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Saturday, August 21, 2010

One Man's Family


Today was our final stop, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Technically American turf, St. Croix is a bit of an anomaly due to its rich history. At various times it was occupied by Spain, France, Britain, Denmark and even the Knights of Malta, each of which left their mark with place names, architecture and other reminders.

Driving on St. Croix is on the left, which confuses Americans who think they are "home", especially since most of the vehicles have the driver's seat on the left where we're used to it.  We were told that the government tried to change it after the U.S. took over, but the residents couldn't get used to it and it caused too many accidents.   

St. George Village Botanical Garden
Without a plan for the day, I signed onto one of the ship's excursions with two members of our group, which included three stops:

The first was the St. George Village Botanical Garden.  Located on a former sugar plantation, the garden is a rich oasis of plant and animal life, explained to us by a knowledgeable guide as we strolled around the grounds.  Among the more curious finds were giant caterpillars who only feed on a particular type of tree, and a 15th-century Danish worker's grave.

Lawaetz Family Museum
Next, following a drive through the forested interior of the island, we visited the Lawaetz Family Museum, the homestead of a Danish farmer who moved to St. Croix in the 1890s and raised a large family there.  The house is still much as they left it (the family still owns it and assembles there for Christmas Eve), with childhood pictures and household implements neatly in their places, including the giant wooden bed that was patriarch Carl's first big purchase when he secured a good job.  

Our guide for this tour was a transplanted New Yorker who moved to St. Croix several years ago with the intention of writing a novel, a work that is still in progress.

Rainbow Beach
The final stop was at Rainbow Beach, a picturesque spot with an open-air bar and grill as well as a stand where you could rent jet-skis and other equipment.  We could see our ship in the distance down the beach as we took in our last round of fruity drinks before heading back to reality in the morning.

More photos from St. Croix

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hold On to Your Hat

Bernard of Clairvaux - Abbot, Theologian & Poet (1153)


This morning we arrived at Phillipsburg, St. Maarten, the only of our cruise stops to which I have been before.  In 2000 I was on a cruise on the Norwegian Sky that called here, and in 1998, my family rented a condominium on the island's southern coast for a week.

Much of my focus on St. Maarten centers around the airport.  On our way to our first visit, a combination of ineptitude and lack of information on the part of US AIr led to our being stranded in San Juan's airport. Both the ticket counter of US Air and our connecting carrier LIAT were abandoned at 3 in the afternoon, and when I finally roused a young woman by shouting "hello!" through the open doorway into the office, she half-listened to my story and then said casually, "All the flights are full.  You come back tomorrow night."

In those pre-9/11 days I was a little more, um, assertive with airline people than I would be now, and my family unanimously elected me to make it clear to US Air that spending over 24 hours of our vacation in this airport was not an acceptable option.  There were a bunch of sightseeing companies with planes for hire right there in the terminal, with tanned pilot types standing around doing nothing, so I asked the ticket agent why one of them could not bring us the short distance to St. Maarten.

"Oh, it's very expensive," she said dismissively.

I went for broke.  "Not for ME, it won't be. I already paid to get THERE, not HERE, and at this point I don't care if you have to BUY the plane.  Go ask somebody."

Apparently realizing at that point I was not going to give up, she shuffled off to make some phone calls, probably interrupting several more naps and finally speaking to the airline's headquarters in Virginia before returning with the pretty startling news that they could -- in fact -- pay one of these planes to get us to our destination, leaving within the hour.  I was pretty proud of myself, until I saw the plane:

Mom, Dad and our pilot with the Air Culebra Piper Aztec we
flew from San Juan to St. Maarten in 1998
This thing had none of the stuff I associate with planes.  There were no walkway or even stairs to get into it: you trotted across the tarmac, stepped on the wing and dropped right into your seat. There was no aisle, no bathroom, and no flight attendant.  And even if there had been one, there was no beer for him to grab if he decided he'd had enough of us and made a break for it.

Once my parents and sisters were settled in, the only seat left for me was right inside that open door, i.e. that normally reserved for the co-pilot! 

"Don't touch anything!" my sister stage-whispered from the third (and last) row.  Yeah, not a problem.  My experience skippering one of these puppies was limited to the Microsoft variety, and I was not about to try to change that now, even in the highly unlikely event that it was offered.  I contented myself with alternatively holding on for dear life and taking pictures to the degree that I could.  Our pilot pointed out Culebra, the small island in between Puerto Rico and St. Maarten where he lived, and then -- asking if I wanted a photo -- tilted the plane to get the wing out of the shot.  Um, thanks!

Now, I'll say this.  If you had asked me under different circumstances if I wanted to go up in a plane the size of a Volkswagen Microbus, I would have most likely laughed at you over my shoulder as I hurried back towards the sane people.  But when that plane was the only thing standing between me and a night on a drab gray chair trying to drown out 24 screens of CNN, I didn't think twice about it, and I don't think anybody in the family did either.  And -- having done so -- I can tell you it was an awesome ride, especially being able to look right out the front as we approached St. Maarten and landed again.

Air France A340 about to land.  Thanks to Gina for this shot.
The Princess Juliana International Airport is on the Dutch half of St. Maarten (the French spell it St. Martin), and its single runway begins just a dozen yards or so from the famous Maho Beach, where planespotters delight in the jets thundering close overhead as they  are about to land.  Supposedly people used to also hang on the fence when an airliner was getting ready to talk off (the prevailing wind is normally such so that flights take off and land with their backs to the beach) and then allowed the accelerating engines to blow them backwards towards the water, but now there are signs warning against such activity.

There are bars at either end of the beach with the flight timetables posted and radios tuned to the conversation between jets and the tower. We had intended to spend some time there today, but we ended up only being able to pass by it.  Friends from our cruise got to enjoy it, however, and shared some of their photos with me.

Instead, a Certain Party -- who does not beach -- and I contented ourselves with crepes at a sidewalk cafe in Marigot, on the French side.  But next time I'm bringing my earplugs and making a day of it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

You Have Arrived... Maybe


Today was a little more low-energy.  Not long after we docked at St. John, Antigua, the heretofore tranquil sky opened up and we had quite a rainstorm. One of the interesting things about the tropics is the abruptness with which the weather can change.  We literally saw the rain coming towards us like a curtain, and -- briefly -- it was raining at one end of the ship but not the other.  We had experienced the same thing on our day at sea on Monday:  A sudden squall drove us off the deck, but by the time we reached the elevators amidships, the sun had returned.

In this case, we again had only a short while to wait, and then Bobby, Amanda and I walked ashore, through the prerequisite cluster of shops and kiosks that seem to greet you at virtually every Caribbean pier, and for a short walk around the town of St. John as the sun dried things off. 

St. John's Cathedral, Antigua
Plainly visible from the ship is the imposing facade of St. John's Anglican Cathedral, and that was one thing I hoped to see.  However, upon arrival we discovered that -- due to a structural problem that came to light last year -- the church is closed until further notice.  We took a handful of pictures and headed back towards the pier, not finding much else in the town to explore.

A short while later, we had hired a cab and were headed towards a beach one of our fellow passengers had mentioned.  "Towards" it being the operating word, because we are not sure that the beach we eventually visited was the same one we had requested.  Having cleared the city limits and meandered for a half-hour or so through the countryside, our driver left the main drag for a bumpy driveway, past a salt pond, and coincidentally (?) ran into a handful of people he knew standing in this barren spot.  At his direction, we somewhat doubtfully trudged a short way further on the road and discovered what was in fact a beautiful, but sparsely populated, beach, as well as a small but elegant looking bungalow resort.

Coco Beach Resort, Antigua
Since the driver was apparently willing to wait with his friends while we enjoyed the beach, we were not about to complain.  We had no proof this was not in fact where we had asked to go, although Bobby had seen pictures of the place on the shipboard TV and it looked considerably more developed than what we saw before us.  And there was nothing wrong with the location, which we think was called Coco Beach, when the one we had been looking for was Coco Bay.  Looking at a map later, I believe there was in fact a much larger resort by that name a short distance away.

As is often the case with foreign travel, one finds oneself at the generally benevolent mercy of the local tourist machine.  Unless you do a lot of homework and come across as knowing exactly what you want and what it should cost, there is always a slight haze of doubt that you are getting the best deal as opposed to something that has been engineered to create the illusion of same for the profit or convenience of others.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves, and when we returned to the taxi at the appointed time, we found that our driver had calculated enough time get us back to the ship (always a concern, because -- unless you are on one of the excursions organized by the cruise line -- if you miss the boat, you're on your own to get either home or to the next port).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lunch With Herod's Mom

William Porcher DuBose - Priest & Theologian (1918)


Today's port-of-call was St. Lucia.  A little more than a hundred miles from Barbados, it allowed the Serenade of the Seas to chug along at a leisurely pace while we slept.

Herod explains how bananas grow
St. Lucia is mountainous and a large swath of its interior is relatively unspoiled.  Today I took a tour with several parties in our cruisecritic.com "family", again researched by one of them in advance.  Our guide, Herod, restricts the tour to ten people, which meant minimal waiting and plenty of flexibility to stop when something looked interesting and ask questions.

We had more exposure to the local people today than in Barbados, where we spent most of the day on a boat.  As we twisted through the forests and towns, men and women would wait patiently at the  roadside offering handicrafts, fresh fruit and (in several cases) the opportunity to get cozy with large snakes.  The sales pitches were not aggressive or frequent enough to be really annoying, and I expect our guide -- who does this every day -- knew who could be trusted.  

Among the things we saw were coconut and banana groves (with the opportunity to sample fresh fruit right off the tree), an ancient volcano which still emits sulphur-ripe steam, and a small waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation teeming with birds and butterflies.

But the highlight for me was when Herod announced that he was taking us to his house, where his mom had prepared lunch.

Anybody who knows me will roll their eyes at this; all you do is mention food and you immediately have my attention.  However, I loved this idea.  I know folks who will seek out familiar brands wherever they go instead of chancing some culinary misadventure, and the McDonald's and T.G.I. Fridays' folks have capitalized on this from Reykjavík to Dubai.  But I don't know of a better way to experience a place than to go to someone's home and share food with them that they prepared.

Lunch with Herod's Mom
Herod's mom was warm and gracious, and their house has a big terrace with a splendid view of one of the Pitons, the twin conical lava domes for which St. Lucia is famous.  We were treated to a buffet of curried chicken, fried codfish, rice and beans, plantains, and various other goodies.  

After lunch, we took a water taxi to a remote resort, situated between the two Pitons, to spend an hour or so on the beach.  We shared this space with just a handful of other tourists, and so were able to take in the rugged beauty of the place in peace.  Having gotten more than my share of sun the night before, I commandeered a chaise lounge under a canopy of overhanging sea grape and just took it all in.

Our return trip was accomplished by speedboat, much to the delight of the youngest members of our party.  Somehow these two pre-teen girls ended up right up in the bows, and every time the boat crested a wave, they would be literally tossed airborne, only to thump back down onto the (thankfully cushioned) seat.  They screamed and laughed all the way back to Castries, where the boat deposited us veritably at the ship's doorstep.

Tonight was formal-dress on board.  This is the subject of consternation for some, while others -- like me -- enjoy it on the rare occasions that I am required to dress up.  On some lines (Cunard transatlantic in particular) you will still be politely turned away from the dining room without a jacket, but In the Caribbean on most of today's mass-market ships, the dress code is more of a suggestion than a rule, and we saw people wearing everything from black tie to tank tops as we headed to dinner. 

Everyone in our party made an effort to comply without going crazy buying new gear which we would not have much future use.   I own a tux, for the simple reason that it was de rigueur aboard the Queen Mary 2 and I scored a sweet deal on one when we were preparing for that ship's maiden transatlantic crossing to New York in 2004.  It dawned on my last week that I should probably try the darn thing on and make sure I could still get in it, since it hasn't seen the light of day since Emily's wedding a few years ago.  Thankfully, I have neither packed on enough muscle or fat to require any alterations. 

At Barbara's request, we posed in various groups on the swank glass staircase in the ship's lobby, sporting our finery while the Company photographers snapped away.  These souvenir photos are mind-bendingly expensive, but it's part of the experience, so -- as many times as we say we're not going to do it -- we always end up buying at least a few.  Barbara had special reasons for wanting to document this trip, so for that purpose it was worth having the professional shots done.

The dinner was wonderful, and the Serenade's classic double-height dining room complete with a ceremonial staircase provided an elegant backdrop for our fellow passengers in their fancy duds.  But -- if I had to choose -- I'd still take that lunch under the Pitons, served up with a smile by Herod's mom.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

So Much As it has Pleased Thee

Samuel Johnson, Timothy Cutler, and Thomas Bradbury Chandler
Early Priests of the American Church


Dawn off Barbados
This morning, we arrived at our first port of call, Barbados, having been at sea all day yesterday.  Invigorated by being aboard ship again, or perhaps just not used to a new bed, I woke up before dawn, grabbed my camera and meandered through the empty corridors looking for coffee and a spot to watch the sunrise.  I love the chance to explore the ship when very few of my fellow passengers are afoot, as it also give me the chance to photograph the public spaces without intruding on other peoples' vacations.   

This ship is fairly typical of those being built in the early 2000's.  She carries about 2,400 passengers, and most of her public spaces are located either fairly low in the ship or on the very top two decks, with four levels in between devoted almost exclusively to cabins so that the vast majority of them can sport private balconies.  We have one of these for the first time: earlier voyages were either on a tighter budget or (in the case of our transatlantic voyage in April of 2004) in a season and place when the weather conditions would not warrant the expense.  I chose our room specifically: located on the edge of a semicircular "bump" that extrudes from the side of the superstructure, it afforded us a slightly larger balcony than normal, just enough to let both of us stretch our legs out a bit.  Unfortunately the extra space did not come with extra furniture: we have two upright chairs and a miniscule table, so it is not quite as conducive to lounging as I had hoped. 

As luck would have it, we will be the only ship at each of our five ports of call.  This makes me happy in the sense that we will not be competing heavily for taxis, tours and shops, but I also do like seeing other ships and photographing them. 

I have been asked repeatedly why we did not choose one of the newest or largest vessels coming down the ways: this line's newest ship, the Oasis of the Seas is so big that it boasts various different "neighborhoods" (I can't help but wondering if any of them are "rough") as well as a zipline and a full-sized carousel.  Frankly, the idea of 5,400 people invading a small Caribbean island all at once is not particularly appealing, especially as the ship is too large to dock everywhere and requires the use of tenders to shuttle passengers ashore.  In addition, the ship is on the most mundane itinerary the Caribbean has to offer, and -- since the majority of us have been here before -- we wanted something a little more exotic.    

Catamaran Crew
I had done some homework in the months leading up to our voyage.  I am a big fan of cruisecritic.com, because it enables you to connect in advance with other people who will be on your particular sailing and ask questions about the ship and itinerary from more seasoned cruisers.  In our case, there are over 50 people, either users of the website or their traveling companions, so we did quite a bit of bonding before even setting sail. 

Yesterday, I met a number of them at a planned event in one of the lounges.  Today, three parties from that group as well as two other members of my entourage went on a catamaran tour that one of the "critics" had researched in advance.  We had a fantastic time, skimming along the smooth waters off the coast to an inlet where giant turtles lurk.  We got to snorkel with them, and they are apparently pretty used to people because they did not seem bothered in the least.  Two young brothers in our group had a waterproof camera and were deep-diving to get better shots, which they shared with me later

Giant turtle off Barbados.  Courtesy of Grandmaison family
Unfortunately the day was not without a casualty: one of the husbands in our group lost his wedding ring while in the water, and -- despite the efforts of the boat's captain and the brothers -- it was not found. 

Later this evening, we had some more serious business to deal with; in fact, the impetus for our trip.  After we set sail again from Barbados, we met with two officers of the ship at an appointed time and were escorted below to the aft mooring deck, a spot normally not accessible to passengers.  There, after a Certain Party led us in a brief prayer service while a handful of the ship's crew looked on, we were permitted to scatter a portion of Henry's ashes overboard into the ship's wake, followed by handfuls of rose petals thoughtfully provided by the Company.  It was one year to the day since his death. 

For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his ashes to the deep in sure and certain hopes of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ. 

This simple and yet powerful ritual marked the end of a year of "firsts": holidays, birthdays and other events where we were keenly reminded of his own contributions or strong opinions about such things were supposed to be done, and the hole left by his absence.  As we moved through the seasons, each of us mentally "bookmarked" these occasions, particularly when we got into the summer, when each milestone was already clouded by his illness.  

But the ship keeps moving.  We had originally been told that they might either slow down or stop, but as it turned out, that was not the case, and -- in a way -- I'm glad.  It symbolizes the fact that time stops for no one, and -- while we will obviously never stop missing him -- this was the "last first" when it comes to Henry.  He was not one to wallow in the past, and wouldn't condone us doing so either.  His life -- and his death -- changed us, and we carry those marks with us, but we also have to be ready to keep living fully into whatever is meant to happen next.  The ship keeps moving, and we move with it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Down to the Sea


Uncle Ziggy and Aunt Bertha aboard ship
My love of ships dates back to 1974.  That summer, my grandfather's sister and her husband departed New York on the S/S France, flagship of the storied Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, known simply on these shores as the French Line, on their way to spend the summer in Europe.  Retirees who never had children, they lived simply most of the year, but my uncle Ziggy was never one to scrimp when it came to food or travel, and they took some spectacular vacations for working-class people of the time. 

By the time I arrived on the scene, the jet age was in full swing and airlines had already won over most of the passenger traffic between the United States and Europe.  Ironically since the majority of leisure travelers were American, the United States Lines was one of the first to go.  The S/S United States, not yet 20 years in service, was laid up in 1969 and -- though still around -- has yet to carry another passenger.  One by one, the state-run steamship companies of Germany, Holland, Italy, Greece and France would give up the fight, and - in fact - the mighty France was abruptly withdrawn from service during my aunt and uncle's vacation.  But they were old-school, and -- rather than spend seven hours in an airplane seat -- they returned to the States aboard the last holdout, Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2.  That ship continued to offer regular transatlantic crossings (interspersed with cruises to other places) until 2004, when she was replaced on the route by the much larger Queen Mary 2.  My dad and I were aboard when that fantastic vessel finished a stormy crossing and arrived in New York for the first time, to a hero's welcome.  But that's another blog entry.

CGT poster advertising the France
Getting back to 1974, if the days of the transatlantic liner were waning, there is no evidence of it in my memory of that afternoon.  In those carefree days, steamship lines welcomed the family and friends of departing travelers aboard the ships on sailing day.  As had always been the tradition, all that was required was a token donation to a seafarers' charity.  It was good P.R., because --  at least in my case -- that short visit left me with a desire to pack up and go on my own ocean voyage, one that would not be fulfilled for another 25 years but which is only stoked, rather than quenched, by every day spent aboard ship.

I actually remember very few details of the ship itself. Oddly enough, one thing that stuck in my head was the placement of the bathtub faucets, on the middle of the long wall vs. at one end.

One story which I can't recall personally but is is stuck in the family lore relates to this or another such bon voyage party.  My uncle had several brothers, and -- like him -- each of them was "a real character" as my paternal grandmother would say.  Apparently one of these uncles had earned quite a reputation aboard ship.  A cabin steward saw him with our entourage and brusquely inquired, "Are you on this trip?"  Upon learning he was headed back down the gangway shortly, the steward rolled his eyes and sighed, "Thank god!  I still remember you from the last time!"

Carnival Victory berthed in San Juan
Hopefully my own reputation is better.  As I write this, a Certain Party and I, along with his entire immediate family and a friend of his mom, are somewhere in the Windward Islands aboard the M/S Serenade of the Seas, part of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.  This is my eighth ocean voyage (tenth if you count overnight ferry crossings), a fact that is hardly remarkable given the prolific cruisers and crossers of my acquaintance.  But no sooner did we arrive at the terminal in San Juan when I felt the same rush that came over me on Pier 88 in New York all those summers ago, a feeling that built as we explored our compact cabin, met the steward, verified our dinner table assignment, and underwent all the little rituals that mark the beginning of seagoing travel, culminating with our after-dark departure past the brilliantly lit Victory (even Carnival ships look pretty at night).  I could get used to this.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's Just Me and You Tonight

Florence Nightingale - Nurse and Renewer of Society (1910)

I've grown more musically in the past two years than in the previous ten (at least) for a number of reasons.

Part of it was due to Henry's influence: upon joining the band I was exposed to and expected to learn a lot of classic rock that I had been peripherally aware of, but never really studied or tried to play.  Also, Henry didn't read music, so we learned by listening and doing, which is a very different process than starting with sheet music and reading notes and rests as if they are a fractions equation.  A lot of songs were an ongoing experiment: When we play live, I still my binder full of printouts from chordie.com with crossed-out chords and handwritten notes, many in his distinctive scrawl.  Even when I know the song by heart, I play better having it there.

The other factor in my ongoing education has been some of the new web-based tools that are designed to help expand your musical horizons.  The first of these was pandora.com, whose motto is the "the music genome project".  On this site, if you put in the name of a band or song, it won't play that band or song, but others that are like it based on a number of characteristics.  You can "thumb up" or "thumb down" the choices, and -- over time -- it will hone a "radio station" based on your choices.  You can save these channels so that this doesn't have to occur all in one session.  If you ignore it, Pandora will just continue to provide background  to whatever else you're doing.  The biggest limitation is that -- due to their licensing -- you can't just think of a song and play that song.  Your "station" may eventually play it, but not necessarily.  Also, it seems that it plays the songs you have not nixed, in the same order, each time you rejoin a channel.

The second site, which my friend Mark turned me onto, is called last.fm.  When I first joined, you could play any song in their catalog three times for free, but also features "radio stations" based on a particular artist, with the ability to say yea or nay to each track.  More of a social networking site than Pandora, last.fm allows you to "friend" people and view your musical compatibility with them, and share songs, artists and playlists.

For the statistics minded, last.fm also has a "scrobbling" feature that keeps track of how many times you listen to each song or artist, and allows you to see the same data for your friends and listen to .  If you want it to, it will calculate this data not only for songs you play on last.fm but also Windows Media, iTunes, Winamp and your MP3 player.  Why anybody needs to know this, I can't say for certain, but it's kind of interesting to watch the trends.  It can also be alarming: when one friend's feed repeated the same Slipknot song for two full hours, I got concerned and reached out to make sure he was not in some kind of crisis.  He just laughed at me.

The free-preview feature on last.fm went away this spring, and they suggested a new site called mog.com.  For a flat fee of just $5.99 a month, you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, which I consider a phenomenal deal.  Recently they added the ability to do so on a smartphone, which increases the fee to $9.99, still less than the cost of one CD.  Theoretically, if you have an unlimited data plan on your phone, you could do away with satellite radio (if you have it) and never buy a CD again.  Or almost never; while their catalog is huge, they don't have everything, and I still buy CDs from the unsigned and indie bands I like because I know they get paid more that way.

The net of all this is that I have become far more adventurous with what I listen to.  It is easy to get into a rut with the same artists you grew up with or what-have-you, but something about these sites saying with some authority "based on this, you might like this" has gotten me exploring more options, and I've had a great time with it.

Probably the best example of this is Honor by August, a DC-based band which both last.fm and mog.com gave a ringing endorsement.  That reminds me: another feature of last.fm is an alert when an artist you like is in your area.  As I gave them a preliminary spin, the site advised me this band would be in my area for two shows that same week!  Something told me to go check them out.  

The first attempt was a bust: I arrived at the Saint in Asbury Park way too early (although the guys were actually milling around their bus outside) and was told by the doorman to come back at 10pm.  I had dinner with friends and got back just in time to hear them end their set!  Apparently the door assumed I was there to see the headliner, Red Wanting Blue.

Next night at New York's Mercury Lounge, was more successful.   Ten minutes in, I was hooked!  I don't know how to explain their sound:  to me describing music is like describing wine... it's really easy to sound ridiculous.  But it is straight-up honest rock, a lot of power without being overwhelming or sloppy, and you just want to hear more.  Subject matter runs the gamut from the requisite lost love ("Johnny") to war ("Say It's Over") but even the "heavy" topics are delivered with an enthusiasm that's hard to resist.

Clearly someone has been paying attention: by winning contests, they have opened for Hanson and Bon Jovi at arena shows, and are regulars at a number of New York and DC's  better-known club venues.

Meeting the guys on the sidewalk afterwards, I hope I did not sound like too much of the breathless fangirl; but their live show just floods you with positive energy.  Had I been with my sister or the right friends instead of running solo, I would have been dancing for sure.

A few weeks ago, word came out via their Facebook page that the band was throwing themselves a benefit: the aforementioned bus needs some attention, and they're working on a new video.  The venue seemed unlikely to me: a well known Jersey "wedding factory" known as the Brownstone House (recently introduced to the wider world courtesy of the Real Housewives).  I knew two of the guys are originally garden-staters, but I wondered if three weeks was enough time to get enough people to fork over $50 (admission also included a beefsteak and all-you-can beer and wine) to make this a cash-positive venture.

Well once again, I need not have been concerned.  I showed up a bit late and walked into a full ballroom being entertained by Jersey's own Sunda Croonquist, and ducked into a seat next the merch guy I met in New York before she could tease me for interrupting her show.  I was quickly made to feel at home among fans from NY and DC.

The band took the stage shortly thereafter and once again ruled the night.  Here, lead guitarist Evan Field showed off his wireless skilz by touring the room as he cranked out his intricate solo to "Good Enough":

Honor by August perform "Good Enough" at the Brownstone in Paterson NJ  8/12/2010 - Thanks to The Riz Experience

As you can hear, the fans keep up with charismatic frontman Michael Pearsall because they know every word.  Bassist Chris Rafetto is kinda the low-key one, but there are no slouches in this band. Even drummer Brian Shanley gave a long and elaborate solo early in the night.

(From left) Brian Shanley, Michael Pearsall, (Michael's aunt),
(Sunda Croonquist's daughter), Chris Rafetto, Evan Field

Talking to the guys, it's quickly apparent why people were willing to drive five hours each way on a weeknight and stick around to help until the last guitar was back on the bus before starting their long trek home.  You really do feel like that not only do they love what they do, but they very much appreciate the people who come to see them.  For starters, I met them once on the street for two minutes but Pearsall immediately came over and greeted me by name when he saw me.  Field smilingly endured one of my long-winded stories, and everyone is insisting I haul my cookies down to DC the weekend of Sept. 11th for a special show at one of their favorite venues.

I think I'm gonna do just that!  And if the guys are taking the stuff out of the bus when I get there, Instead of heading for the bar I'll grab an amp or a crate and muscle it inside for 'em.  But that says more about who they are than who I am.

My pictures from the show on flickr.  Check out more Honor by August at honorbyaugust.com, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Last.fm

Thursday, August 12, 2010

No vampires here!

 Special request: If you're reading this in some format (syndicated) other than the actual
blog page (vergeofjordan.blogspot.com) and would like to comment, I ask
if you could take a second to click into the blog itself to do so, simply so that
any conversation that  unfolds from the posting can happen in one place.  

Thank you!

Clare of Assisi - Nun (1253)

Last night I met some friends at The Garlic Rose, a restaurant in Madison, N.J. whose nickname is "The Rose City".  As the name suggests, the lowly bulb figures rather heavily in the menu.  While this seemed somewhat off-putting at first to those of us who did not grow up believing everybody's kitchen smelled like that, I'm here to tell you that there's nothing to be afraid of.  When cooked whole, garlic cloves do not overpower whatever they are in, and in fact can be eaten as-is or spread on bread, as the hosts are glad to demonstrate to the squeamish by providing a few roasted bulbs for free when you first sit down.  

Our entrees ranged from three-cheese ravioli to roasted chicken.  Nothing you'd call "diet food" but everything was wonderful.  I was glad to have friends who are as adventurous about food as I am.  

Then we got to dessert.  Among the more routine offerings, they naturally (?) have... garlic ice cream.  This isn't my first encounter with strange flavors of that all-American confection: for years, Gerenser's in downtown New Hope, PA, had hundreds of flavors including African Violet. I never was brave enough to try that one, and I have heard they don't offer nearly as many choices as they used to.

This night, too, was not to become an expansion of my confectionery repertoire.   We voted to head to Cafe Beethoven in nearby Chatham, N.J. only to discover that they stopped serving at 9 p.m., and thus ended up at the (sorry, guys) vastly disappointing local Carvel.  I mean, it's still ice cream; even if it's not great, it's still pretty good.

But next time I'm holding out for the garlic. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Stewardess, is There Something You're Not Telling Us?

Laurence - Deacon and Martyr (258)

Of course I could not pass up the opportunity to write about yesterday's most bizarre news story.  In case you just emerged from seclusion and therefore missed it, a jetBlue flight attendant named Steven Slater yesterday attempted to prevent a passenger from retrieving her carry-on suitcase from an overhead bin while the plane was still taxiing towards the gate.  In a string of circumstances the details of which are not 100% clear, the passenger apparently swore at Slater and the bag in question hit him in the face.  At which point Slater snapped.

The general summary seems to be that Slater grabbed the microphone and excoriated the offending passenger over the public address system, then grabbed his own carry-on bag and exited the plane via a still-armed door and thus deploying the escape slide.  

"But what makes him an instant legend, of course, is the beer. He grabs the beer on the way out. That's the Animal House meets Airplane! note. No wonder he's an instant Internet icon. His name will become a verb, just watch."  

And it's true.  On Facebook, which has become the bench in front of the general store, the waiting area of the beauty parlor and the corner bar all at the same time, my "wall" was abuzz this morning with people weighing in on Slater's stunt.  Hero, some said.  Silly queen, opined others (the Daily News seemingly went out of its way to play up Slater's homosexuality as if that caused his behavior).

But reading the news today it seems as if the overwhelming majority of the population -- even in the airline industry -- sympathizes with Slater, especially as It emerged that the same passenger hit Slater in the forehead with the door to the luggage bin before the plane left Pittsburgh.  Bartenders, hairdressers and office drones have weighed in on their own inclinations to "pull a Slater" when a customer or boss pushed them too far.   And the customers, stressed about their jobs, their tax bills and the general malaise that still seems to hang over our country, are easily riled too. Leaves you to wonder how far behind Slater on the chute many of us are.  Just tonight, a friend and I were in a store and witnessed an out-and-out screaming match between two employees and a customer.  We did not hear what triggered it but we hightailed it out of there before the cops arrived.

It really makes me wonder whether everybody ought to take a deep breath and reset their priorities.  As cliched as it sounds, we're all in this together. Would it kill you to wait another 30 seconds to get your bag?  I'm guessing not.

Monday, August 9, 2010

You Have Reached...

Herman of Alaska - Missionary to the Aleut (1837)

A recent article in the Washington Post confirmed what I had long suspected:  people don't like to talk on the phone anymore.

When I was a kid, my parents sent me to Catholic school in the next county. I had no real problem with that except that it put a cramp on my social activities because getting a ride did not mean around the corner: it was a good 25 minutes from home.  Also, it was outside our local calling area so I had to be judicious with how much time I spent chatting.

Like most families at that time, we did not have a telephone in every room, nor did we kids have the luxury of our own number.  Conversations were restricted to the olive-green Western Electric wall phone in the kitchen, and -- as we grew to be teenagers -- we learned that the  handset cord could be stretched into either the laundry room or the top of the basement stairs so we could discuss our plans for world domination or eternal wedded bliss to the crush of the moment in relative privacy.

The summers before and after my senior year were spent living with my grandparents and doing construction work with my grandfather.  Telephone time with the gang on the Delaware was even more restricted then, as the Great Depression survivor would be sure to let me know just how much I had cost him each month.

Flash forward to the days of unlimited calling plans and cell phones that go with you everywhere, and when I look at my personal bill I see pretty much what the article described:  hundreds of text messages but few phone calls, and the ones that do appear are generally a few minutes.

Part of this is because of my job. I have to host conference calls with customers, vendors and co-workers on a regular basis.  Sometimes the calls become contentious as we try to juggle priorities and hash out a plan that everyone can live with.  I am guilty of returning voice mails with email because a.) it gives me a record of what was said and b.) it keeps the conversation from wandering onto other topics I was not ready to discuss.

Also, since my surgery I have been working at home most of the time, usually alone.  Thus at the end of the day, I really don't want to sit on the phone anymore.  I'd rather be either out somewhere or at least having face-time with another humanoid, not plopped in a chair with the phone to my ear.

I feel bad for those who do take it personally that their phone doesn't jingle with the frequency it used to.  Mine doesn't either, by the way; I sense my friends, many of whom are younger than I am, are experiencing the same ambivalence about phone time that the article describes.  The very omnipresence of the device in your pocket renders it both a convenience and an intruder, since the person "at the other end" does not know where or when you'll be in an appropriate setting to take a call.

However, I do take great pleasure in the ability to interact with so many people on Facebook.  I have been able to reconnect with friends from all stages of my life as well as create networks of folks with similar interests I might not have ever encountered.  If anything I feel more connected to those around me than in those Western Electric days, not less.

That said, on Friday I did call an old friend, whose family and career responsibilities have -- like mine -- limited her ability to socialize.  We indulged in a 123-minute conversation, and it was quite nice.  We both agreed not to let so much time go by before we did so again.

What about you, readers?  Has your phone activity changed?  Do you feel differently about getting calls and returning them than you did in the bygone wirebound, pre-email days?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Root, Root Root for the Home Team

Albrecht Dürer (1528), Matthias Grünewald (1528), and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1553) - Religious Artists

Tonight's adventure was a minor-league baseball game between the Newark Bears and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, both members of the independent Atlantic Baseball League, at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark. I had helped a friend try to promote a group outing to the game, but as it panned out it was only four of us. In the meantime, I had one eye on the Stone Pony because the Gaslight Anthem was performing and -- given a certain amount of mutual admiration that's been going back and forth between lead singer Brian Fallon and Bruce Springsteen -- there had been some chatter that the Boss might make an appearance.

Most folks I know do not go to Newark on purpose. It has a bad reputation which is for the most part deserved. However quite a bit has changed in the past few years in the downtown area, which will hopefully continue to boost the circumstances for the people who live in the city.

The first major undertaking was the construction of a massive opera house, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. A few years later, it was joined by an 18,000-seat arena for the New Jersey Devils NHL franchise. Both facilities bear the logo of Prudential Financial, the largest corporation with operations in the city. Because this is Jersey, of course it couldn't happen without a few deaths, a few accusations of corruption, and a whole lot of upheaval. But the arena is done, the Devils (and -- for now the New Jersey Nets NBA team) and the Seton Hall men's basketball team have taken up residence there, with concerts and other events filling out the schedule.

Here and there, other signs of life are popping up. The McCarter Highway (NJ Route 21) which connects the city to the airport to the south and Route 3 and Passaic to the north, has been repaved with new lights and streetscaping, and former abandoned lots are now bustling new bodegas and furniture stores. Plans for a new hotel, the first to be built in the downtown area in nearly 40 years, were announced in February. And the city's population slide by almost a third since the riots of the 'sixties, has finally reversed.

Now, where were we again? Oh yes, baseball game. The Bears (named after a Yankees farm team who played in the Ironbound section of town from the 'twenties to the late 'forties) are not associated with any major league team, but sport pinstripes perhaps as a nod to that connection. In addition, we initially thought there were two teams sharing the stadium (hence the "Bears and Eagles" but in fact too is a reminder of the past: The Eagles were a team of the National Negro League who shared Ruppert Stadium with the old Bears. The current organization has a nice wall of fame above the grandstand with prominent contributors to both of these teams.

I have to agree with my dad that people who have not given minor league baseball a try are really missing out. For starters, it's an incredible bargain. Arriving at the stadium, we found a parking deck right next door for $5. Tickets to the game are only $10 each, and, sadly, we were able to sit right behind home plate because there were not many people there on this beautiful weeknight. Food and beverage prices were sane, unlike what one pays at major-league venues. The area surrounding the stadium is a business district, quiet at this hour. Outside the gates are the Broad Street train station and the Rutgers business school. From the stands, one can see the Manhattan skyline on a clear day, and to the north, the trains of the Morris & Essex line chug past on elevated tracks. A Hampton Inn hotel and some attractive new townhomes across the Passaic River in Harrison peek over the outfield wall (and -- by the by -- Harrison has it's own professional sports venue now, a 20,000 seat soccer stadium which is home of the New York (ahem) Red Bulls). From Section 105, this certainly didn't feel like a blighted city one should be afraid to visit.

Then there is the simple fact that you are -- because of the scale of the place -- much more connected to the game. Unless one happens to be privileged enough to score seats right down front, the experience at Yankee or Shea stadium is fun but I feel more removed from the action than when watching the game on TV. Here, we could hear the banter between the officials, watch the on-deck batter warm up, and -- in our case -- witness a player interact with regulars who he knows by name. The players seem move between teams more often than in big-league ball; I checked out the history of outfielder Randy Gress, and I won't be having his name put on a jersey anytime soon: he's played for ten teams in three years!

All the regular shenanigans like the seventh-inning stretch, games on the field for the kids, and "YMCA" are faithfully executed to keep the energy up. We were treated to a good game against well-matched teams where the lead passed between them several times, and ended when the Bears' pitcher Manny Mejia hit a two-out two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. By this time I was listening to the live stream on the team website because a Certain Party's bedtime had come and gone. But he had also enjoyed himself and we all decided could definitely see making this a regular activity.

If you enjoy baseball you owe it to yourself to check out either the Bears or a team in your area. Sharing the Atlantic League with the Bears are the Somerset Patriots and the Camden Riversharks whom my sister and her family cheer on (read her thoughts here), and there's also the Trenton Thunder (affiliated with the Yankees), the New Jersey Jackals based at Montclair State University, among others. It's a great, cheap night out and they could use the support.

Monday, August 2, 2010

God Hates Religion?

Samuel Ferguson - First Black Bishop in the Episcopal Church & Missionary to West Africa (1916)

I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.

There's a pretty good chance that you've heard by now that novelist Anne Rice has declared to the world that she is "no longer a Christian,” citing the “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” lot we have become, and saying that to count herself among us would mean she would have to declare herself “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”

To quote Vic Ferrari: "Hard to get happy after that one."

Since the initial announcement, Rice has clarified repeatedly that this does not mean she is giving up on God; she still believes the same God those quarreling Christians purport to follow. She just can't do it in the same room with them anymore. This is different than the last time she walked away from the church; that time she declared herself an atheist, returning to the Roman Catholic faith several years later.

As CNN's Brian McLaren pointed out, this leaves the rest of us in kind of a conundrum:

"Her brief announcement raises lots of fascinating questions. For example, when a person quits Christianity in the name of Christ, what do you call that person? If Christianity means 'following Christ’s followers,' what do you call someone who wants to skip the middlemen?"

Semantics aside, it's a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, especially for those of us who have made universal inclusion a central part of our ministry. Apparently Ms. Rice has not heard of the Believe Out Loud initiative, a movement by seven mainline Christian denominations and a number of smaller ones, plus independent churches, secular organizations, and individuals to connect the LGBT community with congregations who have agreed and equipped themselves to welcome them.

She is also apparently unaware of, or chooses to tune out, the efforts many of us have made -- some of us at great personal sacrifice -- to help bring women closer to full equality both in the church and the world. The Episcopal Church ordained its first female priests in 1977 and its first female bishop in 1989. She also might not be familiar with the church's support for the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which prescribe the use of "non-natural" contraception and frank sex education to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, and all kinds of other science to improve the lot of billions of people around the world.

Apologies that I keep focusing on the Episcopal Church here for my examples, but she might also not know that our means of governance pretty closely parallels that of our democratic (at least in theory) nation, which is not a coincidence since many of the same people worked on setting them both up.

It would also be hypocritical for me to condemn Rice for her decision. I personally separated myself from the Roman Catholic church for fairly similar reasons in my late teens, attending only when family or a paid music gig required it, and did not find a new church home until shortly after 9/11. I don't blame the gay and lesbian people, Marxist graduate students, or anybody else who tells me they can't reconcile the message of inclusion I share with the images of Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson and all the others who use the Bible as a club to beat back those they perceive as undesirables from the gate. Some pretty rotten stuff has been done both by churches (including my own) and by individuals in God's name. And there really are verses in the Bible to which they can point and claim they are doing exactly as God instructed.

Even in "liberal" mainline churches like mine, there is still vast room for improvement. Our internal dirty laundry has been spread all over the world media for the better part of 25 years as we squabble over these issues. Maybe Rice's words sting because -- despite the progress I mention above -- there is more than a grain of truth to them. Even those of us on the "right" (by which I mean those who share my opinion, natch) side of these issues are guilty at times of looking at those who disagree with us as "the other" and maybe not worthy of our time. These problems would go away if only
they would. Except that -- in some cases -- they have, and we keep bickering nonetheless.

Rice is correct that the church, religion in general, is flawed. This is largely because it is a human construct, and thus flawed from the start. We behave the way we
think God wants us to... at least most of the time. But -- having little more than a very, very old book, cobbled together from scraps of parchment and oral history, then translated and truncated by people divinely inspired perhaps, but human nonetheless, as concrete evidence of what's expected of us -- we don't all get the same message at the end of the game of theological telephone. All of us -- Rice included -- share some responsibility for the result, something that is at times awful and other times wonderful, and even if she walks away she continues to shoulder that burden.

Viewed through that lens, it's somewhat amazing that we bumble forward even at the glacial speed that we do. But the fact is that there are still moments when we collectively deliver something that wouldn't be possible otherwise, such as the church's adoption of the ONE campaign to support the UN Millennium Goals when logic, experience and cynicism all tell us they are hopelessly optimistic. And grace happens at a much smaller, but no less important, scale every day thanks to hundreds of people who work together to make someone's life a little better, because -- at the crux of it -- that's what Jesus wants from us. We know that much for pretty certain. The rest of it is -- in my opinion -- best left to the suits.