Thursday, February 28, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 4

I shuffled into the performers' Q&A session ten minutes late and with far too little terrible cruise coffee in my system. The performers, in a very casual and down-to-earth chat, discussed some of the good and the bad about depending on creativity for a living. After listening to these guys, I feel like maybe I could really make it as a writer one of these days, if only I could get my shit together and really focus on it instead of just saying it's going to happen.

Grumpy Cat did not approve of my tardiness.

We couldn't spend too much time discussing creative energy, though, because Day 4 was another port day, this time an afternoon stop in the US Virgin Islands. Dave and I hopped off the ship at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and hopped right back onto another boat for a short cruise tour along the shores of the neighboring island of St. John.

It's easy to spot other nerds in your group when your captain and tour guide is creative with language. Just look to see who winces when the loudspeaker announces that "Christopher Columbus, THAT'S RIGHT, the VERY SAME Christopher Columbus who discovered OUR VERY OWN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, arroved here in THESE BEAUTIFUL VIRGIN-DISLANDS in 1493." Our Captain was a cheerfully angry local with a deep mistrust of the American government, a healthy love of Jesus, and a casual relationship with the rules of English grammar. We called him Cap'n ALL-CAPS and spent most of the trip mocking him from the upper deck where he couldn't see us. He sounded like the guy on a game show who announces the AMAZING PRIZES, if that guy was a bitter and tipsy Tea Partier. He explained to us the PRISTINE BEAUTY of the arch pilay-goes of THESE VERY SAME VIRGIN DISLANDS. He showed us a historical site where AFRICAN SLAVES threw themselves from a tower and gave up their souls to OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST before the "abolination" of slavery.

Island of St. Thomas behind us

We enjoyed our little tour despite Cap'n ALL-CAPS and his blatant promotion of the CHOICE TAXIS that would be available for us to take all over St John. Dave declared that we deserved better and he'd hold out for a USDA PRIME taxi, so we explored the area around Cruz bay on foot instead. We had a delicious deli lunch with new friends and then wandered the town looking for souvenirs and trying not to step on any baby chicks.

Chickens cannot read.
I wish now that I'd had more time to spend in St Thomas. This was the first time I'd been in a place where I could look around me and see a dozen islands dotting the horizon. It was truly tropical and absolutely beautiful.

I never thought I would enjoy tropical vacations. I don't generally like the beach. But out here, it's not just sand and palm trees. These islands are green mountains in the water, and I love them. I sat on the little boat, leaning on my husband and feeling the wind on my face, and got to watch this happen:

It was hard to get back on the Freedom of the Seas after a day like that.

But that's how cruises go: a day here and a day there and never enough time to really enjoy the places you visit. Luckily we were on a JoCo cruise and had more fun lined up for us that evening, or I probably would have moped as I watched the twinkling lights of St Thomas fade into the distance.

That afternoon, Wil Wheaton spent an hour in the Bull and Bear Pub, doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session. He was expecting maybe a dozen people, but we packed the joint because everyone loves to hear him talk about things he's passionate about. He answered questions about homebrewing, acting, and tabletop games. I asked him a question about writing, and he was helpful with his response. I'm glad I found the time to make it to that event.

While we were at that AMA, a band of tiny pirates - kids from the daycare - stormed the Promenade with a song and dance routine. Wil stopped talking and everyone in the Bull and Bear turned to see what was going on. As Sea Monkeys are unable to resist all things pirate-y, we encouraged the kids with a hearty "Arrr!!"

Eek! Tiny pirates!

The evening's entertainment was a spectacular live-band karaoke experiment. Jonathan Coulton and his rock ensemble played a dozen of JoCo's songs while randomly-selected Sea Monkeys got to take the stage with them and sing like live rock stars! I could not in a million years have found enough courage to put my name in for such a thing, but the people who did perform were amazing. Some forgot the words, and some were visibly shaking in their sequins, but they were all rock stars for a few minutes and will never, ever forget it.

Edited on March 6, 2013 to add the stuff about Wil Wheaton's AMA. I couldn't remember what day it happened, but it's in the right spot now. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 3

I woke up on the morning of Day 3 early enough to get to breakfast in the main dining room, but I couldn't pull myself out of bed. I was too tired, too stressed. I was waking up on a ship on the beautiful Caribbean sea, but at the same moment, my mother was undergoing a triple bypass operation back home in Montreal. I spent the whole day wrapped in a layer of guilt and worry. If you met me later that day, and I was distracted, distant, checking my watch: please know that it wasn't because I wasn't interested in talking to you.

Day 3 was a sea day, which was a chance for the Shadow Cruise - activities not set up by the official performers - to take over the ship. Sea Monkeys are incredible at self-organizing and making things happen, and Day 3 was full of happenings. Dave attended a meeting of the Ukulele Melee, a group brought together by Molly Lewis and Alice Lee (developers of the "Stormy G Chord") to maximize the dramatic impact of the 30+ ukuleles on the ship. They were generous enough to let him join the group even though he decided to leave his uke at home and bring his guitar on the cruise instead. 

Alice and Molly teaching the class the "Stormy G"

The room contained musicians of all skill levels, each having a ton of fun playing in this mostly-ukulele band. Oh, and in the room? Sci-fi author John Scalzi, strumming along with a big grin on his face, clearly having as much fun as everyone else. I may have squeed a little. I was too shy to approach him and tell him I enjoy his books, because he wasn't an official performer and I felt rude bothering him while he was on vacation. 

Dave and I spent a little time in the game room trying to learn some new games. I got frustrated too quickly and stuck with Cards Against Humanity because it's easy and familiar and funny, but Dave put in a little more effort and tried some new things. As you can see, we had options:


The game room is one of the best parts of the JoCo cruises. It's open around the clock and there's almost always someone in there, playing a game, eager to teach strategy to newbies. The walls get rapidly papered with notes and pictures - people trying to organize a group for dinner, or warning others to avoid the  free Promenade pizza. For those who take the WiFi Temperance pledge and forswear electronic communication for the week, this is the place to visit every morning to find out what neat things are happening with the Shadow Cruise. We had a shipboard version of Twitter set up (dubbed "Twitt-arrr", because if we can make something into a pirate joke, then by golly, we're gonna), which is how I stayed on top of events, because temperance pledges are for chumps. 

Dave's guitar got a workout a little later when we joined the "Bardic Circle"/"Jam Session" in an annex off the game room. A dozen or so folks showed up with instruments and voices, and we hung out in each other's company for an hour, taking turns playing songs while others joined in. Well, while they joined in. I just tapped my foot and mumbled along to the tunes I recognized, and clapped heartily after every one. Some folks brought us songs they'd written themselves, and they were great. I wish I could be that creative. One of my favorite moments of the whole cruise was when Leslie Hudson sang her song "Tatooine Blues" and everyone started joining in even though they'd never heard it before. Some percussion, a couple of guitars, and the song came to life. You couldn't miss how much Leslie was loving hearing the song come to life in that room, and I'm so glad I was there to see it happen.

Leslie singing "Tatooine Blues"
There was a show that night, featuring Mike Phirman, John Roderick, and Zoe Keating. I'd seen the first two before, and I was a little disappointed that Phirman's set was almost exactly the same as when he opened for Paul and Storm at the Birchmere in MONTH. I suppose it was new to most of the crowd, though, and it was still funny and I still think he's probably one of the nicest (and smiliest) guys in the biz. John Roderick is unmatched when it comes to stage presence, and he brought the rock as he always does. That said, over the course of this cruise, I found I enjoyed him so much more in his interactions with everyone else onstage than just performing his music for us alone. Zoe Keating was completely new to me and blew me away. An incredibly gifted cellist to begin with, she takes her music to another level with some fantastic technology. I'm loving these cruises for introducing me to new music in such a dramatic way. Marian Call last year, and Zoe Keating this year. They're very different, they possess astonishing talent, and both can now consider me a big fan.

Zoe Keating performing "Escape Artist" on JoCoCruiseCrazy 3:

I missed the last bit of Zoe's performance (I'm so sorry, Zoe), because I ducked out early to run to the Online Lounge on Deck 8 and swipe my card for a quick look at Gmail. With that, I finally had word that my mother's surgery was over and she was going to be okay, and the relief made my legs weak and my heart light.

With that pressure off my spirit, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the final act of the evening: Celebrity Artemis. Artemis is a starship bridge simulator game, where each position has its own technical readouts that only they can see, and must relay information to the rest of the crew to complete their missions. So, of course, the best way to showcase this game is to have a bunch of celebrities, fuzzy with whisky and rum punch, play it in front of everyone.

The crew of the Maltose Falcon

The game, of course, was not the point. Watching these celebrity-type people get tipsy and silly and ridiculous like the rest of us was a huge highlight of this cruise for a lot of us.

If you've got half an hour to kill, check out the videos on youtube. This is the second crew, with Captain Roderick. Probably full of curse words.

Friday, February 22, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 2

Beach day!!

Last year, our Bahamas sunburns were bad enough to make us red and uncomfortable for days. Apparently sunscreen loses potency with age, even though it may not have an official expiration date printed on the bottle. Lesson learned. This time, before heading out on the tender boats to Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean's private island, we coated ourselves in layer after layer of new spray-on SPF-70 stuff. Then we painted our faces with SPF-100 sunblock sticks, which went on with the scent and texture of neutral Chapstick. Complete that ensemble with floppy hats and sun-blocking t-shirts, and you get a couple of pasty nerds looking ridiculous but safe from the Yellow Face that burns us, Precious.

Protecting our nerd-flesh from the Day-Star

Because we were such a huge group, there weren't enough beach cabanas, Tiki huts, and clamshells available for everyone to get one. At first, they tried to have a first-come-first-get signup on a website, but we shade-lovers crashed it so hard. For plan B, they picked names at random, which I think was fair. We were lucky enough to get a clam-shell in the shade lottery, so we spent a good part of the day just lounging on the beach reading our books and listening to the waves and the loud Caribbean roosters in the trees. Incidentally, the tropical chickens put this song into my head for most of the week:

Being at a beach, we participated in traditional beachy activities, including dunking ourselves into the chilly ocean, examining pretty seashells, and discussing the corpulence of men in the 1800s with Wil Wheaton at the rum shack. As you do. We passed a sandcastle competition (we missed the subsequent sandcastle smashing) a little ways down the beach: very impressive creations, but most of them were not castles and should have been disqualified.

Dragons, chess pieces, nekkid mermaids: not castles.
Although I suppose maybe the rook would count...

Paul and Storm's show started soon after we left Coco Cay. They sang a few of their classics and a medley of their rejected commercial jingles, and they then changed it up by giving a TED-style talk about the nature of humor and inappropriateness. It was already incredibly funny, but then they showed us the funniest 36 seconds on the entire internet, and I laughed so hard I almost had to leave the room to catch a breath.

After a fancy formal dinner, we gathered once more on the covered-up ice rink and donned our finest headgear and moustaches for the 3rd Annual Paul F. Tompkins Memorial Moustache Formal and Fezstravaganza. The variety of fez designs was astounding. Fezzes with superhero logos, videogame symbols, flashing LEDs and sound effects. Tasselled fezzes, Star Wars fezzes, even tiny fascinator fezzes. One guy had a wriggling tentacle sticking out of the top of his fez. I even spotted a pair of hand-knit TARDIS fezzes. That's pretty damn hardcore. If I do this again next year, I will be making or buying myself a fez with my own bio-nerd design on it. I have ideas...

Just a few of the spectacular fezzes on display at the party.
Photo credit: Steve Petrucelli

You'd think all this was enough for one day, right? Well, after an hour of Fezstravaganza, John Hodgman and David Rees took to the stage to throw us a dance party of epic proportions. It was a DJ battle to end all DJ battles, and it was spectacular. And I don't care what anyone says: nerds can really shake it on the dance floor.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

JoCo Cruise Crazy III - Day 1

Our waiter at the Radisson buffet breakfast was a laid back guy with fluffy surfer hair and a speech pattern reminiscent of Crush the Sea Turtle. I'm sure that if I'd had asked him to "hit me with some fresh squeezed, brah", he would have high fived me as he poured the OJ. Un-ironically.

Hey, no hurling on the shell, dude, ok? Just waxed it. 
We were nervous boarding the 11:30 hotel-to-port shuttle van, because it was full of retirees still buzzing from their breakfast mimosas, without a Sea Monkey in sight. Friendly and inquisitive, they asked us about all these young nerdy types with JoCo badges who'd taken over the hotel. We went with "we're all here to hang out with a ton of other people who love lots of the same stuff we love, and also to hear some great music by this JoCo guy and his friends." They mostly nodded politely.

I learned many things in my first hour on board the Freedom of the Seas. First, I learned that the ship was huuuuuuge. Fifteen decks, three swimming pools, a casino, a mini-golf course, and a three-story dining room, all to accommodate the four thousand or so guests who'd be spending a week on board. 

The Promenade is 4 stories high. ON A BOAT.
During the safety drill, I learned that I should run to the dining room if the ship's alarm sounds, presumably because the acoustics are good there for me to enjoy the band playing as we're dragged to the ocean floor. Then I learned that I am pretty good at making my own swirly ice cream cone from a self-serve soft-serve machine. While eating that ice cream by the pool, I learned that one can very effectively Move It Move It while wearing a hippo suit.

Fellas... fellas... has your hippo got the butt?
As we pulled away from Port Canaveral, the week's JoCoCruiseCraziness festivities began. We gathered in Studio B, standing on the covered-up ice rink, and drank and mingled and reconnected with friends from the previous year's cruise while hoping that our sea legs would come in. Later, Jonathan Coulton took the stage with his band for the first show of the cruise and rocked a room full of nerds into a happy frenzy. We danced, pretended to be zombies, clapped and sang along to the whole thing at the tops of our lungs. I hope it doesn't bother the performers when we all sing along with their songs, because we can't seem to help ourselves. I'd like to believe they're flattered rather than annoyed, and I'd be sad to hear otherwise.

When the show was over, a bunch of us who still had voices left moved to one of the lounges for some Karaoke. And really, it's this sort of event that makes these JoCo Cruises so much fun. We are all so wonderful and talented. Yes, the official famous performers are great, and that's a big part of why all of us booked the trip, but the interaction between the Sea Monkeys is incredible to experience. Wil Wheaton encourages people to "get excited and make things", and nowhere will you find this advice taken to heart more than in a group of Sea Monkeys. Geeks naturally want to share what they enjoy, and the cruise is a warm, welcoming environment for anyone who is ready to step outside of their comfort zone and start sharing their gifts and enthusiasm with the world. The Karaoke was good. Very good. There was some amazing talent in the house. And even when the talent couldn't quite match the enthusiasm, we still cheered and clapped and encouraged each other. We joined in when someone forgot the tune and lost their place. The singing went on till 1am, and that was only the first day.

For so many of us, these cruises are fulfilling in a creative way. And that's not a load of crap.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 0

We're safely back on land after a week of wild Sea Monkey* chaos on JoCoCruiseCrazy III**, but I'm not entirely sure my middle ear has told my legs yet.

It was a fantastic trip.

Like last year, we decided to roll into Cruise Town a day early so that unexpected airline delays wouldn't get us into trouble. This time, that meant a Saturday afternoon direct JetBlue flight to Orlando with half a dozen other DC-area Sea Monkeys. We sat together at the gate, comparing nerdy T-shirts and excursion plans, twitching excitedly in anticipation of hearing the first boarding call.

We were all sitting in different rows, so we couldn't keep the party going on the flight, but JetBlue has little TV screens in their seats, so I was treated to two hours of an Animal Planet Cute-a-Thon with the sound off. The good news is, Alaskan Malamute puppies are just as cute when you can't hear them. The bad news is, now I want to adopt a pack of Alaskan Malamute puppies. Nothing crazy: just as many as I'd need to pull a sled. I couldn't get Dave on board with that plan, though. He says there's not enough snow in Maryland for us to need a sled dog team. I say he's shortsighted.

In Orlando, after retrieving Dave's newly-dinged-up guitar case from the oversized luggage chute and reveling in our first celebrity spotting (Wil Wheaton, pulling a suitcase from a luggage carousel), we found our group at the airport shuttle stop. Pro tip: a group of people wearing Fezzes in an airport are either Shriners or JoCo Sea Monkeys, but Sea Monkeys are generally younger and much more likely to pair their Fezzes with coordinating ThinkGeek T-shirts.

The Radisson Resort at the Port, where the majority of early-arriving Sea Monkeys stayed, is set up like a cross between Barbie's condo complex and a university psych department's rat maze. 

The entire hotel was pink. Inside and out.

Finding our room was a challenge deserving of a cheese reward. Really, if the front desk needs to hand you a map and draw arrows on it to tell you where you're going to sleep, your hotel is too complicated! 

We had dinner at the restaurant next door to the hotel, where the gyros were delicious and everyone called us "sweetie" like good diner staff should. Back at the pool bar after dinner, I spotted the Toronto/Montreal hockey game on one of the TV screens, prompting me to buy a drink and plunk my butt down to watch. The system works. Play hockey, and you will attract Canadians. Within minutes, my bitching about how badly the Habs were playing drew other hockey fans to my side, and we chatted and drank and booed Toronto together.

Even though I tried to get to bed early, I was almost too giddy to sleep. In just a few hours, I had managed to meet several fun new people at the hotel. If I was enjoying myself this much before even getting on the boat, how wonderful was this cruise going to be?

As it turns out: very.

* Those of us who go on these cruises are called Sea Monkeys. Just because.

** For more information on these nerd cruises and why they are wonderful, check out the main JoCoCruiseCrazy website, and my recaps of last year's cruise (you can use the JCCC2 label on my blog to track them down).