Sunday, March 25, 2012

JoCo Cruise Crazy 2012, Day 3 (part 2 of 2)

I've been told that some of the younger, hipper cruise lines don't care what you wear to dinner. But Holland America is the spinster Great-Aunt of cruise lines. I think that the majority of people who cruise on Holland America are also the sort of people who don an ascot and Panama when boarding the 4:30 autogyro to Prussia. Luckily for the nerd contingent, the Maitre D gave his approval to steampunk fezzes and electric blue corsets, making formal night fabulously entertaining.

Half of the 8pm seating every night was reserved for the JoCo Sea Monkeys. Most nights, we chose to sit on the lower level of the dining room, in a raised central area dubbed the Monkey Pen. Thanks to the Twitt-arr setup, and the analog Twitter (paper and thumbtacks) in the Game Room, groups were able to arrange dinnertime get-togethers, and those were my favorite dinners. One night, we sat with the DC-area folks, and one night saw a very polite Canadian takeover of the Monkey Pen.

Every night was fun, but Day 3 is where I left off last time, and I should probably finish that up for you so you don't die of suspense.

The sea was angry that night, my friends. Wine was sloshing around in our glasses during dinner, and a some people at the table excused themselves before dessert because they were starting to feel seasick. It was a very windy night, and we were moving quickly in order to reach Aruba on schedule. I was feeling fine, even making fun of the sick sissies, until I got upstairs on the deck. There was an outdoor show - Molly Gras - featuring Molly Lewis, another artist I didn't know before the cruise, and I was very excited. I liked her first song, and I really liked her second song, but by the third song, the swaying of the deck was too much for me and I had to get back to my room, my bed, and my seasickness pills. Sadly, I missed most of Molly's show, in order to avoid throwing up on anyone's formalwear. I hope to see her sometime if she tours, because what I've heard from her on YouTube is wonderful.

My man came back to check on me and tell me he was heading off to enjoy - and maybe participate in - the JoCo Karaoke night. Nothing gets a sleepy me dressed faster than a chance to see my husband sing. Either it would be great, or embarrassing, and I wouldn't miss either for the world.

For hours, tipsy people took the stage to sing Jonathan Coulton's songs in the grand tradition of karaoke. It devolved into a drunken sing-along almost immediately, and nobody was teased for being off-key. Actually, a surprising number of participants were really good. Because there were so many people wanting to participate, my husband didn't get a chance to sing, but he had his moment in the spotlight, and it's a moment that everyone in that room was talking about for the rest of the cruise. During the song "Re: Your Brains", which is, naturally, about zombies, a group of guys zombied their way towards the stage to attack the singer, who defended himself with his mic stand until he was overwhelmed at the end of the song. And my husband, my awesome husband, was a great zombie.

It doesn't get better than a nerd cruise, folks.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Four-leaf luck

I was out in the front yard playing with a friend and her little girl, when Dave's foot moved beside me and drew my eyes down to the grass. I reached down and plucked a four-leaf clover from the lawn and handed it to my friend. She was amazed at how I just reached down and found it like that, but that's not weird to me, because I've found so many of them. I have an eye for things that are different from their surroundings, things that stand out. I'm usually good at spotting a typo or finding a lost earring back, and I think that's what makes the clovers stand out to me. One summer, I found at least two dozen while hanging out in the grass at day camp, and pressed them all in a big book (the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe) for safekeeping.

When I first brought my Dad to our new neighborhood, after we'd closed on the house but before we moved in, I found a four-leaf-clover by our new mailbox and decided maybe it was a sign that the house would bring us happiness. Despite the effort we've had to put into it, it has; but, you know, finding and keeping dozens of four-leaf clovers over the years hasn't really added up to a particularly lucky life. Like anyone else, I've had good and bad times, some brought on by my own efforts or failings, and some despite them. Maybe, in the end, the key to luck is passing it on and sharing it, so I handed the clover to my friend, hoping that the symbol would bring her some joy. She gave it to her little girl, who twirled around with it for a minute before letting it drop back to the grass as the ran for the daffodils. I think she got it right.

JoCo Cruise Crazy 2012, Day 3 (part 1 of 2)

Room service breakfast, even if it isn't very good, is a wonderful idea when you're exhausted and sunburned from a day splashing around in the Bahamas. Every night, next to the towel creature on the bed, the room fairies stewards left us a breakfast menu card with dozens of options and instructions saying that if we left it, filled out, on our doorknob, by 2am, then breakfast would magically appear the next morning at the hour of our choosing. We used this magical menu card often. We stuck with scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and varied breakfast meats, but learned after the first day that they pretty much always gave you ham and bacon, no matter what meat you checked off on the card. No complaints here! Breakfast was also available upstairs at the Lido restaurant, and we tried it one morning, but the full-service area with waffles and sausages stopped serving at 9:30am, and we're not morning people. We didn't learn until the second-to-last day that the fancy restaurant offered incredible fancy breakfast (also ending service remarkably early).

On this, the third day of JoCo Cruise Crazy II, we had an early morning Q&A session with the performers. A great touch by the organizers: free coffee and tea available at all the morning events! People lined up to ask questions of the Famous People, who happily answered and joked and bantered amongst themselves for two hours. They chatted about their worst jobs ever, and told some stories about how they decided to leave "real jobs" behind and follow their dreams. Many people asked them how to follow in their footsteps and become huge internet successes, and the answer was, almost unanimously: "work hard at what you love, put good content out there, and then be lucky and hope you find an audience". Also, Don't Be A Dick*.

That night's show featured two performers I'd never heard of - Marian Call and Paul F. Tompkins. I'm sorry to say that I hadn't taken the time to research either of them prior to the cruise - I'm not a very thorough nerd, I guess. Did I enjoy the concert? Well, I came home with Marian's double album, and would have come back with even more of her stuff if the gift shop hadn't been sold out of it. But Marian is so, so incredibly wonderful, that she handed out free download cards to the Sea Monkeys so we could all go to her site and get some of her music, even if we were too poor to buy albums on the high seas. Her concert absolutely blew me away. I was chatting with Dave about how I hoped the show would be good, and then the lights went down and she started her first song, Love and Harmony, and I was hooked. Some of her songs are silly, and some of them will reach inside you and push buttons you didn't know were there. I cried at Anchorage, and I didn't even cry when Bambi's mother died. While I enjoy Marian's albums very much, I think she's the sort of performer whose voice really comes alive in a live show. She tours a lot and does very small shows - look her up, ask her to come to your town. You won't regret it.

Paul F. Tompkins is a comedian - more of a funny storyteller than a stand-up comic - and I giggled a lot at his show. Unfortunately, none of it is currently up on YouTube so I can't share it with you, and it's not worth me trying to tell you about it, because I wouldn't be a tenth as funny as he was.

Believe it or not, this is just half of the awesomeness that took place on Day 3 of this cruise! So much more happened, but this post is already too long for its own good, so I'll break it up and post the second half in a little while.

*Wheaton's Law.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

JoCo Cruise Crazy 2012, Day 2

Any links to artists' performances in my posts go to YouTube videos taken during the cruise, so you get to see them as I saw them. From those videos, you can click through to more footage and experience nearly the whole cruise through amateur video! Warning: some of the videos may have some swearing in them. I personally think that adds to the fun. :)

The Bahamas are definitely worth the effort of dragging yourself out of bed at 6:30am. The ship anchored off Half Moon Cay while we enjoyed our room-service breakfast, and we were on one of the first tender boats out to the tiny private island owned by the cruise line. I freely admit that I was leaning over the side of the tender for the last half of the trip, pointing and exclaiming at the blueness of the water like a five-year-old. My husband tolerated this very well.

We'd planned a snorkeling adventure, but the weather turned windy and the decision was made to cancel the excursion for safety reasons. A choppy sea and shallow coral reefs make for painful snorkeling. Instead, we lounged on comfy chairs and read our books, and ventured out into the water to cool off and poke at the translucent pointy fishes that came all the way up to swim around our knees. Lesson learned: fish are frightened by poking.

I loved the Bahamas. I'm not typically a beachy person, preferring to vacation in big cities with history and museums and fabulous food. But this place was too beautiful not to have an effect on me. The sand was so soft, the views were so beautiful, and I could have stayed there for days enjoying the sound of the ocean and the wind in the palm trees. The only big downside was that the sun was so hot. Hotter than we realized. Despite multiple applications of SPF-50 waterproof sunscreen, and retreats under our rented sun-shade, we both burned a lot.

Side note
Dear Holland America Line: Please consider that a vibrantly minty shower gel may not be the wisest choice on a cruise ship where people are returning from the beaches with bright red and tender epidermises.

The concert set for the evening was Paul and Storm and Chris Collingwood, from the band Fountains of Wayne. I'd only vaguely heard of the band before, and I thought Mr. Collingwood performed admirably. Probably the only reason I wasn't more blown away by his performance was that he was stuck following Paul and Storm, who had already blown me the hell away with their concentrated awesomeness.

I don't even know how to describe Paul and Storm. My husband has been a fan of theirs for a very long time, and he's played me a few of their songs in the past, which I know I enjoyed, but I never took the final fateful step to complete fanhood. That has changed. I'm a Paul and Storm groupie now, following their blog, their music, and their podcasts. Not only are they talented and creative singers and songwriters, they're flipping hysterical onstage, bantering and responding to audience shout-outs. As much as this cruise was nominally Jonathan Coulton's event, I can't imagine it having been anywhere near this much fun without Paul and Storm as involved as they were, both behind the scenes and on the stage. During the shows, other Famous People tended to be invited onstage to perform with the Act of the Night, and it was great to see them all interacting and combining their talents to make fabulous music.

But wait! After all this, there was still more fun to be had. A late-night event was on the schedule. Some guy named Joseph Scrimshaw was going to stand on a stage and be funny at us. The show was in one of the ship's nightclubs, the Queen's Lounge, and there were only enough seats for maybe a hundred people, but that didn't stop three times that many Sea Monkeys from squeezing in there, taking up the floors and the aisles and being meaty fire hazards. Anyone who missed it had to hear from the rest of us all week just how awesome a show it was and how they totally should have been there. He pandered to the geeky crowd with bits about Dr Who, Star Wars movies as seen through the characters' Twitter feeds, Star Trek revisited as an Oregon Trail game, and it was all so funny that it became hard to breathe.

Best. Day. Ever.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Become a Bone Marrow Donor

No, I'm not asking you to run to the hospital and offer up your hipbone for a bone marrow extraction. You'll probably never get a call, never get a chance to save a life with such a gift, and never have to think about it again. But what if? What if you're a match for someone dying of leukemia?

I saw a post from Wil Wheaton on Facebook, about a wonderful idea someone had to put a bone marrow registry kit inside a package of bandages, making it easy and simple for people to send in a sample for testing - they're already bleeding!

I've considered joining the registry before, but never got around to it. The main thing that held me back, I'm ashamed to say, is that it wasn't free. Sure, I would like to help out, but to go to the trouble of sending in some swabs or blood and have to pay for it, so that ten years from now they can call me and suck bone marrow out when they need it? No wonder so few people are registered bone marrow donors.

When Wil posted the link, I was curious to see who was going to pay for all that expensive genetic testing, so I followed a tree of links back to DKMS Americas, a bone marrow donor center and registry with over 3 million registered donors worldwide. They are the ones behind the bandage kits, and they also offer a much-less-bloody option of mouth swabs for testing. Also, these great folks will send you a registration kit for free.

I like free.

I gave the website my information and I received my donor kit in the mail within a week. The process was remarkably easy. The package contained a set of sterile swabs and a special envelope to seal them in, a donor card, a letter of thanks, and a return envelope. A postage-paid return envelope. Getting yourself on the bone marrow registry won't even cost you a stamp.

I rinsed my mouth out with water, swabbed the inside of my cheeks for ten seconds, let the swabs air-dry in my hand for a minute, and then sealed them up in the envelope before putting it into the return envelope. It took me longer to write this paragraph than it took me to do the work.

Now, honestly, I'm not sure how helpful I will be to the bone marrow registry. I'm Caucasian, from a long line of Caucasians with mostly Western European ancestry. Most registered donors are of a similar background. But people of every mix of ancestry get leukemia, and that's the problem. You see, as much as everyone is equal, no matter where they come from, certain sets of genes vary quite a bit among different populations. A Pacific Islander will have a different pattern of genes than a Hispanic person, which means that donors and recipients usually need to have similar ancestry in order to have their genes match up well. The hardest patients to find donors for are ones with two parents from different populations. A child who is half-Chinese and half-German will have a very hard time finding someone whose bone marrow can save his life.

But it doesn't matter what you are. I'm doing this because I've seen too many of my friends and family fighting cancer and genetic diseases, and if there's a chance I can help anyone else fight their disease, I'm going to do it. Follow my link and head to the site so you can read up on bone marrow donation. If you want to do it, that is fantastic and makes me very happy. If you would prefer not to take the chance of having to donate bone marrow sometime in the future, that's okay too - I'm not trying to guilt anyone into doing something they don't want to. But if you're not going to do it, please spread the word to someone who might. Share my post, or like DKMS Americas on Facebook. Even better, you can make a donation to DKMS through their website. If you don't want to get tested, your donation can still help them pay for someone else's registration kit and testing.

Thanks for listening.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

JoCo Cruise Crazy 2012, Day 1

Cruise ships are huge. The port at Fort Lauderdale is huge. Taken together, you've got an overwhelming experience as your cab driver drops you off in a sea of people held in by wall after massive wall of floating hotels.

We left our luggage with a guy who assured us it would appear later in our shoebox stateroom, and joined the line for boarding Holland America's MS Westerdam. Most of the folks in line were older and wearing Hawaiian shirts and pressed Bermuda shorts, but here and there I spotted a telltale Thinkgeek T-shirt, signalling the presence of others of our kind - Sea Monkeys taking to international waters to enjoy a nerd cruise. We were greeted by a Holland America employee who checked our paperwork, and a bright-blue-haired, corset-wearing, cheerful young woman who exclaimed "You're obviously Sea Monkeys! Welcome!" An official greeter! Impressive!

The check-in line wound around and around, but we barely noticed the wait thanks to the folks ahead of us who were second-time Sea Monkeys. They were on the original JoCo Cruise Crazy Party Ship in 2011, and they were happy to be chatting with and advising newbies on what to expect. It was also easy to stay distracted craning our necks and giving ourselves whiplash whenever someone declared a Famous Person Sighting.

There was a mandatory safety drill, which consisted of everyone standing outside on the Promenade deck with their assigned lifeboats looming overhead while a crew member shouted out heavily-accented names and room numbers to take attendance. We got no information on how to get into the lifeboats, and no instructions on how to get off the ship if you're not in your room when you hit the iceberg or the Italian coast. Just a loud list of names and cabin numbers, making it amazingly easy for crazies to find and stalk the Famous People, who, as it turns out, were almost all assigned the same lifeboat as us. I wondered, briefly, standing in the hot sun, which of the Famous People would be the first to turn to cannibalism when the food ran out on the lifeboat. Or maybe to save us all from such a fate, Jonathan Coulton would lean out over the water like a Grizzly, swatting fish out of the sea.

Orientation was next, with Paul and Storm telling us everything we needed to know and reminding us not to scare the old people.

I enjoyed the first of many fruity vacation drinks that afternoon (sadly, no umbrella in it) up by one of the pools, and stuck around for the excellently-named "First Transport is Away" party, where drinks were free and plentiful, and the buzz helped me to talk to more Sea Monkeys. Note: "I love your shirt" is a perfect ice breaker at a party where everyone is wearing a nerdy T-shirt.

We were so wiped out by the end of that day that we didn't stay long at the late-night event, Dance Party with DJ Flans, hosted by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. But the schedule promised that Wednesday would bring us Dance Party 2: Flans Harder, so we went to our room, moved the towel-origami lobster to the nightstand, ate the pillow chocolates, and slept.

I have put in links to the artists we enjoyed on this cruise in the hopes that you will click through to their pages, sample their work, and love what you find.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Plural of Batman

We were driving home when the conversation turned, as it sometimes will, to Batman. I was reading a Chick-Fil-A honey barbeque sauce packet when I came across the words "to protect flavor", and it all went downhill from there, as we imagined tiny microscopic versions of Batman, protecting flavor molecules from harm as though the sauce packet were a gooey Gotham City.

Dave was quite excited about microscopic caped crusaders. "Wouldn't that be awesome? You could look through a microscope and see tons of tiny Batmen!"

Well, I couldn't let that stand. Silly husband. "You mean 'Batmans'. One Batman, many Batmans."

"But the plural of man is men," argued Dave. "So several bat-like men would be Batmen."

"It's an exception," I said, "because it's his title. Like Surgeons General."

"So, it should be Batsman."

"Not a chance. Surgeons General is all weird because it's using general as an adjective. If we were talking about many generals who also happened to be accomplished surgeons, then they'd be surgeon generals, but we're talking about many surgeons, generally. 'Man' is a noun, so there's no way that Batsman makes any sense as a plural for Batman."

He sat quietly at the light for a second.

"How about mansbat?"

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Geeks on a Boat

Belonging is not a feeling I'm intimately familiar with. In an average social situation, I often feel like an anthropologist watching a foreign culture in action, absorbing what's going on and seeking tribal acceptance by copying their ways. This explains my Backstreet Boys phase. Unfortunately, I'm a lousy anthropologist and often find myself up to my neck in a metaphorical pot of water being boiled for dinner after I say something stupid.

I'm a geek. I fought it for a long time, because it's not exactly a label that gets you many friends in school. I was a teacher's pet, my brain full of trivia and my nose always in a book. I once invented homework so my parents would let me stay up later. I got a tattoo when I was nineteen, and my mother's reaction was "it's about time you do something stupid". I'm not claiming to be a genius - far from it. But I like knowing things. And then knowing those things makes me want to know more things about other things connected to those things.

Last week, I went on an adventure. I spent a week on a cruise ship in the Caribbean with my husband. But we weren't alone. Well, of course not - we didn't charter the ship for ourselves. What I mean to say is, this was a special cruise. It was JoCo Cruise Crazy II, a week-long event featuring a bunch of great performers and activities... for geeks.

I had my reservations about going on this trip. My husband was totally psyched about it, but while I was a fan of many of the talented people listed as performers for the cruise, I'm not a beachy, cruisy person by nature, and I worried I would be bored, trapped on a boat for a week. But it meant a lot to him, so I figured it was worth a shot, and he'd owe me the vacation of my choice next year.

Well, next year I want to go back on this cruise. Not so much for the beaches - I'm pretty sure I just quadrupled my shot at melanoma with that sunburn - and not for the shows, as amazing as they were. The people I met on this cruise were so incredibly great. Wil Wheaton, one of the performers, commented on how great it was to be surrounded by so many geeks of different kinds, and reminded us what it means to be a geek: to be really into something, to want to know everything about it, and to want to share it with everyone because you think it's so neat. Whether it's gaming, math, computers, medicine, or anime, everyone on that ship was a geek of some stripe, and since we all had that in common, nobody felt like an anthropologist watching the natives and their strange customs.

The best events on the cruise were the ones the performers were only tangentially involved with. Karaoke nights, open mic night, games of every kind happening all over the ship, a ukulele flash mob, and more events than I could have possibly attended even if I'd cloned myself. Several people said they'd go on this cruise again without the Famous People (TM), and I'm inclined to agree. They and their performances were really fantastic, and I'll tell you more about them soon, but the feeling of geek summer camp for grownups (on a boat) really affected a lot of us, and I hope we'll stay in touch and not lose that. We belonged on that ship. What a great feeling.