3. But it still leverages the same basic design philosophy as the other ME games: storytelling is more important than "innovative" gameplay, character relationships are a big part of the reason for playing, and driving an indestructible truck with handling like a beached whale across landscapes that feel like they were generated by an Amiga 2000 running Video Toaster is not just enjoyable but hilariously fun.

The gameplay is basically what you'd expect from ME: three-person active squad moving through a (mostly) linear map and shooting things with the various loadouts determined at the beginning of the mission, and while you're there you might as well wander around the edges of the maps looking for things to "press Y to interact" with. These mission sequences are interspersed with exploration sequences where you wander around a map picking up quests (which usually but not always end up requiring a mission sequence) and finding hidden macguffins which you collect for your virtual office desk. And, between the cutscenes and the shooty bits, you have conversations with your squad to make them better at their jobs (and possibly have sex with you).  If you're not a completionist, then you can probably plow through the main story in about 20 hours and therefore miss almost everything that makes this a Mass Effect game. You also probably won't like it very much. There's a fundamentally unpolished feeling to this game, that recons back to ME1 in some respects, but in other respects it feels almost Bethesda-esque in it's grandeloquent missteps and buggy nature. 

And I'll tell you, at 20 hours in, I wasn't a big fan. It felt like a retread with a couple different aliens and the theory that if you liked ANY of the minigames in the previous series, then there would be at least one minigame in THIS game you'll like. Seriously: every gathering and exploring game from the previous series has a version in this game, and for good measure they threw in sudoku as an extra minigame because everyone likes sudoku, right? (Spoiler: not really.) The thing is, at 40 hours in, I was loving it. They were doing that "tell a big story while setting up a GIGANTIC story for the sequel(s)" thing that the BioWare team really excels at. It's fun, and I did end up enjoying it. But I missed the Wheel Of Morality, and I often felt as if the various options presented didn't really mean much, and didn't seem to affect the gameplay at all (which was quite disappointing -- I want there to be clear consequences when I make a decision, and that includes things like "this option is only available because you have 271 light-side points" and other examples. Much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, while there is a response wheel, the various choices seem to have absolutely no effect even on the specific conversation you're in at the time, let alone the bigger story arc. 

Now, as the kind of person who won't leave a map or a corner or a building unexplored, this had plenty of that for me to pursue. But the maps themselves didn't feel particularly expansive, and while there were several of them, they didn't feel engaging in a way I was expecting from ME. And while the dialog was fun and the interactions with my crew clever, there weren't the deep and engaging interactions I've been led to expect from BioWare. And the writing was downright PAINFUL in some points ("pathfound" is NOT A WORD, GODDAMIT) which given the excellent writing of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect worlds was a real letdown. 

Was it the Worst Game Evar? No, not by a long shot. In fact, compared to most of the other games on the market, it was pretty good; certainly miles beyond any of the Tom Clancy or Call of Duty games. But it didn't feel as engaging as other BioWare titles, and I wasn't as invested in the characters themselves (which is one thing that draws me to these titles). But it really does suffer in comparison to H:ZD, which was smaller both in scope and in reach but felt much more tightly put together and much more logically consistent within it's story.

So here's the thing: I think ME:A is money well spent, and a fun time. But I think had I played this game before I played Horizon:Zero Dawn, I'd like it more. It suffers immensely in the comparison, which is a shame, because ME:A is an excellent start. But it's BioWare, and with BioWare I expect something a little more... More. Which I suppose is unfair, really. Would I recommend this game to someone else? That's... a good question, actually. I'm not sure there were enough innovations and enough strong storytelling to suggest this game rather than suggesting someone play Mass Effect 1 instead (despite the intervening decade of development improvements). But I also can't say you should skip it; it's a fun ride, even if it's not brilliant. So, I guess my recommendation on ME:A is if you want something SF-ish and fun and light, then go for it. I have spend 100 hours on less-fun games, and at least ME:A feels like it's making those hours of play worthwhile. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Wynnona Earp

Since my partner is out of town, that often means that I have real trouble sleeping. I've been doing OK up until last night, but I didn't get a wink of sleep so I binge-watched Season 1 of a show called Wynona Earp on Netflix. Because why not? Woman lead, gunslinging, silly premise, and a good soundtrack will usually get me to watch at least the pilot, so I figured what the hell, I'm not sleeping anyway...

The premise is re-donk-ulous: Wyatt Earp, just before he died, was cursed and that meant the progeny of the Earp bloodline were doomed to kill (or try and kill) the 77 men whose souls would be resurrected again and again until the heir could return them all to Hell without dying themselves. Oh, and also there's a secret agency tasked with protecting the general public against the supernatural. Oh, and also there's a spell that means that the Earp line (and the "remnants" with whom they battle) can't leave a specific part of the West, Oh, and also, Doc Holliday is immortal. You wouldn't be too far off pitching it as "Buffy meets Longmire with a touch of Justified".

The show itself is good; it's not great, but it knows what it is and does a great job staying in its lane while also playing with the standards of the genre(s). It's a Canadian show shot on a shoestring budget starring a bunch of people you've never heard of (unless you watch a LOT of Canadian TV; I mean, I've watched the entire run of The Pinkertons and I haven't heard of 75% of these people). The scripts are funny and tight without being overwound, and the actors do a great job with the material, and the occasional fight scene (as opposed to the at-least-once-an-episode "shooting someone" scene, which is different) is well shot and well choreographed (which is more than I could say for, for instance, Arrow Season 4). I'm always vaguely amused when a Canadian show tries to pretend they're in the US West somewhere; it's the little giveaways (like the tiny Canadian flags on the shoulder patches of the winter coats).

It also has great secondary characters, including possibly the most amazingly hilarious shipping couple I've ever encountered: Waverly Earp (the youngest of three Earp women) and Sherriff's Deputy Nicole Haught, AKA WayHaught. And they are: the actors have fantastic chemistry together. Also, spoilers: neither lesbian dies (so far, anyway). The florid speech patterns of Doc as a man out of time are hilarious if entirely inappropriate, and the actor manages to at least deliver the lines with a straight face, which is enough for me.

Wynnona herself is a hero in the mold that's recently become popular via AKA Jessica Jones: the woman who is played straight up as a the complicated hero that men are almost always and women are so infrequently allowed to be. She's mean and petty and grumpy and angry and sometimes wrong and drinks too much and tends to be trigger-happy (see the previously mentioned Justified Rayland Givens for a classic example) and generally just gets to be messy and adult and real in a way that makes her rather endearing.

I was glad to hear it'd been picked up for another season: it's a fun and easy to watch and I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes gunslinging and demon-slaying in equal parts. Definitely a fun way to pass a sleepless night.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Spring Break -- The Official Pamphlet

They made a link for the Little Blue Book for the cruise, which I haven't gotten around to digitizing yet. So here's the whole schedule and all of the performers:

https://jococruise.com/uploads/2017/03/JCC2017FinalBookletCrop.pdf

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Here's The Thing -- Horizon: Zero Dawn

Since this blog is just sitting here anyway, and I play a crapton of videogames, I figure I might as well scream into the void a little about my experiences of playing videogames and what they mean to me. I've decided to call these infrequent and irregular reviews of games "So Here's The Thing", because as a white dude I'm constitutionally allowed to mansplain pretty much everything and I don't think even I could stomach a series called "Well, Actually". Expect these reviews to be highly opinionated and exceptionally biased, as is the custom of my people and by my people I mean Social Justice Warriors (or, in my case, Social Justice Bard).

The first game I'm going to talk about is the relatively-new release, Horizon: Zero Dawn, from Guerrilla Games, published by Sony Entertainment. I played it on the PS4, and put about 40 hours into it during my vacation. I'll warn you before I drop any spoilers.

Things I knew going into this game: it's a post-apocalyptic game with a woman protagonist fucking all the shit up with a bow and arrow. Had it been nothing else, I would have bought it -- as someone who played both of the rebooted Lara Croft games, it's become clear to me that my perfect protagonist is apparently Kate Bishop (written by Matt Fraction) -- but it turns out that this game has a lot more going for it, and by going for it, I mean specifically pandering to me.

Here's the non-spoilery bit: Aloy (our Hero) is an outcast, but no one including her foster father/mentor will tell her why. So she makes it her mission in life to become the premier hunter so she can demand answers from the Matriarchs of the tribe that cast her out as a baby. Did you say Matriarchs? Why yes, it is a culture run and controlled by old women, with no clear gender division for the hunter/gatherer roles versus the caretaking/vendor roles. The culture of the Nora isn't ever explicitly explained, but it's clear from context and random conversations that this cultural makeup is considered "bad" by most of the other locals, but given that the Nora manage to keep their shit together when everyone else fucks shit up, the subtext is pretty clear. Of course, there are Kind Matriarchs and Angry Matriarchs and Antagonistic Matriarchs so it's not like there's this United Front of Women Are Awesome -- instead, the women are portrayed as people, with both good and bad traits and good and bad opinions making good and bad decisions just like people do. For that alone, I would have bought the deluxe edition.

Also, the big villain in the piece turns out to be the most entitled White-Dude-Manbaby in the history of White-Dude-Manbabies, while the populace in general is fantastically diverse (though it would've been nice to see some of the models with more body-types than "sleek, sleek and muscled, square and muscled, boyish" among the mix. Given that one of the main NPCs is a black woman War Chief and another is a black mechanical genius, it's ahead of 90% of the standard games out there.

Aloy, in her journey to find out just what the fuck is going on, wanders around a post-disaster landscape and proceeds to kill and/or co-opt basically everyone she meets, including a couple of Kings, at least one explicitly trans person, more same-sex couples than I can count, and in the process earns a reputation (which can be one of three types, but the gameplay is effectively the same for all of them). In truth, I'm not sure why the "choose your type of reaction" option exists, since it didn't noticeably change anything about the game, but hey, if you're reaching for that Mass Effect effect, then you gotta have an Emotional Wheel Of Decision-Making.

Is the game perfect? By no means. Much of the actual exploration and gameplay turns out to be rather repetitive, and the jumping puzzles are slightly too easy even for me (and I hate jumping puzzles) while the 'figure out how to kill this type of robot' challenges aren't very well laid out and can lead to much head-bashing and frustration until you stumble upon the magic combo of weapons and moves that then turn defeating the mobs into a trivial activity. Also, for an open-world RP game, it's a bit small and short, especially when compared to the Witcher series or Dragon Age: Inquisition. That said, this is the first of a series, not the last of a series (I hope), and even some DLC to open up the world a bit more would be brilliant, not to mention a couple of sequels.

I fully admit to my bias: strong women in both protagonist and antagonist roles, a diverse cast of NPCs, and the Big Bad being an Entitled Dude In IT are all positive things to me, so I was prepped out of the gate to love this game, and I feel like it delivered on almost all of the things it promised me. And it didn't hurt that there were a lot of disaffected pants-crappers who were upset that a game like this made females the main characters while relegating the mens to support or villain roles. Just reading some of the reviews made me smile and think that my pre-ordered Collector's Edition was money well spent.

So Here's the Thing: if you liked the rebooted Tomb Raider games, you're gonna like H:ZD. If you're expecting the epicness of a Mass Effect game, you'll be disappointed. And if you like the standard "shoot the otherguy" games like Battlefield or Call of Duty, you're going to be really unhappy with this game. But I'll be damned if it wasn't nice to see a triumphant woman on the cover of my videogame.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Spring Break: The Photo Post

Here's that set of photos I promised in previous posts.

You can find pretty much all the pictures I took here:

https://goo.gl/photos/19TpVGcXatupsCJd8

I hope you enjoyed our show.

Spring Break, Day 8 and Beyond -- thoughts and take-aways

The deboarding process was exactly as efficient as the onboarding process, and we were out and off to the airport with our luggage quickly and easily, and our flight home was uneventful, and our arrival back to our home was pleasant -- it was good to see our dog again, to lay down in our bed again, to use our washer and dryer again. It was a little disappointing that there weren't any towel animals, or turn-down service, and there wasn't a 24-hour room-service line, and we had to cook our own food rather than just wander into the dining room and grab food. So, trade-offs, really.

Jean and I had several conversations, especially in the last two days of the cruise, about whether or not we would be interested in going on JoCOcho (aka JoCoCruise VIII). Our experience was a generally positive one, and I certainly had a blast, but we both recognized that, as a couple prone to introversion, we spent a bunch of time turtling up together and not giving ourselves the chance to meet new friends. Especially at dinner; we had a tendency to grab a two-top and sit together, rather than joining a big group table and getting to know other people over dinner. If we were to do Ocho, our goal would be to do group tables every day it was possible. We also recognized that the cruise would have been more enjoyable had we had more friends with which to spend time, so another variable in our attending Ocho-on-the-Oosterdam is if we can convince any other people to also go on the cruise.

We also agreed that the price bump for a veranda cabin is significant, possibly significant enough to stop us from making the change, and that might be a deal-breaker. While the internal cabin was perfectly cromulent (and the Rotterdam deck, deck 7, was basically the Best Deck Ever), it would be nice to get some natural light in the morning, and having a place to just sit privately and watch the water and wake up and/or journal and/or read a book would be fantastic. That said, it's almost double the cost of an internal cabin. And while the internal cabin was fine, we're not sure we'd be willing to do it again. On the gripping hand, we spent an unexpected amount of time in our cabin, and if we were doing it again, we would probably try to spend less time there. Also, I'd probably bring my white-light clock.

Jonathan Coulton himself said that taking a cruise is a lot like living like a really rich person for a week: you're waited on hand and foot and nothing costs anything.  This is true, and it's amazing in several ways. It's also true that, in general, the people waiting on you hand-and-foot are mostly young mostly people of colour (in our case, almost exclusively Filipino youngsters), and if you're in any way socially conscious this leads to some really, really uncomfortable moments, like when you realize that while the workers are mostly PoCs, the managers and supervisors are almost all white, and a significant number of them are men.

That said, it was good to hear that as a group, the Sea Monkeys were considered some of the best passengers that our crew had served -- we responded to instructions, tipped well, treated people like human beings with names and lives, recognized we were privileged and tried not to take too much advantage of that, and in general acted like decent human beings -- but the fact is still that we were a bunch of mostly white, mostly wealthy Westerners being waited on by young people of colour. Also, having done a bit of research, cruise jobs in general are just terrible, shitty jobs: because they're mostly at sea, a lot of labour laws just don't apply, so the folk are working long hours for not-great pay, and the only thing that makes it survivable is that a worker doesn't have any time to spend the money made, so it ends up piling up pretty well (though, with all the Filipino folk, I imagine it was either being sent back to the family or being saved up for a chance to start a business).

I personally tried very hard to learn all of the names of the crew I interacted with, and tried very hard to be at least as polite to them as they were to us. Rather than just seeing them as faceless servitors, I worked hard to make sure I was seeing them as people, and treating them as someone who was doing a hard and often thankless job generally quite well. This ended up being extremely hard on day five when I was sitting next to the pool and was irked that a young man with a tray wasn't making it down to my end of the pool fast enough. And then metaphorically punching myself in the head for that particular thought, and then getting up and walking the twenty feet or so to the bar, because GODS FORBID I walk twenty feet to get my drinks...

Especially with BlizzCon happening in November (and the plan for a big chunk of our Raid Team to meet up during this one), it's a real question whether or not we can even save the bank we'd need for Ocho. But I change my mind every five minutes as to whether or not I want to go again. I mean, I definitely DO want to go again, but there are some definite caveats on how that can happen.

I had a fantastic time on JoCoCruise VII. And I am definitely glad I went.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spring Break, Day 7 -- Homeward Bound

Another at-sea day, which meant a ton of stuff on the schedule, most of which I simply ignored to enjoy the last day of being on a cruise ship on the water. We did manage to get up and get our coffee in time to attend Zoe Keating's Armpit Farting Colloquium, which was entirely worth it. If you get a chance, you should check out Zoe Keating's music on the Cello. And also see if you can find a video where she teaches you to make farting noises with various parts of your body that aren't usually involved in farting noises.

Since it was a Friday, for lunch Jean and I partook of a hot dog, as is the custom of our people. And while we were doing that, Jean and I played "One Deck Dungeon", which is a fun little card game which I bought specifically because all of the characters in the game are women -- heroes, villains, final bosses -- and that got the babymen het up and so I tossed some money that way to encourage the designer to keep on being awesome. It's fun, and has a solo play version in addition to the 2-player game. Jean pointed out that it seemed a little easy, which generally indicates that we've misread the rules somewhere, but even at that it was a fun little game.

Then, after a bit of lounging, we had a nap. Because when given the option of a mid-day nap, you should ALWAYS partake.

As it was the last day and I had not yet blown the budget, I bought a crap-ton of merch from the various artists on board, because "if you put it on your room key it's like it never happened!". In addition, we were given some books by artists who were on board, and I was looking over what sounded like a really intriguing book, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, but when I flipped to the author page, it was a white dude, and I've sworn off white dude writers for the forseeable future. Then, reading the "about the author" blurb, I noted that the author lives with his editor-husband. Yay! The author is queer, so there's my exception! So I'll be reading that in the near future. We also got The Fifth Season which is awesome and painful and brilliant, and entirely deserving of the Hugo.

The concert that night was billed as "Jonathan Coulton and Friends", and by that apparently was meant "everyone we could possibly fit on stage, and probably a couple more". I'm always a little surprised when an artist picks a song and then is surprised that their fans like it; in this case, the song in question is "Good Morning, Tucson", a song about a newscaster summoning up the end of the world and broadcasting it live (or possibly going crazy, it's not clear). Which is one of my favourite songs ever, containing the lyric "and I am still sort of amazed that you can be born in the 90s" which I fully connect with on a level below consciousness. He also sang his brilliant biographic song about George Plimpton, which I adore for both the message and the sadness.

Then the Friends started pouring on stage, and we moved into the "cover song" portion of the evening, which was all songs by dead people (except Elvis Costello, who isn't dead, but wrote a song about the death of Democracy, so he gets a pass). There was a moment when both Jean and I wondered if we'd missed some news, though (having been out of touch with the world for a week), but John Roderick, after a great version of "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, And Understanding" assured us that in fact, Elvis Costello was still alive. For now.

A brilliant "Purple Rain" cover by Janet Varney and Tawny Newsome was included in the set, which was amazing. Principal Sabourin did a fantastic job covering "Freedom", and Aimee Mann did a brilliant job with "Love is All Around". Jean Grae invented "the Jean Grae" where even before the music stops and the clapping starts the artist saunters off the stage (she deserved all the clapping, of course).

To finish it all up and send us off right, they filled the stage to bursting and encouraged the audience to sing along to "Sloop John B", because boats. It was a brilliant show, a great cap to a great series of shows, and an excellent way to top off the trip. So then Jean and I went to dinner, which was excellent, and Jean had the cheese plate for dessert while I had the Baked Alaska and it was really, really good. Al took care of us once again, and I was back to thinking that retiring to a cruise ship wouldn't be so bad, really...

One last stroll around the promenade to walk off a bit of dinner, then we set our luggage out to be offloaded, took off our robes, and went to sleep dreaming of home, our pets, and the real world.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Day 6: Sailing The Ocean Blue

Today was an all-at-sea day for the cruise; no port of call, no stops, just sailing (and a really nice vista in the afternoon). This turned out to be my favourite type of day on the cruise, though I entirely understand why they don't do it all the time -- the staff and performers need a break at some point! But it was gorgeous and pleasant and extremely relaxing. Which was good, because I spent most of the day feeling worn out and tired. Part of it was me getting over the sunburn / overheating, part of it was the entire week of being polite and extroverted, and part of it was honestly just missing home. The bed was comfy and the meals were great, but as Jean said, we were missing our dog and our garden and our own bed.

They switched up the schedule, so the concert for the day was in the morning; the Doubleclicks did a brilliant show with a bunch of their friends, and it was amazing. They even debuted a couple of songs off their new album, which was pretty damned cool. It was also incredibly emotional in parts; I found myself crying at a couple of points, which is a bit out of character for both me and a Doubleclicks show, but there it was.

We spent most of the day just wandering about the boat, relaxing and not really doing anything. This turned out to be a good thing -- even when I'm not actively interacting with people, being surrounded by strangers is really tiring to me. This was also the day when I was absolutely convinced we wouldn't do a JoCoCruise again; while the experience was great, I was feeling very tired and isolated and alone. Jean was amazing with me during this: patient, kind, caring. She does so much of the emotional lifting in our relationship, because I'm pretty fucked up and she's so committed to kindness. I try to make sure she doesn't do too much, but I'm sure (as a man) I fuck up more than I should.

In the afternoon, our ship cruised through the Bahia Magdalena, which is amazing and beautiful and home to many whales and dolphins and other wildlife, and much wildlife and gorgeous scenery was seen. During the "standing on the deck looking off the rail" portion, my friend Jaques was kind enough to introduce me to both John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton, and instead of giving into my starfuckery and emotioning all over them, I just said 'pleased to meet you, sir' and let them get back to what they were doing.

Jean pointed out in conversation with me that we both think of Wil Wheaton as "a nice young man" -- which is odd, because he's five years older than I am, but my perception of him is stuck somewhere in the past, where I think of him as an enthusiastic and pleasant twentysomething. He does a great job of demonstrating how awesome it is to love something and how fun it is to share the thing you love, regardless of whatever that something is (except hating; that's not cool). This vision of him was reinforced on the first day, by the bye, when Jean was trying to fiddle with my pin on my lanyard and dropped the back, and Wil (who was on his way somewhere, headphones in, gym clothes on, busy and in transit) stopped to pick it up for us and hand it back to us. It was a little thing -- I wouldn't have thought anything of him just walking by, since it was obvious he was busy and in his own world -- but there it was: a small kindness that fits with my personal image of him. Which, to be clear, isn't him. I don't actually know Wil Wheaton; he's not a friend of mine, he's not a pal. He couldn't manage to pick me out of a lineup if the NYPD helped him ID me. But he has a public face, and I am familiar with that public face, and that makes our relationship (as Scalzi has said on occasion) asynchronous. I know things about him because he lives at least part of his life in public, and that makes me feel closer to him, and that closeness is one-sided and mostly artificial. Which isn't his fault; it's by way of the nature of "celebrity" (and I don't have the time or the energy to define that one right now, so just go with me here).

I've tried to live my life as publicly as possible especially in the last several years, mostly because the Panopticon Society is a thing, and getting that toothpaste back in the tube is a job and a half. Plus, I can live that way. I'm a white middle-aged dude in tech. It's safe for me to live publicly, in a way that it isn't, even for someone like Jean. But choosing to live life publicly is fundamentally different from having the world decide (since you're a TV star, or a movie star, or a child actor, or a successful author) that you must live your life publicly. So I appreciate that Mr. Wheaton has managed to continue to be a reasonably good person despite the alternatives.

Later, we grabbed dinner in the dining room and ended up taking dessert back to the room with us, because we were both pretty tired and full. Since we were six days into a seven-day cruise, we got a room charge summary and I damn near fainted. Granted, we had budgeted for the trip and spending, but boy, do those room charges add up when all you have to do is hand the nice young person your room card and smile. It doesn't feel like spending actual money, which is SUPER dangerous. As Angela said about buying their merch: "just put it on your room card, it's like it never happend!"

I'm really glad that this wasn't the last day of the cruise, because while I didn't have a bad day, it would have coloured my entire experience, which wouldn't have been fair. Day 6 was a recovery day for me, and recovery days can be a bit of a downer, especially when you're trying to make sure you're having fun and enjoying yourself. There's a pressure to be having a good time on vacation 24/7, especially on something like this cruise, and that's not a reasonable expectation, at least for me. So it was OK for me to take the time to feel better and I needed to let myself know that. Day 6 was good! I even enjoyed it while it was happening. But I was grading on a curve at the time, and that wasn't fair either to the cruise or to myself.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring Break Day 5: Goodbye Loreto!

Day five is where it really caught up with me. We ended up sleeping in late, which meant we missed an early shore excursion, but given the rest of my day I can honestly say that it was the right decision despite the cost incurred. There were not many things on the schedule before 3 PM (our departure time from Loreto) so it was mostly wandering around and relaxing, trying to build up some energy. It was sorely needed, since I was pretty wiped out and Jean was having a skin reaction to all the sun we got; neither of us slept well, both of us were mildly grumpy because of it, and because of that we spent most of the day 'turtling up' together and not doing much of anything. Which wasn't to say that we didn't have a good time; it's hard to be unhappy on a cruise ship even if you decide to sit at the pool and drink mocktails and read a book. Or, in our case, when Jean went to do some knitting in the Craft Lounge while I went to the casino and lost at cards.

For lunch we met up with Jaques and Dawn again, and had a really lovely time catching up, relaxing and being social with another couple. It was pretty much the ideal interaction. We talked about getting together later for boardgames, but unfortunately this was all the time we really had with them; other things just seemed to get in the way and then we ran out of cruise. But it was good to see them and talk with them and compare our experiences to theirs and how it synced up or didn't with previous cruises and outings.

We had a nice quiet dinner and then we went to see Wil Wheaton do a stage reading of a choose-your-own-adventure book complete with audience participation, which was brilliant and hilarious. Jean stayed for the whole thing with a fellow crafty person she'd met earlier in the day while I was blowing money in the casino, but I was feeling pretty lousy so I left early to go back to the room.

Day five was an interesting day to reflect on, because only while looking back on it did I realize that for me it was the turning point. I had been "on" for most of the previous days, trying to be sociable and introduce myself to people and interact and be friendly and allow others to be friendly with me, but by day five I was burned out. I started using my "NO, I do NOT want to friendship right now" button in public, and started carrying my book with me on deck, instead of reading it just in the cabin. When I get tired like that, it allows my anxiety and mental illness to really take hold of me, and I think at the time I didn't realize it but I was letting my brain get the better of me, having work thoughts and worries about stuff that I had specifically pledged to break from during the cruise.

For a dedicated introvert and a person who suffers from social anxiety, the cruise was a real test of my limits, both good and bad. And day five was when Jean and I started talking about the pros and cons of doing the cruise in 2018, and what that would entail, and what we might think about doing differently, and whether we wanted to commit to the cost and time off again. And on day five, it was looking like maybe this JoCoCruise was enough for the two of us.

Spring Break Day 4: Hello Loreto!

On Day 4, we slept in. We were gearing up for a walking tour of Loreto, a small town of about 14,000 and not a usual stop for cruise ships. Apparently it's a relatively popular destination for ex-pats from North America to find a warm summer home; about 25% of the permanent population are mostly originally from Canada and the US. The ship pulled into the harbour about 11AM, so we had plenty of time to get our coffee and pastries and a bit of fruit. Then once again to the tenders to putter to the docks, where a GIANT banner greeted the Seamonkeys off of the Westerdam specifically, which was kind of awesome.

We met Guillermo, "call me Memo", our tour guide at the dock. This time, instead of forty people on a party boat, it was fifteen people on a walking tour. Memo was exactly our speed: he talked about the history of the state of Baja California Sur (which is different from Baja California -- I imagine the fervor rivals the North/South Dakota distinction in the US), up to and including the geological history and a quick lecture on the local tectonic plate interactions and resultant seismological activities. He talked about the fact that BCS was the last state to join the Mexican Federation, in 1974, and about how their governor and assembly put a high priority on wildlife and nature preservation, and pointed out all of the federal and state parks that take up a majority of the landmass in the state.

Then, as we made our way away from the waterfront, we were incredibly entertained by Memo's rendition of the expedition and landing of the first Jesuit missionaries in the area, and their various trials and tribulations, and the official start of El Camino Real, and the various back-and-forth fighting between the Jesuits and the Francsicans over control of the area's missions. Then we toured the Loreto Mission Chapel, where Memo told us about how the Jesuits ended up with the royal charter to bring Catholicism to the Californias from Philip IV (and the subsequent manipulation of Charles II to take control away from the Jesuits). I took as many pictures as I felt comfortable doing, with the intent of sending it all to my father -- while I don't see myself as a Catholic any longer, I feel an incredibly strong connection with the Jesuits because of my education and upbringing. Aristotle wrote 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man'; the Jesuits had me from 4 until 17, so they are indelibly seared on my personhood. I have joked in the past that I'm a Jesuit in the same way some Buddhists are Zen -- I leverage the teachings and rituals and history without actually engaging in the positions around the idea of gods -- but it turns out the training goes much, much deeper than that. I don't think I'd been in a church in probably 10 years when I walked into the chapel, and yet... all of the rituals: the cross, the genuflection, the kneeling, they all came flooding back and it was as if I had lost control of my own body, running on automatic reflex. I know from other things that I am extremely drawn to ritual, and this reinforced it strongly for me. Even discounting my own rejection of the Christ as divinity, I still am pulled forever in the direction of The Church for at the very least it's trappings (and, arguably, teachings, tho' as Pope Frankie says, "All Your Faves Are Problematic"(no, he didn't actually say that, but one of his encyclicals could in fact be summed up that way)). Jean was highly amused by my behaviour around all of this, btw.

This is all to say that the walking tour of Loreto was exactly what I wanted from my shore excursions, and that I got it in Loreto but not in Cabo cemented my love of one and my disdain of the other. By that time, it was nearly time for the food festival, so we strolled around to get a couple more pictures and do a little shopping, and then Principal Sabourin announced that the Festival was open and we started spending our food tickets.

The town of Loreto had put together a deal with JoCoCruise that we Seamonkeys could take over the town square for a big outdoor music show (JoCoChella), and at the same time they would show off the local cuisine -- US$25 per person, eight tickets per, which meant a chance to try out eight different booths out of a total of probably 30. You could buy more than one set of tickets, but they pretty quickly ran out, and I'll tell you, anyone who could eat more than eight portions of the food they were handing out had a bigger appetite than I did. Everything was really excellent -- authentic mexican food, great seafood, interesting takes on local pizza and sushi, great pasta and salads -- and I ate way too much as is normal when the food is both plentiful and delicious. As an American, I am nothing if not fat and lazy well fed and well rested. Food having been consumed, and sunburn again having been acquired, and big outdoor concerts not being my or Jean's particular thing, we decided to head back to the boat for a late nap and a later dinner.

We made an early night of it, as too much food and too much sun had really taken it out of me, and I had real trouble sleeping; I was already starting to think of Home and Work and the approaching End Of The Cruise, so I took some medication and tried to push myself off that particular line of thinking. Jean calls this sort of behaviour 'Going For The Jack', that is, assuming the worst ahead of the actual experience. My brain chemistry was apparently trying to sabotage my excellent experiences, and I wasn't really interested in that, so I exercised my right to Better Living Through Chemistry, grabbed my (brand-new-for-the-trip, gift-from-Jean) kindle, and lost myself in the dark of our cabin and the light of another story.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Spring Vacation: Day 3 -- Hell Is Other Tourists

Day 3 was the day we put into port at Cabo San Lucas. Jean and I had signed up through HAL to take a "historic pirate boat and whale watching sail" which sounded just my speed: maybe a short-rigged two-masted brigand, a careful slow sail out into the Sea of Cortez while the tour guide goes over the various local pirate legends and historical facts, a little bit about the Spanish / French conflict over the territories, maybe even some talk about the "Americanization" during the gold rush. Then we watch some whales and sail home. That's even what the brochure made it sound like. Maybe not for everyone, but I liked the idea, and plus, whales.

Turns out, this is not what we got.

HAL is terrific at getting people on and off the boat, especially when that requires tenders (tiny little boats that chug into port when the port isn't deep enough to allow the cruise ship to dock). Our walkthrough of the process was quick, clear, concise, and timely, and because we are nerds, we did our thing and were out and off to Cabo in record time (Cruise Director Erin said so, even). Then things started to go sideways as I realized the loud disco music was coming from the deck of the boat we were about to get on... which probably started life as a 25-foot fishing boat, upon which they had glued or otherwise attached a single mast and some faux rigging, as well as costco-level props of skeletons and "pirate weapons". Our tour guide on this little excursion was the hispanic knockoff of Johnny Depp as Jack Harkness, and while he was perfectly cromulent as a party boat MC, he knew pretty much nothing about pirates, history, the Sea of Cortez, or whales.

That said, once expectations had been adjusted the outing was quite enjoyable. We were out on the Sea for a couple of hours, and came across an extremely active and cooperative pod of humpbacks with at least one and possibly two young calves who were flashing their tails and at one point even attempted a breach. It was actually pretty awesome, since once we got close to the whales they turned off the music.

Then we headed back to port, where we got off the boat... and stood around on the dock waiting for our water taxi to take us back to the tenders, to take us back to the cruise ship. And we stood there. In the sun. Surrounded by the overwhelming odor of diesel fumes. And we stood there. And so I managed to get extremely overheated and sunburned and woozy and ill, which prompted us to give up on Cabo and the loudness and the tourists and head back to the ship for a late lunch and a nap, possibly not in that order.

And then when we woke up from the nap, I finally passed my kidney stone, which I swear to Poseidon looked like a d8 made of needles. I've owned dice sets smaller than this stone. It had been plaguing me for the better part of two weeks when I finally passed it, and OH MY LADY GAGA did I feel better once it was finally out of me. And no more heading to the bathroom ever fifteen minutes!

 Just in time, too, because that night was fancy dress-up night, and Jean and I took advantage of that to do a fancy dress dinner at one of the (several) special dining venues on the ship. Jean looked fantastic in her dress and fez, and I looked OK in my outfit... which at least three other people (one of which was a woman) wore: black suit, red shirt, black tie, red fez. I was mildly embarrassed, because of course everyone else wore it better. Especially the woman.

The party on deck was very nice, and there were lots of amazing looking outfits and fantastic looking people, but it was pretty crowded, so Jean and I snuck off to the game library (where I had brought along several of my own games to lend out) and borrowed a pre-release copy of Illumat, which Jean proceeded to teach me and two other people how to play. It was really quite enjoyable, and while it sounded complicated to explain, Jean did a great job of laying everything out and making it clear, and the game itself turned out to be relatively streamlined in execution. We played that in the dining room until after midnight, and then headed back to our cabin, for the next day was Loreto and JoCoChella!

Spring Vacation -- Day 2: Stretching My Sea Legs

Addendum for Day 1: I completely forgot that one of the first things we did was a lifeboat drill! It was oddly fun -- clear announcements from Cruise Director Erin (there can be only one) made it easy to figure out what to do, and a quick drill down some stairs and into our group let us be one of the first "complete" lifeboats, at least on the Even side. It was quick and painless and I imagine quite useful had we had any sort of emergency, which we did not.

Day 2 of JoCoCruise 2017 was an at-sea day; no port of call, just sailing. This makes it sound boring, but for my money, Sea Days are the best part of JoCoCruise -- lots of time to do lots of things and no pressure to be anywhere or see anything. Day 2 was where I managed to let go of my FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and just relax and enjoy the experience I was undergoing; there were way too many things available to do that I could never, ever do them all.

Because of the whole-boat situation, we had actual morning announcements (just like back in High School) at 10AM -- "Good morning, Students" followed by THE ENTIRE BOAT responding "Good morning, Principal Sabourin" loud enough that you could hear it through the cabin doors. Apparently Cruise Director Erin mentioned that our lifeboat drill was so effective and efficient that they wanted to do it again, tape it, and use it as an example of How To Do It for future cruises. Nerds: lining up and dividing into arbitrary groups since 1968.

So, instead of knocking myself out trying to squeeze in things, I decided to relax. We sat by the pool in the sun, and then for lunch had hot dogs and a shake. Jean and I got hot-stone massages; mine was from a lovely young woman with fingers like steel bars (in a good way) who massaged my wrists so well that I suddenly realized how much they had been hurting once the pain was gone. To make room for the massages, we had to skip the show, but I caught it later on the ship-board broadcast channel, and it was hilariously funny: Cameron Esposito and her wife Rhea Butcher, possibly the world's first wife-and-wife comedy duo, were the MCs for a bunch of really strange and eclectic entertainment, as well as doing their own standup sets.

Then dinner again with Al, and some more adventurous menu explorations. Principal Sabourin (Paul of Paul & Storm) had mentioned that the head chef had been encouraged to be more 'aggressive' about the food choices, as the average age of the Sea Monkeys was considerably lower then the usual audience for his menus, and he really did some great work with some of the specialty lunches and dinner menu entries. it was really nice to relax and enjoy the food with Jean.

After dinner, we headed off to what turned out to be a little lecture/colloquium on tattoos and the various cultural effects (and misapprehensions). It was really quite nice. Afterwords, we were making our way to a late show, and I spotted Rishikesh Hirway, the host of Song Exploder and the co-host of West Wing Weekly, so I gave him "the sign" and he laughed and clapped me on the shoulder and said thank you. Then we went and sat and listened to John Scalzi, Immortal Jane Austen (aka Mary Robinette Kowal), Patrick Rothfuss, and Wil Wheaton in conversation on stage, and there was a long and involved discussion on what constitutes a burrito, which by stages worked through rhetoric, prescriptivism versus descriptivism, intent versus results in philosophical argumentation, and just exactly how dirty everything sounds when you talk about puppets and puppeteering. There was no resolution on the burrito question, but it did spur a conversation the next day where we attempted to create a cladistic approach to a taxonomy of what constituted a "hat" (versus "a thing you have put on your head").

Then Jean went off to learn how to play Illimat while I went back to the room and ordered a late-night dessert, because why not? This was the first of many many times when I realized that on a cruise ship, things just happen and you give the person your room number and everything is taken care of and you never actually pay for anything. Which is INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS if you're not paying attention.

Tomorrow we would be putting into port at Cabo San Lucas, and I was to have the first really bad experience of the trip, followed by the second really bad experience, but that's all for the next entry...

What I Did On My Spring Vacation, by Jerome Comeau, Age 41. Part one -- The First Day

After talking about it for several years, last year it was announced that the Jonathan Coulton Cruise (aka JoCoCruise) was in 2017 going to be out of San Diego, and furthermore was going to be able to control the whole boat (instead of sharing the cruise ship with non-JoCo people), and Jean and I agreed that this was the year we'd go on the Cruise. So we saved up a bunch of money (Cruises are expensive, y'all), made our reservations, and on Friday March 3rd we boarded a plane to San Diego for JoCoCruise 2017.

This year was the first year that JoCo had the full boat, and it was the first year of West Coast cruising, and also the first year of returning to Holland America Lines as the Cruise Provider, so it was a year of firsts including my first-ever cruise, as well as my first JoCo cruise. Lots of the JoCo Crew have done multiple JoCo Cruises, so I was a little nervous we wouldn't know anyone, but Friday night as we wandered back into the Hotel from some last minute sundry shopping, I ran into my old friend Jaques whom I knew from my time in Chicago. He and his lovely wife Dawn were also on the cruise this year, so I suddenly felt much better about not being isolated and alone -- if nothing else I could glom onto Jaques and Dawn and it would be less scary. That turned out not to be the case (if anything, I found it difficult to find any time to hang out with Jaques and Dawn, which I feel pretty lousy about), but it was a nice reassurance to my fears. Also, travelling with Jean is the bestest; she understands my (entirely irrational) anxiousness around the Day Of Travel, and does her best to keep me calm and grounded. She's pretty amazing y'all.

After a comedy of errors around our rental car at the San Diego Airport (turns out lots of people want convertibles in San Diego, and Thrifty is willing to rent the same car to three different people), we were off and on our way. The good news is that, in an emergency, it was entirely possible to walk to the airport from the Hotel (and, consequently, the dock) in about 20 minutes, so driving was simple.

Unless you're me, of course, because apparently my ability to drive in strange cities is now Completely Broken. If there was a wrong turn possible, I managed to take it (usually more than once -- I missed the turn onto Harbor Blvd (the frikking waterfront road) THREE DIFFERENT TIMES. Fortunately, we were able to finally get checked in, and then make a run to Best Buy for a new camera and a stop at In-N-Out because we always stop for In-N-Out in Southern California. Our room was on the top floor of a 13-story hotel, so the view was spectacular. Of course, it was a view of the construction cranes around the harbour and not the actual ocean, but hey, it was one night, and the balcony was really lovely.

To soothe my Day Of Travel worries on Saturday the 4th (Embarcation Day), we ordered room service for breakfast, and then took the rental car back. Yes, we only had it for one night, but I'll be damned if it wasn't entirely worth it to have a car for our one evening in San Diego. Our boarding time was officially 1PM, but many, MANY people decided to go early. I made us sit in the lobby until a quarter til, because the less time I could spend in crowded lines the better, plus I was at the time trying to pass a kidney stone (this part of the story has a happy-but-scary ending in a later entry), so I was drinking lots of water and trying to be within 15 minutes of a bathroom at all times.

If there's one thing that nerds know how to do, it's queues. Seriously, even had the HAL people NOT done a great job of delineating, determining, and drawing out the line-up process, I'm pretty sure we would have done a fair job of it anyway, but HAL was on-point with their process, at nearly Disney-level organizational status. We got in a line to drop off our bags (to be delivered to our staterooms and therefore not gum up the actual boarding process) (and I went to the bathroom), then we passed into a line to fill out our heath and safety forms (and I went to the bathroom), and then we got in a line to get our HAL room key / photo ID / moneybadge, and then we got in line for our nametags and lanyards, and then we slipped into a line where they checked our passports, and from there we were funneled through the gangway and onto the boat (where I made an immediate bee-line for our cabin and the bathroom).

The MS Westerdam was, to me, huge: 285 meter keel, 32 meter beam, 11 passenger decks and five coaldecks, 82,500 gross tonnage with a passenger capacity of 1,916 and a crew of 800. It was not quite entirely full (JoCo had a little over 1700 people signed on at departure), but it was full enough that it felt pretty cozy. Many other cruisers mentioned that the Westerdam felt small to them, as previous cruises on the East Coast had used much larger ships, but to me it was the largest water-borne vessel I had ever been on. I was moderately concerned that I would need to deal with seasickness, but I only really had problems early in the morning in our pitch-dark cabin when I couldn't reset my horizon-line, as it were; after turning on the lights or going for a short stroll I was fine, even during the roughest parts of the trip (which, granted, were totally tame when compared to some horror stories I'd heard).

Speaking of our stateroom: we had an interior cabin, which meant no window or other exposure. It did have a queen bed, and a surprisingly spacious bathroom, and was really quite lovely (except for the one ceiling light that couldn't decide if it wanted to be on or not). We did mildly miss the window later in the trip, but once the lights were out the cabin got DARK, which was great for allowing us to get plenty of restful sleep as the ship gently rocked us into our dreams. Were we to go again, we've talked about an exterior balcony/veranda or something, to allow a little morning light in so we could get up an moving more easily, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Our steward for the trip was Roni, a young Filipino man (this is a theme during the cruise, btw -- I'll come back to this), who was nothing but pleasant and gracious. He introduced himself as we were getting settled, learned our names, and never failed to greet us and ask us how we were doing. He cleaned up after us, did a fantastic job of tidying up our natural slovenliness, and his towel-animal skills were pretty awesome.

We popped into the "New Monkeys" meeting to get our bearings and hear the various traditions and in-jokes explained to us, as well as how things were going to work -- the auditorium and the dining room could only seat about half the total number of nerds at one go, so the entire boat was broken into Red Team and Gold Team, complete with a Red Leader and a Gold Leader (chosen by lottery and entirely arbitrary). As a member of Gold Team (Y-Wing the Best Wing, Bombers in da House, Remember the Alderaan), we were Of Course the superior team -- an early concert and a late dinner -- as opposed to Red Team (Flybois Always Show Off, They Use X Because Otherwise They Couldn't Find The Target) who were early dinner / late concert. It was also when I took the Temperance Pledge, disconnecting me from the real world and any internet or other digital connection for the duration of our trip; Jean took a "modified" pledge which allowed her to poke at her phone when we were close enough to land, although she didn't spring for the wifi package on the boat. After the first night the wisdom of our choice at least for us was apparent; it meant our late morning wakeup and even later lunch did not ruin our dinner plans.

Departure was weirdly anticlimactic -- the ship was so large that the only clue that we were moving was the fact that the dock started to get smaller. Also, it was COLD on deck. So we headed to our first concert. The performance was fine, but the woman sitting behind us was so drunk it made the experience miserable. It was not an auspicious start, and I was beginning to think we had made a terrible, terrible mistake. After the concert, the entire population of the ship tried to swap places along one corridor on one deck, which was a huge mistake. Jean and I ended up going back to our stateroom for 10 minutes or so for a bathroom break (this is a theme!), and then tried again for dinner.

Our waiter for dinner was Al (short for Aloysius), another young Filipino gentleman whose cheer and good humour settled me back down, and I relaxed and enjoyed a truly delicious meal. I even had the pate (which I never do), which was ASTOUNDINGLY good. However, this was possibly our first mistake of the cruise: Jean and I decided to dine alone at a 2-top table (which we ended up doing for the rest of the cruise), which meant we spent a large amount of time with just each other for company. Don't get me wrong, I love Jean's company and if I had to I would spend the rest of my life with her and only her perfectly content. But it did mean that we didn't get to know our fellow cruisers particularly well, and that was a less-good choice (not a bad choice, but not a great one).

A post-prandial constitutional (thanks, Georgianna, for that fantastic phrase) along the upper deck, followed by drinks in the ACTUAL 10-Forward (yep, it was a bar, at the bow, on Deck 10, with windows and a bar and everything), and then back to the stateroom for a good night's sleep on a surprisingly-comfy queen-sized bed.

Things I learned on the first day: not drinking alcohol on a cruise is preferable to drinking alcohol on a cruise. Not only was I present and able to enjoy myself without worry, but I was also smugly superior to all of those drunken jerks who couldn't manage to shut the fuck up during the concert. Thankfully, this was an aberration rather than a pattern, but it didn't prevent me from being annoyed by it. Also, being social takes WORK. In our swag bags for the trip (we got one almost every day, which was awesome), in addition to the FULLY FUNCTIONAL UKULELES, we also got "friendship pins". These were two buttons, one green with a gigantic and easily readable YES (subtitle "I DO want to friendship right now") and one red with a gigantic and easily readable NO (subtitle "I do NOT want to do friendship right now"). These two buttons may have been the best idea ever for a boat full of introverted nerds, and I love them so much I am thinking about wearing them every day in the Real World (aka, the longest, most boring Shore Excursion of the cruise). Also, I noticed that many cis-conforming folk went ahead and noted pronoun preferences on their name badges, which is awesome: the way to make something normal and not-strange is for us all to normalize the behaviour, so trans and nb folk don't have to feel weird about doing it because the rest of us are too.

Anyway, that was Day 1. Day 2 was a Day At Sea, and that was interesting.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Experience of Other Voices

(Alternate post title: Otter Voices, Otter Viewpoints, except http://discourseontheotter.tumblr.com/ hasn't been updated in two years, so no one will get the joke.)

So I'm headed into my fourth year of mostly sticking to my pledge to read books that are written by people who are not straight white dudes. I've made a couple of exceptions, but better than 95% of the books I've read over the last several years have been written by people of colour, women, queer, or some combination thereof. It's been an exercise I've been almost entirely happy about, too -- there is some really brilliant work out there by some amazing authors that not only tells stories that I didn't know I'd like, but tells those stories from viewpoints greatly differing from my own.

Part of the success of this experiment has been being a part of a Queer Book Club, where the mandate is to read Science Fiction & Fantasy works that are written by or appeal to voices that are not straight white dudes. We've made some exceptions to this rule -- the biggest being John Scalzi and Kim Stanley Robinson -- but by and large our collective choices about books have been both interesting and eye-opening from this white dude's point of view, anyway. There is an enormous load of amazing work in SF&F even in the so-called classic era that was penned by non-straight, non-white, non-dudes that is so much, much better than anything I read by the so-called Grand Masters, a parade of dead white males so blind to their privilege they simply failed to account for worlds that contained anyone who wasn't like them. Hell, even the aliens and elves of the black and woman authors are more interesting, investing, and entertaining than all the stuff that Tolkien or Heinlein ever dreamt up.

There's not just a lot of good work by these folk, but there's even more of it coming in the pipeline; Charlie Jane Anders and Yoon Ha Lee and Saladin Ahmed are all authors with only one (amazing, remarkable) book so far, and that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talented, brilliant authors of genre fiction who aren't cis white dudes. I have yet to regret giving up on books by white dudes. At this point, my biggest complaint is the inability of Amazon's search functionality to exclude all the dreck from my occasional trawling for new works by new authors. Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap, but while I've read some "just OK" books in these last three years, I've yet to read an actual bad book so far. It seems like when an author has to be twice as good just to get half as far, their average work is much, much better than crap.

Interestingly, it's also encouraged me to read more books that aren't genre; I never would have read Between the World and Me without the push to find authors outside my "comfort zone".

All of this is to say: K.T. Bradford's challenge was both enlightening and enriching to this genre reader, and I'm glad to have taken up her request. I've yet to be disappointed, and I don't feel like I'm missing anything, so here's to another year without white dude authors!