A Whale of a Tail… Exploding!

Apropos of nothing else I’ve ever posted, today I feel compelled to share the most explosive tale from Oregon history. It took place in 1970—before my time—but it occurred in a little beach town where my parents later lived and my father worked in city government.

OR Florence - 2011

Florence, Oregon 2011. The cute downtown area, sans whale carcasses.

Thank heavens he wasn’t employed by the City of Florence in November, 1970. At least in this case, the blame is pretty easy to place squarely with the state highway division instead of City Hall, though you might be surprised how rarely that stops complaints from coming in.

A nice rendition of the whole story can be found here. If you just want the highlights, here’s a cartoon version.

Willing to view for yourself the great Oregon coast whale explosion? Here’s unabridged news footage from KATU-TV.

What brought this story to mind was a news item this morning: a forty foot long, rotting aquatic animal corpse has washed ashore in Indonesia. Is it a giant squid? A whale? Experts are taking meat samples (ugh!) and locals are snapping selfies they can show their doctors later when they develop rotting-meat related diseases.

Here’s hoping they elect to clean up the Indonesian carcass with something other than 20 cases of dynamite. Unless, that is, they are looking forward to blobs of blubber raining from the sky.

Still looking for more on this topic? You’re a little sick, but try:

Wikipedia on this, and other, exploding whales

The Exploding Whale site including factual and artistic explorations of the topic

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is my parenting anthem

I’d like to talk about a song that I consider my parenting anthem:

Teenagers, Kick Our Butts by Dar Williams

If you enjoy indie folk music, you should definitely give it a listen. For those with different musical tastes, just read the lyrics and follow along.

Dar Williams End of the Summer

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is track 6 on Dar Williams’ album End of the Summer

Some of the song’s lessons apply to raising kids well before the teenage years. I’ve been playing it in the car since my boys were little, and I’ve always pointed out certain lyrics, making clear these were sentiments with which I agree.

…I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn, yeah, yeah…

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes…

Beginning this conversation when they were young was meant to pave the way for the impending struggles of adolescence. I wanted them to know that I was aware of the future when they would reject my authority, and that some of that was not just tolerated, but to be celebrated.

…Teenagers, kick our butts, tell us what the future will bring
Teenagers look at us, we have not solved everything

We drink and smoke to numb our pain
We read junk novels on the plane
We use authority for show so we can be a little smarter
We still can grow, and many do
It’s when we stop we can’t reach you
We feel the loss, you feel the blame
We’re scared to lose, don’t be the same, hey hey…

I talked to my little boys about the older kids they knew: young teens from school, older cousins, and family friends. I tried to point out gallant gestures made by gentle young men, and raise questions about the motivations of more rowdyish examples.

…Some felt afraid and undefended, so they got mean
And they pretended what they knew made them belong more than you….

…I’m here today because I fought for what I felt and what I thought
They put me down they, were just wrong
And now it’s they who don’t belong, oh, oh…

Lately, as I’ve discussed with my own teen the popularity and value of a contentious novel revolving around a girl’s tragic suicide, I’ve been able to point back at a well-known verse from the same old favorite:

…And when the media tries to act your age
Don’t be seduced, they’re full of rage…

I adore seeing this pointed out so succinctly.

New Media can be a legitimate forum for the formerly disenfranchised (e.g., youth), but it’s equally true that most of what achieves popularity gets bought out by the same old media cartels. Consumers of media must learn to be exceedingly critical of every source lest they inadvertently find themselves dancing to the tune of an unknown, objectionable master.

And what’s the alternative to blindly consuming pap that’s been prepared for you? Some people never learn to peek behind the curtain and discover the humbug working distracting magic tricks in the name of the Wizard. Here’s an answer by way of my favorite lyric again, this time expanded for the audience approaching maturity:

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

And someday when some teenagers come to kick your butts
Well then like I do try to
Love…

The funny thing is, I’ve always heard that final lyric differently. Williams sings it in a set of long, drawn out syllables rising up and down the octave, obscuring the simple word “love.” When I sing it, I’ve always twisted those same notes into the word:

“Learn”

I’d like my kids to discover the value in both lessons.

Books by my bedside 2017/05/10

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Economics, history & politics

Poor economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty by Banerjee, Abhijit V.

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William

Why nations fail : the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty by Acemoglu, Daron

Language

First German Reader for Cooking: bilingual for speakers of English (Graded German Readers) (Volume 9) by Brant, Adelina

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

The Egg & I by MacDonald, Betty

The Prize winner of Defiance, Ohio [sound recording] by Ryan, Terry

Fiction

Apprentice in Death (In Death Series, Book 43) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

books - 1Reading Notes:

Eye doctor visit derails the reading process

Today, I had my eyes dilated at the ophthalmologist’s office, meaning I couldn’t read a word for about four hours and that I’m still hiding from the spring sun behind heavy curtains seven hours later. Ugh.

Please forgive me for any typos. My near vision is still blurry. I wasn’t sure that I would have a chance to post today at all.

Fortunately, I had requested an audiobook from the library this week, so I enjoyed the author’s reading of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio while covering my tender eyes on the couch.

Also fortunately, the discomfort I’d been experiencing in my eyes, prompting the visit to the doctor, has been diagnosed as simple dry eyes, and not an inflammatory complication of my autoimmune disease. Now that’s a blessing!

Book vs. video of 13 Reasons Why

I was able to read about a quarter of Thirteen Reasons Why as I waited for my appointment. So far, it strikes me that the video production faithfully captured the tone of the novel. It’s entirely readable, but, at this early stage, I’d say the protagonist (the male, Clay) reads somewhat less compelling than did the actor portraying him.

Rampant racism mars The Egg & I for otherwise appreciative modern reader

As for The Egg & I, I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and it’s got me completely torn. On the one hand, it is a really marvelous, fun read written by an obviously clever author who was clearly born before her time, suffering as a farm housewife when she was constitutionally better suited for a more intellectually stimulating life. I really feel for her. I enjoyed so much of her witty, sarcastic writing.

But the blatant, roaring racism! Oh my word. I read a lot of old books, and am used to making certain allowances for the different standards of earlier eras, but whole segments of this book were grossly, unapologetically offensive. Most of my grandparents were of the same region during the same era, and never did I see or hear any of them express attitudes like MacDonald’s.

I think that stands out so sharply because, otherwise, I feel like I could be friends with this author. She’s someone I’d like to sit down and chat with over a cup of coffee… but heaven forbid she learn that my grandmother claimed her father was a Blackfoot Indian.*

And would my sloppy home meet her standards, or would I be lumped in with poor, aspirational Mrs. Weatherly and her delusions of grandeur? But, rather than classism, it could be the fact that Mr. Weatherly was a [MacDonald’s words!] “dirty Indian” that really made Mrs. Weatherly so disgusting to the author. After all, MacDonald shows obvious affection for Maw and Paw Kettle, who were at least equally slovenly.

*Grandma’s brother claimed their father was a Turk, so don’t take her word for it. I don’t think anyone in the family has factual information about this particular great-grandfather.

Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

A few years ago, we made the choice to move, together with my husband’s parents, into one large, shared house.

We sold a three bedroom, one bath home; my in-laws sold their own similarly sized three bedroom house.

They contributed to the down payment on the new place and paid to remodel their portion. This included adding interior walls and a second kitchen for their exclusive use to create a true in-law apartment. They have an exterior door that leads from the driveway to their space, three bedrooms, a living room, and two bathrooms, all their own.

We share a short hallway from the garage, basement and garage space, and the yard itself, though we agreed upon one patio area for their outdoor furniture and primary use. Our main entrance is the original front door, so none of our guests pass through the other’s private spaces.

It’s not a rentable second residence (we share utilities, for example), but we don’t have to share cooking space, bathrooms, or exterior entryways. We can open interior doors to see each other, but we can also close them for privacy.

We took on a mortgage of a similar size to what we would have spent moving alone into a larger home. Sharing a 35 sq ft (a little over 3 m2) bathroom—with a bad layout, asbestos panel walls requiring professional abatement, degraded brass plumbing, and a cast iron tub in dire need of refinishing or replacement—with three males had become a daily nuisance, and I was demanding an upgrade one way or another.

I’ve had people commend me for being “willing to allow” my husband’s parents to move in with us, but it was actually my idea. DH is very close to his parents. He took virtually no convincing, though he was concerned about how I would respond to living together. My rationale for entering into this arrangement—unconventional in 21st century Western society, but “traditional” when considering human history—was multi-faceted.

First, my husband is an only child, and care of his parents is his sole responsibility. If or when, in the future, they need more assistance, he is duty-bound to provide it, and I wouldn’t wish for him to behave any differently. My hope was to create a comfortable home in which we could all co-exist peacefully before circumstances forced the issue.

How much better is it to move joyfully forward into a great new house we’ve picked out together than to cram an ailing or recently widowed elder into a house that’s ill suited for aging in place? We were barely squeezing our family of four into our old place. Any sudden addition to the household would have been difficult, maybe impossible, if infirmity had been the motivation for the change!

I grew up with my maternal grandfather sharing our home. He joined our household when I was a preschooler, after he had been a widower for a few years. I’m sure my decision to expand our household beyond our nuclear family was made easier by the experience growing up with Grandpa just another familiar daily presence. He had health issues and spent most of his time in his room listening to classical music, but he was there, and he was just part of the family.

Besides these more emotional reasons for expanding the scope of our family home, I must admit that I also believe in the sensibility, and sustainability, of the modern co-housing movement. There are economies to be gained by living in groups, even small ones.

I loved the idea of buying a unit in a co-housing community, but had never made headway convincing DH it was a good idea. Sharing a household with my in-laws does put some of my environmental principles into action.

For example, a periodic energy usage report from the local utility says we use 25% more energy than neighboring households. That bothered me until I remembered that our one home replaced two. Also, three members of our six person combined family are home (consuming power and keeping the heat or air conditioning at comfortable levels) for most of every day. A mere 25% above average is actually an energy savings win.

It was hardest to coax my father-in-law (FIL) into the arrangement. DH’s mother (MIL) would have moved into our old (detached, unheated) garage without complaint if she thought it would serve the family. She’s also generationally and culturally inculcated to go along with her husband’s financial decisions. Aside from making clear that she didn’t want to live in a basement, MIL was on board with the co-housing idea from the moment she heard it.

FIL felt differently. He still works, and he’s fit and active. The first time we broached the subject, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be assumed as our “responsibility.” I think he appreciated the fact that we were expressing care and concern for their future, but he was not ready to “move into his son’s house.”

An alarming health scare a couple of years later, which, happily, turned out to be a false alarm, brought FIL around to our plan. I believe he acted then out of concern for his wife. What if something had happened to him? What would happen to MIL? As soon as FIL expressed a tentative interest in the idea of moving in together, I called a realtor and began readying our place for sale.

We were able to buy a much larger home in an ideal neighborhood by combining the value of two properties. Neither household was compromising or downgrading comfort, space, or property values in the move. We have enough room that no one is on top of each another. We had plenty of options at this higher end of the market to find houses that were easily adapted to multi-generational living.

Another really important point to my story is that FIL and MIL really weren’t “giving up” on independence and “moving in with” their son. We gain at least as much by having them living downstairs as they get from us!

MIL is the traditional Jewish grandmother in one obvious way: she always wants to feed her loved ones. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may recall that I’m a reluctant cook. The boys get nutritious, home cooked dinners four nights a week with their grandparents. I get to skip cooking four nights every week during the time of day that my energy is lowest. I’m very content to dine alone on leftovers while the boys enjoy vegetable soup and котлеты and lots of doting attention.

Also, I get an hour to myself to recharge my (introverted) emotional batteries after spending all day with DS1, who learns at home. My husband deserves to be greeted, after a long day at work, by my best self, and he’s more likely to get her if I’ve had a chance to take a break. I’d like to be an eternally happy housewife, but I’m simply not without regular intervals of peace and quiet.

And speaking of the home school scholar (DS1), FIL is a great help with that process. He is not just willing, but eager, to tutor his grandson in math, history, computer science, and the Russian language. MIL, who was a concert pianist, accompanies DS1 while he practices his violin. Their experience and wisdom definitely enhances DS1’s education.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the social consequences of the in-laws moving in with the “kids.” I think FIL was a little worried that their friends would judge them for making this change. After supporting himself and his family for decades, would it seem like they were financially needy, even derelict? Instead, attitudes seem to be quite the opposite. If little birds can be believed, many friends feel rather jealous.

“Your daughter-in-law asked you to move in with them?!?”

What better proof that you are valued, loved, and that your presence is appreciated?

An introvert cruises with Carnival & finds room for everyone’s idea of a good time

Carnival: fun for all, all for fun?

I knew going in that I was not a good fit for the typical Carnival Cruise Line demographic. Carnival bills itself as sailing “the fun ships.” Frankly, I’m not sure I’m an easy match for any commercial demographic slot, but easygoing party animal perhaps least of all.

I am an unabashed introvert. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like noisy environments. I don’t listen to popular music, I hardly watch TV, and I’m not “fun” in an obvious way. I don’t participate in most of the activities I see online listed as features of Carnival itineraries.

So I came to my first cruise, aboard the Carnival Glory, fully aware of all this, but willing, for several reasons, to go along for the ride.

Childhood fantasy of The Love Boat

First and foremost, I’ve wanted to experience an ocean cruise since I was a very young child watching The Love Boat with my mother. I yearned to travel even then.

Oh, how romantic cruising seemed, hearkening back to the halcyon days of ocean liners plying the seven seas. Glamorous evening wear? Officers in uniform? Exotic ports? Yes, please! Thirty years later, I finally made it to sea with my own little one in tow.2012-carnival-cruise-saint-john-nb-canada-1.jpg

Low prices and good value

Another simple reason I opted for a Carnival cruise, in spite of reading descriptions that made it sound like the least appropriate line for me, was simple economics. Carnival Cruise Lines sells a mass market product at a value price.

After taxes, I paid $83 per person per night, and that was for an ocean view stateroom, not the cheapest inside cabin. This departure left from a city near my home, making it all of $3.50 in tolls to get us to the port, plus 10 miles’ worth of gas, wear, and tear on the car. A four night voyage from my home port was a very inexpensive way to try cruising.

Testing the waters

Finally, I wanted to take a short, inexpensive voyage with my youngest son because I have big plans for grand, trans-Atlantic adventures… but my little guy has been known to get motion sick.

My husband suffers greatly from seasickness, and I feared our son would follow in his vomitorious footsteps. This was an ideal way to test the waters, so to speak. We actually stayed close enough to home that I could have gotten him home via land if he had been constantly and/or violently ill. Thankfully, that didn’t prove necessary.

2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 2

Good times were enjoyed by all

I realized something interesting on this brief journey.

For all my disinterest in the contents of the daily Fun Times newsletter, I found myself more open to appreciating the enjoyment of others than I thought I might be. The overall vibe of the ship was happy and positive, and the revelers were generally inoffensive, even to my different and rather delicate sensibilities.

It was good for me to sail in this particular environment; it expanded my tolerance for living and letting live. It wasn’t even painful.

Early morning solitude

As an example, I am an early riser. It was patently obvious that most aboard the ship stayed up late, and the itinerary reflected that. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the early morning upper decks. I found the normally roisterous Lido cafe practically empty when I went searching for my first cup of tea of the day.

The gym didn’t even open until 7 am on our first day at sea. I exercised while it was sparsely populated, taking care of my physical needs and simultaneously recharging my emotional batteries, which are depleted by casual socializing.

The flip side to this was hearing some hallway noise at night, long after I’d retired for the evening. I was wise enough to bring earplugs, however, mitigating the intrusion. I also noticed that, while noisy, the tone of the late night noise remained happy, playful, and relaxed.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

Family friendly atmosphere

These were not the boisterous drunks I feared, at least on 2-aft, even-side, this particular voyage. I never heard angry or raised voices on the trip. I never found myself uncomfortably surrounded by people who seemed out of control, which was my major concern before setting sail.

Aside from a few minutes waiting in line to re-board the Glory after our port day in Saint John, NB, Canada, I heard less crude language and profanity than I have on the MBTA (subway) in Boston. People seemed to enjoy their good times in an overtly inoffensive, family-friendly way.

I’m not a heavy drinker, and it was obvious that there was some serious social drinking going on around us. In spite of that, I didn’t need to shield my young son from much of anything—again, excepting the drunk young men re-boarding in Canada. Beer, it appears, is no good for washing out a potty mouth.

Discovering new interests

I took my little guy to All Ages Karaoke and discovered that he loves to dance. He developed his now signature break dancing inspired style by imitating an enthusiastic young man on this trip.

We sat together in a lounge next to a crowd of happy, celebratory, middle-aged ladies with a table full of empty glasses, and everyone smiled at her neighbor, enjoyed herself, and kept up the friendly vibe so we could all enjoy the space together.

I learned a lot about my youngest son on this trip. He was born the most gregarious member of our family, but, until I saw him blossom in Glory‘s atmosphere of non-stop conviviality, I didn’t fully appreciate that his need for socializing was at least as great as my need for solitude. It was a teachable moment for me.

This itinerary on the Glory was a nice cultural melting pot as well. I think my child saw more racial mixing—at dining tables, in the pools, in the bars—than he normally does in our predominantly white neighborhood and school. On this trip, he played simultaneously with children from multiple countries. That was great, and not something I’d expected.

More cruising in my future

I hope to do more cruising in the future, and I suspect I will end up preferring a different cruise line. I’m looking forward to trying a smaller ship with a quieter, more traditional vibe. But, I would no longer automatically discount Carnival as “the least attractive” option for my family.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 4

If I sail Carnival again, I’ll book a larger suite or a pair of staterooms for my family. Three of the four of us would be inclined to spend a fairly high proportion of our time in the privacy of the cabin. We simply need more “peace and quiet” than the Glory’s public spaces provide. I think we could afford to do so on this line, because the prices are relatively low.

If I ever convince my husband to try cruising, it could be aboard a Carnival ship, and I wouldn’t consider it “settling” if it was. I also believe that an inexpensive Carnival sailing can make a good test voyage for novice cruise vacationers who are considering a more expensive trip but reluctant to commit for fear of seasickness or claustrophobia.

You may find, as I did, that you are pleasantly surprised by Carnival Cruise Line.

Adapted and updated from a post I originally wrote on Cruise Critic forums

The unexamined wife is not worth living

Almost everyone has a mom—and thank heavens for that! So it’s easy to remember what your mom did, and think you know what I do as a stay at home parent. Making assumptions about how I ought to spend my time is also popular; everyone is an expert on the shalls of house and home.

  • I shall keep an immaculate home
  • I shall cook tasty yet healthy meals every day
  • I shall nurture and guide my children to grow into superior adults
  • I shall keep myself up by exercise, diet, and fashionable dress

Cleaning supplies 12.40.36 PMFortunately, the only negotiation that matters over my job description is between my husband, my kids (as non-voting constituents), and myself. As with most complex topics, I consider every presumption ripe for investigation, and every given, suspect. A modern life differs markedly from historical norms, and the contemporary house offers its occupants radical improvements and newfangled problems to negotiate.

Maybe I don’t get the clean towels folded and put away before they’re used again, but I manage the finances and do our small business accounting and taxes; I’m not a good nor cheerful cook, but I’m doing a bang-up job educating an unorthodox middle school student according to a curriculum of my own devising.

Occasionally, I’ll still encounter a form where checking a box labelled “homemaker” is my best match. It’s kind accurate, in the sense that my being available at home goes a long way toward defining the atmosphere and function of our collective family life. This is the most traditional role I assume: I am the heart of our family home; I set the standards.

Homemaker snuggles up awfully close to housekeeper, though, and anyone who’s passed through our doors is probably aware that I approach household chores with an attitude of “maintain basic hygienic standards whilst avoiding as much cleaning as possible.”

If I’m brutally honest, I’ll admit that my self esteem is tied up with the state of my house. Sometimes, the mess bothers me. On the other hand, I’m philosophically opposed to the notion that a woman carries the full burden of a presentable home, so I fight to reject this sense of shame. Besides, the latter position requires less frequent dusting.

Our social circle includes several stay-at-home dads. While their daily efforts to simultaneously manage children and keep a tidy home are similar to mine, none of them seem to internalize failures in this area the way I do. Undoubtedly, these men have their own, equally irritating, internal critics and crises, but they don’t appear to see themselves reflected in the same distorted way by their kids’ messy rooms.

I have a creative friend who excels at caring for her family, but she doesn’t always conform to a Martha Stewart meets Donna Reed standard of motherhood or housewifery, and she feels a failure. How can this be when her husband, children, and pets are healthy and happy?

I know and love fellow stay-at-home moms whose lives are replete with Pinterest-worthy projects and well-ironed linens, home-canned organic produce and hand-knit baby clothes. These efforts are valiant, creative, nurturing, and worthy, but they are not the only valid expressions of the good wife or mother.

Instead, I would suggest setting one’s own course of purposeful actions based upon deeply held values, carefully considered. Externally imposed societal expectations are sometimes valid, but sometimes mere figments.

I hope it rings crystal clear in every post that I write: I am in no way seeking to redefine roles for anyone but myself. If I am nudging you, the reader, it is only to think for yourself, seek for yourself, and then define for yourself your own goals and ideals.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.

What about the unexamined wife?

Cruise report: HAL Maasdam from Montreal to Boston with elementary school aged kids

Our party of three—one adult with two elementary school aged kids—traveled from Montreal to Boston on the Holland America Line (HAL) Maasdam during the last week of August 2012.NS Sydney port

Family travel, cross country, without cars or planes

I opted to make our usual New England to Pacific Northwest summer visit without flying on any airplanes in the summer of 2012. I accomplished this by booking the train across the USA westbound (Amtrak), then a combination of train (Via Rail) and this cruise to complete our voyage home via Canada.

As in the USA, there are vast, gorgeous swaths of undeveloped country in Canada that are simply inaccessible by road. The train travels through some of them. Others are better reached by water.

A traveler who goes by ship, not a dedicated cruiser

I am a traveler who sometimes goes by ship, not an inveterate cruiser. I love the convenience of unpacking once, then seeing many ports. I can sit by a window and stare at the open sea for hours, so I like to travel by ship. The ship’s amenities are less exciting to me than the voyage itself.

If I do book a cruise, the features I find most appealing have to do with smaller crowds, shorter lines, and better access to ports rather than luxurious finishes or extravagant meals. I’d love to find myself surrounded by fascinating companions, but I’m very capable of entertaining myself if I can find a quiet corner in which to do so.

A mom and two boys embark in Montreal

We’d had the pleasure of my husband’s company during the first leg of our Canadian voyage, so, rather than hassle with child safety seats in a taxi, my husband took a cab and drove with our luggage to the embarkation port in Montreal.

Having left home in mid-June with a return to Boston on September 1st, we traveled with more luggage than we could carry. We checked six checked bags at debarkation, but I blame much of this bulk on the cruise’s mandatory formal nights.

I walked with the children from our Vieux Montréal hotel—the spacious, lovely, and very conveniently located Marriott SpringHill Suites—to the port.

Montreal cruise terminal

The port of Montreal was slightly different than our home port of Boston with a security checkpoint at the exterior gate as well as the screening I expected inside the terminal building. That meant I had to show our passports as we walked up, and I was worried that my husband’s cab would be turned away since he had no ticket or other proof of his need to come onto the pier.

It was actually no problem at all! He passed through in the cab and was waiting for us when we made our way up to the second-story passenger entrance. Cars dropping passengers off drive up to the departure level on a ramp, just like many airports.

Arrival by automobile is no doubt much more common than walk on passengers, perhaps explaining the greater scrutiny the boys and I received at the gate from the street. We said goodbye to DH at the curb, and he resumed his taxi for the airport and his own, much quicker, trip home.

Port staff in Montreal were pleasant and efficient, and I had no trouble with any part of the embarkation process though I speak no French. I found the overall embarkation process easier in Montreal than I had on a previous cruise from Boston.

Vieux Montréal

The location of this port is so wonderful for a tourist. It was easy for us to visit a museum festival on the morning of our departure as it was literally across the street from (and in sight of!) the docked Maasdam. If one stays in the old part of town (Vieux Montréal), there is no need for any transport except healthy feet to get from hotel to ship, luggage-depending, of course. To me, this was ideal.

Checking in baggage was done right at the curb, so no need for a porter to move our many heavy bags after we said goodbye to my husband. We arrived exactly at our suggested boarding time of 1 pm, and there was a wait of perhaps one or two other passengers before we were checking in with an agent.  We proceeded up the gangway and onto the ship, and were aboard within minutes.

Welcome aboard

I was taken a bit aback upon boarding that we were given no indication of which way we should go. As a lady coming aboard with two distracting little people and several bulky carry on bags, I expected to be offered directions if not help with the luggage, especially as there seemed to be no queue placing demands on the staff. Since this was the only service issue we encountered during the rest of our week, I mention it only so the reader might be expecting it; I had no significant problems with HAL’s overall level of service on the Maasdam.

We found a deck plan by the elevators and were easily able to make our way to our stateroom after that. I’d booked a reasonably priced inside cabin—Main deck 576—and we were quite satisfied with the size and layout. With three of us sharing a room, our sofa was made up as a bed, and we did not have a coffee table in the middle of the room. I was happy with that since it would’ve been in the way, not helpful.

We went for lunch right away so we wouldn’t miss it, and then visited the Club HAL facility up above the Lido restaurant. While my kindergartener had been too intimidated to spend any time in Carnival’s children’s facility two months earlier, he and his brother were very excited to check out Club HAL. They both ended up begging to spend every possible minute there.

Club HAL

Since HAL is not primarily a “family oriented” line, I’ll speak to Club HAL at some length. I didn’t ask how many children were on our voyage, but it was obvious to an observer that the number wasn’t large. We arrived in Boston four days before our first day of school, and many districts would have already begun, so the timing of this voyage didn’t invite school-age families. For my kids, that turned out to be great.

There were just enough kids that there always seemed to be at least one other person to play with at the Club, but the room was never full. I think the most I saw attending at once was 12 kids. I felt very confident that the counselors could keep all well in hand.

There were three youth staff crew members—Jacob, Alyssa, and… the nice girl whose name my kids never learned! All of them were friendly to me upon drop-off/pick-up, and my kids liked them all quite well.

Maasdam’s Club HAL has XBOX 360 with Kinect for video games. (My sons felt this very important to include in the review.) I was happy that the games available for the pre-teen group—ages 3-12 combined for our cruise—were rated E10 or younger. When I inquired, I was reassured by the staff that kids are not allowed to play video games at all times, but that they have structured activities interspersed with free time when the kids may choose video entertainment.

Club HAL hours were 8am-4pm for port days and 9 – 11:30 am/1 – 4 pm during our one sea day. Evening hours were always 7 – 10pm. I brought my kids into the ports with me and found it hard to imagine leaving them aboard the ship while I walked around town, but that was an option.

The staff orders up lunch if you do leave your kids all day, but, for logistical purposes, they have to be signed in by 11am to have lunch at noon. The staff did a good job remembering my kids’ special—but not extraordinary or life-threatening—dietary needs, though their paperwork seemed less thorough than what I’d filled out on Carnival previously. I wondered if this was because the scale of the program was so much smaller, giving staff more bandwidth to query individual children about their needs.

My kids felt really special when they were each given a Club HAL backpack and souvenirs at the farewell party on their final night. Really, everything about this low-key program was perfect for my kids. If you are introverted or quieter people, a less family-oriented cruise can be a really good fit. Sometimes, it seems like the travel industry definition of “family” is “boisterous.”

Acceptance of kids by other, child-free passengers

I was worried about getting nasty looks or other flak from older or child-free passengers on a HAL cruise. I’ve read comments online from people who don’t think kids belong on “their” ships at all. In spite of that, every word of feedback I heard about my children aboard the Maasdam was positive.

I’m sure it helps that I am a strict parent with high expectations. My kids were never unsupervised. I travel with my children to share experiences with them—I’m rarely looking to send them off to babysitting so I can do my own thing.

What I did hear from about a dozen different guests were compliments on my well-behaved children. That was personally gratifying, but, more importantly, shows that not every “typical HAL cruiser” will be negatively inclined toward a family with reasonably mannerly children.

We did strictly follow the dress code every day, including neckties on formal night, and I’d say we were more dressed up than the average passenger.

Entertainment options: Explorations Cafe by day

As I share my thoughts on HAL’s entertainment options, keep in mind that I am not a party person. Maasdam was more my speed than my previous experience on the exuberantly upbeat Carnival Glory, though I liked the happy atmosphere on the Glory more than I ever expected I would.

I enjoyed a short talk on the geology of the region we traversed, but not quite enough to attend the subsequent port lectures which seemed to feature an emphasis on shopping. I would prefer much more in depth lectures about the history, culture, and geography of every port of call, especially if they went beyond the obvious tourist highlights I’ve probably already read about while planning the trip.HAL puzzle

The Explorations Cafe was by far my favorite spot, and I spent most of our time at sea there doing jigsaw puzzles. My younger son observed that the Maasdam actually had books in its library, unlike the really poorly named “library” on the Carnival Glory with approximately four linear feet of books on a wall of otherwise empty shelves.

I loved having the espresso bar right next to the library and paid the extra fee for one specialty coffee each day. I found the caffè mocha here overly sweet, but my favorite barista (the only male barista I saw on the ship) could make a decent latte.

Entertainment options: disappointing by night

In spite of my low-key nature, evenings were probably the low point of the voyage for me. I am in my 30’s, and my kids wanted to spend their evenings at Club HAL without me. After dinner, I would take the kids to the Club, go back to my room and put on comfortable shoes, then take a walk around the open deck if it wasn’t too windy outside.

HAL eveningSome evenings, I worked on the jigsaw puzzles again, but the light wasn’t as good and it wasn’t as fun in evening clothes with darkness obscuring the magnificence of the sea.

I attended one show, but I prefer serious theater to song-and-dance stuff, so it wasn’t to my liking.

By the end of the week, I was accustomed to carrying my notebook around with my evening bag. I would sit somewhere dim enough that I could see the moonlit waves outside, nurse one drink, and write in my journal until it was time to pick up the kids.

This quiet activity isn’t very different from my typical, and preferred, vacation style, but there was something about being aboard a ship that gave it a melancholy tinge. Alone, watching the moon over the ocean, I missed my husband terribly.

I went to the “Disco Inferno” evening in the Crow’s Nest hoping to relive my youth and dance a little. I never get to dance at home unless you count rocking out with a kindergartener. But the dance floor was literally empty for the hour of my attendance. Too bad!

This assessment is probably most relevant to solo parent travelers, most of whom already know that cruises are designed to cater to couples. I didn’t take advantage of any “singles” oriented options from the cruise line because I wasn’t really traveling alone (I had two little dinner companions), and I definitely wasn’t looking for a Love Boat style singles experience!

Stateroom design

The stateroom was exactly what I expected and fully met my expectations. I will echo every modern cruiser and reiterate the wish for more electrical outlets in convenient places. A clock with iPhone dock would also make my life better; hotels are catching on, so why not ships?

The Maasdam inside stateroom layout was almost identical to my Carnival Glory outside stateroom experience, minus one helpful shallow cupboard and the porthole, of course. It was fine. Even with six suitcases plus three carry on bags, we had no trouble putting away all of our clothing for the trip and tucking every suitcase away out of sight. Our very large bag fit under the bed, which I’d worried about.

For a couple of adults to share a room, more desk or table space would be nice, but, really, the room was exactly as described and held us comfortably. The exception, perhaps, was when we were all dressing for dinner in the narrow standing space between desk and beds.

Sharing with another adult or a teenager who fusses about primping would be radically different, and probably miserable. I’ve heard that some cruisers resort to dressing in the gym locker room when quarters get too tight, and it sounds like a brilliant idea.

Everything in the bathroom was fine, though I’d vote for shelves on both sides of the mirror (not just one.) Putting the Kleenex dispenser on the side of the sink near the door instead of way back by the toilet would make it easier to grab one without going all the way into the bathroom.

Dining

Dining experiences were all pretty good. I prefer the dining room and table service, but my boys love a buffet. In the end, we ate most of our breakfasts in our room via room service for convenience. How I love those cards on the doorknobs that make breakfast appear at just the right time! This is what I miss most when I return home from a cruise.

Breakfast always arrived promptly—even a few minutes early—which is a tiny bit of an oops when I’m still in a towel fresh from the shower. Lunch was usually spent at the Lido buffet, and almost always consisted of sandwiches made by the very kind Apri.

We were assigned “any time dining” because that’s all that was available when we booked our cruise. After we ate at 5:30 pm the first two evenings, the dining room reservations fellow asked if we’d like to take the same reservation and table for the rest of the trip, to which we happily agreed.

We really liked Herdi, our server, who talked to the boys about his own childhood in Indonesia and listened patiently to long explanations of their pocketed toys and daily activities. We loved our table near the aft windows, and the inexplicable sticker on the mirror glass of the server’s station next to us. It said, “You are beautiful.”

I kept wondering if that sticker was meant to be there to perk up single cruisers or overworked staff, or if someone had “defaced” the mirror for reasons of his own. It was one of those tiny delights life sometimes surprises us with, and it made me smile every night.

The food was all cooked properly and to a good standard, though the desserts tended to look better than they tasted. My lactose-intolerant boys were so happy that non-dairy sorbet was typically on the dessert menu. My little son did miss the “disco dancing dinner” as he called Carnival’s nightly dancing waiter show, but he seemed, overall, to like this experience even better than the one aboard the Glory.

Summing up the family experience on HAL

All in all, the quieter ambiance puts HAL above Carnival in my personal cruise rankings—after all of two trips—but I think I am still looking for my ideal cruise line.

The most useful piece of advice I think I have to offer families is to take the label of a “family friendly” cruise line with a grain of salt.

According to conventional wisdom, I should have taken my kids on a Disney or Royal Caribbean cruise because they “cater” to kids, but I doubt that my little family would have had a better time on one of those lines. A smaller ship with a calmer, less crowded atmosphere was a better fit for us, even if we gave up on features like video arcades and water slides that do carry some appeal for my kids.

I’ve heard that the “right” cruise specialist travel agent can really help with sorting out the myriad options of cruise lines, itineraries, ships, and cabins, but I have yet to make contact with an agent of such quality.

I did extensive research on Cruise Critic and other websites to help me find a good fit for my family, and that’s the main reason I wrote this Cruise Report. Perhaps another mom, hoping to plan a great family vacation, will find some of this information helpful in determining if the Maasdam would suit her family’s needs.

St. Lawrence Seaway ports of call, reviewed

Every port on this itinerary met my primary desideration: I love to step off a ship and be immediately somewhere worth walking around, making shore excursions or public transit an option, not a necessity. The cruise ports of Maritime Canada are very welcoming to self directed visitors who like to walk.

Because I had my kids with me and didn’t want to install child safety seats in taxis, we opted for several of the ship’s shore excursions. All of these were fine, though only in Sydney would I pay to do a ship’s excursion again. Having experienced these ports, next time, I’ll just get around on my own.

Quebec City

In Quebec City, the European vibe of the city was a feature in and of itself. Even my pair of disinterested history students noticed how different it was from the modern American cities with which they were familiar. We admired Quebec primarily by walking through it and enjoying the beautiful day outdoors.

Within blocks of the ship, we discovered a little playground with a pirate ship theme and passed almost an hour letting off steam with the place to ourselves. When we were done there, we rode the Old Quebec Funicular from the lower to the upper town. It’s well worth the fare to avoid walking up that hill!

Quebec City has the only extant fortified city walls in the USA or Canada, and the similarity to a medieval castle made them appealing for an active visit by a pair of boys. We saw the Citadelle military installation and lots of intriguing public art as we meandered back down the hill to our ship.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island was an enjoyable stop for me, but less exciting for the kids. I was happy to see the Anne of Green Gables house in person; the book was unfamiliar to my young boys. I think the bright red soil at the beach struck them the most notable feature of PEI. On a beautiful, sunny day, it wasn’t a bad holiday spot for our family. We enjoyed the natural setting and lots of tromping around outdoors.

Unfortunately, this is also where we discovered that bus tours make my younger son carsick. Moving to the front seat helped, but every time we climbed back into the bus, he and I were both stressed about whether or not he was going to vomit. Thank God, he didn’t, but he looked green and felt bad.

I would suggest a rental car to view the sites of Prince Edward Island if there are sensitive tummies in your party. The rural nature of the small island made the driving look pretty manageable, and I would normally rather ride than drive.

Sydney, Nova Scotia

In Sydney, though it required another bus ride, the Fortress of Louisbourg was by far my favorite experience on this trip. I think it is, in fact, my favorite living history museum in the world, and I’m a huge fan of these historical re-creations.

The Fortress of Louisbourg 8:15am excursion had massive value added because we were allowed entry into the park before it opened for the day. I relished getting photos of everything without any modern tourists spoiling the historical effect.

This was my first major, in person exposure to the French influence on the settlement of the New World, and I was fascinated by how different it was compared with, say, the British colonial reenactment at Plimoth Plantation. It wasn’t just the obviously different needs of a religious colony vs. a military fortress, but the cultural impulses that dictated what was built, and how.

I intend to bring my husband and come back to Nova Scotia for an extended vacation in the future, I liked it so much. I could easily spend a week just exploring this one attraction. Having an historical gem right in the middle of a gorgeous natural setting was icing on the cake.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax was probably the most industrial and least obviously tourist friendly port, but it was still an easy walk to the part of the city most people would want to see. There was a nice oceanfront boardwalk that seemed to lead directly downtown from the cruise port welcome center.

I had booked another bus tour for this stop, but the HAL Shore Excursions desk wisely allowed us to swap the winding road to Peggy’s Cove for a shorter ride around town in an open air,  horse drawn carriage when I explained the carsickness discovery from the two days before.

We could have skipped the tour and seen the same sights on our own, which is my recommendation for younger families. We’d read about the 1917 Halifax Explosion in a fun series of novels by Cathy Beveridge about time traveling Canadian kids, and it was easy to picture how that event devastated the compact, ocean-front city that hugs its harbor with a natural amphitheater.

Bar Harbor, Maine USA

Here’s a dirty little secret: we skipped going ashore in Bar Harbor.

Living in New England, we’ve been to Maine many times, and we can return whenever we want with a short drive north. When I saw that Bar Harbor was a tender port, where, to get ashore, passengers climb into a small boat to be ferried into port in batches, I gave in to the kids’ begging to spend their last cruise day on the ship at Club HAL.

I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of watching my little guy barf his way into Bar Harbor. That would necessitate either an immediate return trip, probably with more barfing, or spending the day in vomit-stained clothes. That was a good enough reason to relax and enjoy the quiet atmosphere of a ship who’s disgorged the bulk of her passengers in port.

After all, though I love to travel and see new places, a family vacation is about more than ticking off locations from a list. There isn’t really any justification required for taking a day to enjoy life wherever you are, and aboard the Maasdam was a fine location for lollygagging.

 

This is an updated and expanded upon version of a Trip Report that I posted on Cruise Critic in 2012.

Are land line phones as archaic as the nuclear family?

My husband and I have a long-running joke that goes back, I think, to our first experience traveling together. Our shorthand for this very long discussion is:

“It’s all about the sharing, and the commitment.”

It began with a difference of opinion (ongoing!) about combining both of our belongings, intermixed, into two shared suitcases vs. packing individual bags. I prefer the former; he prefers the latter.

DH believes this is an entirely biological imperative: I am the female who needs full relationship participation from my mate and maximal expression thereof so I can ensure the successful maturation of our offspring. I’m putting my eggs (wardrobe) in his nest (suitcase), so to speak.

My argument on the subject is that suitcases are regularly lost, and the distribution of at least one full outfit per person in the other bag means less chance of radical inconvenience if a bag goes missing. It is also nice for my loving feelings that we are sharing, which corroborates the commitment.

I’m right about this, of course*, and I follow the same strategy when traveling with my children, so it isn’t all about co-opting DH’s suitcase real estate, but that’s not my main point today.

Moving beyond the travel example, this sort of discussion arises over other daily actions like asking for a bite of his meal (the sharing), or asking him to weigh in on a household decision he might not really care about (the commitment.)

Sharing and commitment are the very nexus of healthy relationships. It’s hard to imagine a family thriving without them.

So what does any of this have to do with the great 19th century innovation of the land line telephone?

For the first time since phones became ubiquitous in the USA, cellular only households now outnumber those with a traditional land line. This is hardly surprising, and there are a number of downsides to this trend that have been covered by major news outlets. The most obvious relate to dispatching emergency services, power outages, and rural or elderly populations who depend heavily on wired phone lines.

Nowhere have I seen mentioned what I’ve found the most personally disruptive feature of a cell phone only culture: it is no longer possible to call a family as a unit. I have to choose an individual to contact, even when my business is with the whole group.

Sometimes, that’s inconvenient: “Hello, neighbors, your garage door is open and the sun’s going down,” or, “I’m driving by and want to drop something off to whomever is at home.”

No, it’s not the end of the world to spray a series of texts or voicemail messages, but it fundamentally ignores the shared nature of a household and its tangible collective purpose.

Sometimes, that’s kind of sad.

Is a family home anything like a collaboration of tenants in common? Should it be?

For individuals who choose co-housing for financial or other reasons, the personal cell phone is a great innovation. Anyone who’s lived in a dorm or otherwise shared a public hall phone knows the benefits of a private device. But is there any advantage gained by a family in the same scenario?

It’s positively quaint to watch an old TV show set at home and see teens racing to answer the communal family phone, or demanding that a sibling conclude a conversation quickly lest an important incoming call be missed. I showed my kids Family Ties last summer, and I marveled at the repetition of that once common scene—now inconceivable—every time.

I don’t mean to romanticize the inconveniences of sharing, but I do question what role the act of frequent sharing has on members of a family. Might these regular points of casual contact mean a more regular chance to check in? I’d guess that it would act in much the same way that sharing any habitual activity leads to better communication between teens and parents simply by providing a low stress opportunity for it to happen.

And then there’s the effect of sharing itself. Parents spend an awful lot of time and energy teaching this vital skill to their young children. Why? Because we want them to grow up into caring adults who treat others well. Participating in a shared family mode of communication means taking part in the functioning of the family itself.

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate spending twice to have both a cell phone and land line in a scenario where every penny counts. If you have to choose between buying vegetables and having two phones, I vote for the healthy green stuff. If only one phone is in the budget, a mobile phone provides the most flexibility and would be my choice, too.

But for families more like mine—having the privilege to elect music lessons and summer camp, organic food and restaurant meals—the move away from a family phone seems short-sighted. We are constantly bemoaning how hard it is to communicate with our kids while literally cutting the copper lines we used to share.

Shifting more and more experiences from public to private space—personal iPad viewing vs. negotiating the channel of the family room TV, meals on the run vs. around the family table, and, yes, a social life conducted primarily through a tiny handheld computer instead of in the yard or the living room, or even at the mall or the movie theater—every one of these is a vote, intentional or not, for the primacy of the individual experience over a commitment to the family.

These are choices, conscious or not. They are every individual family’s to make, and I don’t presume to know what’s best for yours.

I do, however, hope that I’ve made my point that these are choices best made based upon one’s values, and not by default. It is easy to convince oneself that a situation is made by circumstances and not by choice. Sometimes, its harder to live with the consequences.

 

*This is a joke. I respect my husband’s opinions as he respects mine. We both think we’re right, obviously. But, probably, I am, which is a joke that’s become recursive…

13 reasons aren’t necessary to get to why

Make no mistake: the Netflix video production of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is reckless. I hate to see adults enriching themselves by exploiting adolescent pain, and Hollywood’s record in this regard is abysmal.

Can anyone make a video people want to watch that accurately depicts the degeneracy of suicide? Drawing a sympathetic character fundamentally romanticizes the abhorrent actions to come.

Parents are up in arms, and schools are sending frantic emails to prove they’re on top of the crisis.

Suicide, as currently being glorified in 13 Reasons Why, is known to be contagious, especially amongst young people aged 15-24. Parents fear for their children. Schools fear taking the blame.

“It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.”

–Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements (§47)

Kids are shaking their heads at the sudden storm of attention; nothing in their world has actually changed. They made this book a bestseller in 2011.

I’m shaking my head, too. Nothing in the world of being a teenager has changed since I gratefully outgrew that burden over twenty years ago.

Adults don’t listen to children. Schools are bureaucratic temples to the arbitrary that demand conformity while telling blatant lies about the value placed on individuals confined therein.

Nothing has changed.

Except, in a more crowded world, contagion spreads faster. It took the growth of cities to create immense pools of victims for epidemics of plague and flu. Similarly, the growth of social media fuels the twin scourges of mass hysteria and shared delusions.

Our children are vulnerable to the foolish, romantic notion that they can solve their problems with suicide because they are adolescents. It is the nature of the undeveloped prefrontal cortex of a teenager to fail to observe his own errors in judgement, and to experience heightened pleasure from the reward center of the brain when taking risks. Teens literally can’t yet grasp the enormity of the long term consequences of their actions.

But what about this show, this crisis, the teens at risk today?

Here’s a radical thought: why don’t we listen to them? Why not participate in a conversation about this show and its appeal to the kids who’ve made it so popular? Don’t let them watch it alone, even if that means viewing it by yourself to share the experience afterwards in conversation.

Do not let it drop until you’ve seen the conversation through.

I watched the entire series. I find the depiction of reckless teens making foolish, selfish, sometimes deadly choices just as aggravating as I think I would have when I was their age; now, as mother, I also find it terrifying.

I’m not watching this show because it’s great, or because I’m fascinated. (I’d judge it an interesting story with good production values.) I’m watching because I have a teenaged son.

Having viewed the show, I’m also reading the novel, because my son has, and because he thinks the book is important.

Most of the teen-oriented viewing that I do (e.g., The Fosters) seems to carry a similar message, though always padded with plenty of foolish, risk-taking behavior that makes for dramatic, cliff-hanger moments:

Here I am, with my complex feelings and powerful emotions, and the adults around me don’t see what I’m going through and misunderstand when I try to explain. I wish someone would help me, but I have no faith that they can.

Some of this goes back to the as-yet-undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Kids can’t always hear you through their own internal noise. At least, they don’t hear you the first time. That’s when you have to try again, and keep trying with different words, or mime, or finger puppets… whatever it takes until you get through.

To fail at this is not a good option.

That seems to be the message Hannah Baker tried to send by filling thirteen audio cassettes with desperation in Jay Asher’s story.

So I’m sitting down to watch 13 Reasons Why, and I’m inviting my son to join me, if he wants to. I’m talking about the show. I’m talking about my reactions to the show. I’m asking his opinions of the story, the show, the novel, the dynamics between the characters, and how it all relates to real life.

I’m talking to my kid about this.

This isn’t a subject I’m going to let go, and, after some initial reluctance to delve into the darkest corners of the conversation, I am hearing back from my son.

I’m listening to what he has to say.