Sunday, December 31, 2006

Cruisin' with Jews

A frosty Sunday morning in Portland. 34 degrees and clear. I walk around the neighborhood with my dog. It is very quiet - most folks are probably still in bed.

Dylan and I arrived home last night, tired from 12 hours of travelling. It was a fine vacation, full of indulgence and a few genuine laughs.

The first day, in Pasadena, I spent in bed, coughing, sniffling, sleeping, and blowing my nose. It must have been time well spent, since I felt noticeably better the next day, when we drove to San Diego.

The check-in process at the cruise terminal went quickly, and there we were, on board a 12 story floating hotel with 1800 guests and 800 staff. As we enjoyed our first drink, the ship pulled out of the harbor and San Diego shrank into a line of twinkling lights. There were 14 in our group, covering all major age categories from 12 to 95.

We spent two days at sea, getting familiar with the ship layout and giving in to the enforced over-eating, before arriving in Puerto Vallarta early the third morning. This period was the final run-up to Christmas, and the incessant Christmas music on the loud-speakers was really getting to me. After all, when you're hearing 'Jingle Bell Rock' for the 5th time in one day, while trying to read and enjoy the sun on the pool deck, one's teeth begin to grind.

The morning after Christmas, I was out on deck, and 'White Christmas' started playing again. I marched down to the Main Desk and reminded them that it was time to change the music. The lady there shrugged helplessly, and it was not until the next day that I realized that we had finally returned to the classic Ship music: Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, and 'Margaritaville'. What a relief.

In Puerto Vallarta, Karen, Dylan and I had signed up for a shore excursion, and were led thru the process of getting off the boat and connected with the group. We were driven in a bus to a country hamlet north of town. As we headed out, the bus-guy-with-the-mike said, "on your right, you see the US embassy." It was a Wal*Mart. I liked that.

A bit later, after we hit the boonies, he said we were about to pass an exclusive condo community, where they specialize in aroma therapy. It was a prison. Mexican humor.

We parked at what looked suspiciously like a tourist-trap (later confirmed) where, after a brief orientation, we headed out for a morning hike in the Sierra Madre foothills surrounding the town.

It was actually somewhat strenuous at the outset, climbing a steep hillside. The guide was a 'rah-rah' kind of tour leader, and Karen detested his enthusiasm. The trail wound up to and around a ridge, with more ups and downs. At one point, we had a brief view of a lovely valley, but the leader pressed us onward. He was pretty good about pointing out the local medicinal plants and trees, which was interesting, and seemed to know his stuff, then hurried us along.

After an hour or so of hiking, we descended steeply into a lush river valley, where we had a few minutes to dangle our feet in a pretty enclosure of warm, volcanic-heated water, before walking back, along the river, to a truck which took us back to the tourist-trap. It was a nice hike - great to stretch those leg muscles, walk thru the dense foliage, and breath the clean air.

The guide had urged us to keep up a brisk pace on the hike, saying that we'd probably have 10 minutes before getting back on the bus to return to the cruise terminal, but those 10 minutes extended into a couple of hours. They did have a cantina there, with real mexican ladies making real mexican tortillas, and the lunch that was served us was actually terrific: imagine four delicious chicken tacos, with peppers, homemade salsas, guacamole, and beans, plus two cokes (Karen and Dylan) and two beers (me) - all for $5.

After that nice lunch, we obviously had plenty of time to visit the many craft and trinket booths. Karen bought some cool stuff while Dylan moped (he didn't enjoy the hike) and I listened to the three-man mariachi band hoping to get some tips. It was two young guys (guitar and bass) and an older guy (alto sax) - a somewhat unusual combination. Their first couple of tunes were standard mexican cliches, but I couldn't help noticing that the sax player was contributing some very creative and thoughtful licks - quite a bit more musically sophisticated than what the others were playing.

They took a break and, after a short pause, the sax player picked up his horn and, seemingly out of nowhere, played, as a solo, the lovely old jazz standard "Poor Butterfly." It was gorgeous and moving, and I doubt anyone there appreciated it as I did. I was happy to deposit a couple of bucks in the tip jar, before they nodded and moved on. This was a real unexpected pleasure.

Back at the boat dock, Dylan decided he'd seen enough of Mexico for one day, and returned to the ship. Karen and I grabbed a taxi and headed into Puerto Vallarta. We have been there twice before - once, I believe, even before we were married - certainly before Ben was born. I had the driver drop us off at the little zocolo in front of the cathedral, and instantly remembered having been there, many years before, eating an ice cream by the large iron bandstand in the center of the square.

The two of us browsed around the neighborhood, without any particular goal. It was hot but not humid, and great to be there, surrounded by the many sights of a mexican town. As we crossed the foot-bridge over the river, we spotted Karen's aunt and cousin strolling towards us. It was nice to see familiar faces, and we spent the rest of the afternoon with them, the four of us enjoying the archeological museum and shops on the island (which was certainly not that developed and pleasant 20 years ago). Eventually, it was Happy Hour and we found a quiet, riverside bar, where Rion and I had mango margaritas. It was genuinely splendid being there.

Soon, though, it was time to head back to the ship. We found the bus stop, then the correct bus, as it made its way thru the very noisy, crowded streets. So, it cost Karen and me $9 to take a cab from the ship into town, and the four of us about $2 to take the bus back.

A half-hour later, we were back in Luxury Land, watching the golden glow of the late afternoon sun on the hills behind town, and get ready for yet another massive dinner, with the rest of the cruise community. Nice day.

The next morning, we woke up docked at Mazatlan. It's always amazing how this happens. Rion and I were up early, and felt ready to get going into town. I left Karen a note, saying that we would try to be at the Plaza Machado at noon, then the two of us headed off.

It was early morning in a real working mexican city. Our immediate goal was the looming Pacifico brewery, to see if we could get in a tour. It was a long walk, but pleasant, and we eventually approached a line of American tourists, by the door. Alas, we were informed that their rules prohibited shorts, backpacks, and several other things that we had with us, so no tour for us. Rion was disappointed, since this was one of his goals for the day.

Instead, we headed into the old part of town, to the large public market, which was by then humming with morning business. The fruit and vegetable stands were colorful and attractive, but I was there to see meat, and I was not disappointed. There were entire carcasses, in various stages of dismemberment. There were skinned cow heads, pig heads, and piles of animal parts that I could not recognize. There is nothing in the world like a Mexican meat market. I took some photos, but haven't yet had the stomach to view them.

The cathedral was just a couple of blocks away and we headed there, although I was certain that we would not be permitted to enter, dressed casually as we were. Surprisingly, I was only admonished to remove my cap, and we joined the throngs of worshipers and tourists, inside the cavernous, lavishly decorated church. Mexico never fails to surprise: shorts were OK in God's house, but not in the brewery.

The morning was advancing. We found the Plaza Machado, surrounded by restored 19-century buildings, with ornate metal-work. One of the guidebooks I had consulted recommended it as nice place to sit.

It was just a few blocks to the ocean, and on the way there, there was supposed to be an Archeological museum. It was, alas, closed, but we did check out an adjacent art-gallery, with a small, curious, exhibit of mostly-modern stuff, many pieces with religious symbols (after all, this was Mexico).

A nearby Internet cafe provided a chance to check email and dash off short notes to various family and friends back home. It was just over a dollar for an hour of time - a real bargain after using the .55/minute ship Internet.

Back at the Plaza Machado, I pulled out my book and spent a quiet 45 minutes reading and people-watching, before I was joined by a bunch of family members, including Karen and Dylan.
Enough of us were hungry to make lunch a priority, so we headed back to the waterfront, where we found outdoor seating at 'El Shrimp Bucket' (est. 1963). It was a gorgeous day, and we savored the breeze, the ocean views, and the wonderful ceviche, fish tacos, tortilla soup, and several beers.

Dylan and Leah headed to the beach, while Karen and I did a little more sightseeing before returning to the beach. We played there in the waves and sand for a while, but soon it was time to head back to the ship. We hailed a passing tourist-truck, negotiated a price ($5) and he drove us back to the terminal.

A great day in Mazatlan. We had been there many years ago, but had, inexplicably, never seen the old part of town. This was turning into a great vacation.

The next morning, we were docked at Cabo San Lucas. However, due to engine trouble on the boat, they had drastically shortened our time ashore to a measly 4 hours. Karen and I walked very slowly with Sylvia, Karen's 95 year-old Mom, and didn't cover a lot of ground before we all headed back. Dylan, however, spent the morning sleeping late and watching TV in his room, which makes my son able to truthfully state that he's probably the only American who has visited Cabo San Lucas twice, without ever actually seeing it (the first time we were there, 19 years ago, he was still a fetus).

After leaving Cabo at mid-day on Thursday, we had the rest of that day and all day Friday on the boat, slowly making our way back to San Diego, where we docked early Saturday morning (was that just yesterday?). There were the usual dinners, chance encounters with family members, spectacular sunsets, cheesy ship activities (our family team was 2nd in the final, fiercely-competitive Team Trivia challenge), and simple lie-in-the-sun-and-do-nothing on the Aft pool deck.

Cruising is certainly a comfortable, odd way to spend a vacation. It's absurd, articifical, and horribly wasteful in terms of food and energy. In the future, people may look back on this institution, and shake their heads in total bewilderment. It would only increase that sense of unreality if they were to witness, on the next-t0-last-night, the Parade of Baked Alaskas, each with a lit sparkler.

Saturday morning, the process to get off the boat went very quickly, and the Customs folks simply collected our standard one-per-family form before waving us thru - no passport check or anything resembling identity-verification. We got back to where we parked the cars, drove to Pasadena, and, an hour later, Karen drove Dylan and me to the Burbank airport. She is staying there, helping her Mom, until tomorrow afternoon.

Dylan and I got home around 8:30 pm, and the dog was overjoyed at our return. After a couple of hours, Dylan announced he was heading off, and I don't expect to see him until tomorrow afternoon (just talked to him on the phone).

Today, I have had the entire place to myself (and the dog). We took two walks in the neighborhood, I did a little cooking and a lot of laundry and reading. It's New Years Eve, and the plans we had to get together with friends fell thru, so it's pretty quiet. I have to go to the airport in an hour, to pick up my neice, Leah, then return home for a quiet, solo evening.

So, having completed my third cruise, how do I feel about it? I admit that I've always been pleased to talk disparagingly about this form of vacation, as totally artificial, self-indulgent, and resource-wasteful. It is all these things, but, I have to say, it was a fun week, with a lot of laughs, great sights (both sailing and at the ports-of-call), and family fun.

However, one of my long-standing fantasies was shattered. I have always thought that being the piano-player on a cruise-ship would be a great life. You get to play for people who have been drinking for days and enjoy the air and sights of ocean travel. What could be better?

Well, one night toward the end of the cruise, Dylan and I found ourselves in one of the lavish lounges around 10:30 pm. It was mostly deserted, except for the piano-player, who was pounding out Beatle songs. Soon, he took a break, stepped away from the (digital) piano, turned on the recorded music, and walked off. I approached and asked if I could play a little, and he said (with a thick Russian accent) 'sure.' I played a few bars of 'Cheek to Cheek', and he came over.

"This piano is shit," he sneered, "I hate it." This was my opportunity to find out how wonderful his job was, so I asked a few questions. Turns out that he has to play 5 hours a day, mostly in that one lounge. He repeated that he hated this piano, that it sounded awful. I asked him if he was free to play whatever he wanted, and he said 'yes', but that the guests always asked him to play the same five tunes, the most-frequent being 'As Time Goes By.' "I hate it," he said, again and again.

I asked him how often he got off the boat and he looked at me as if I was crazy. After a little more of this, we left him, an angry, frustrated prisoner of the cruise-line. It was a revelation.

The next night, Karen and I strolled past the midnight dessert buffet (an amazing assortment of goodies, with chocolate fountains, ice sculptures, butter sculptures, etc). Over in the corner, I saw the same piano player, at another electronic keyboard. He played 'Killing Me Softly with his Song', and the sound quality was awful. Then, there was a fanfare, and the announcer made a big announcement, about all the chefs and the goodies they had created, and how wonderful everything was. There was a smattering of applause, before the crowd returned to attacking the trays.

There was a brief pause, and then the piano-player launched into 'As Time Goes By.' Karen and I passed him on the way out. He and I made eye-contact and I know he recognized me from our chat the prior evening, as he nodded, as if to say "I know you understand what I'm going thru".

There was hopelessness on his face, as we left the area.

Time to head for the airport. Happy New Year, everybody.

back home

Dylan and I arrived back at PDX last night. Karen decided to stay in Pasadena for a couple more days, to help out at her Mom's.

It's New Years Eve. Big Deal.

The cruise was actually mostly fun - will write some anecdotes one of these days. After 10 days of concerted family/group activities, it has been great today to have the whole house to myself (and the dog), reading, snoozing, doing laundry, etc.

It's now about 4 pm. I have another 4 hours before I need to leap into action.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

off we go

Heading to the airport in less than an hour. We fly to Pasadena tonight, then drive to San Diego Saturday, for the week-long cruise to some Mexican ports-of-call. It should be totally surreal.

There are a dozen family members, from 12 to 95, in our group. Fortunately, it's a pretty genial bunch.

It will definitely be a break from the Oregon death-news and rain.

We hope. Happy Solstice, everyone.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Improving on Tom McCall

Governor McCall, you may remember, is noted primarily (and incorrectly) for his famous 1970's exhortation "Come to Oregon to visit, but don't move here".

Between our reputation for Assisted Suicide and the current wilderness catastrophes, it could be ammended, for maximum impact, to "Come to Oregon, and Die here."

Mt. Hood was looking gloriously beautiful this morning, as I took the recycling out to the street. A band of color lay above its snowy, deadly crest. It's darn cold here in Portland - it must be amazingly inhospitable up there.

Meeting with a client this morning, to discuss upcoming work, then I have a concert with the Jewish Old Folks chorus (visiting another facility) this afternoon. Tomorrow, another concert with the same group, at their own facility. 'Tis the season.

At some point, today or tomorrow, I will pull out my large travel bag - the one I need to use when I'm taking more shoes and better clothes than my usual stuff. We leave Thursday night for our California/Mexico trip.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Who Killed James Kim, the next chapter

Well, well, well - now it turns out that the story about vandals who broke the lock on the gate to that road was a fabrication. I apologize for insinuating that beer-drinking yahoos ought to be blamed for this.

It was the local authorities who had neglected to secure the gate. Was it carelessness, or simply a low priority, due to other concerns? We need to know.

Meanwhile, up on Mt. Hood, the families of the lost hikers are still putting a brave face on things, but, now that they've been out there for a week, and with a record-breaking storm about to hit in a few hours, things are not looking good.

Finally, on Thom Hartmann's radio show this morning, there was an Islamist scholar discussing the distribution of Sunni and Shia throughout the middle east. Everyone knows that the Saudi royal family is Sunni - that's no secret - but did you know that the majority of the population is Shia? That was news to me. Given the long-suppressed hostility towards the royals in that country, it's easy to visualize a coup that would institute yet another Shia government.

Another surprise - Syria, Iran's closest buddy in the area, is predominantly Sunni, not, as I would have expected, Shia. I supposed that makes sense, since, after all, Damascus was the original Islamic center, before Bagdhad was even founded.

It's a complicated world out there, and a stormy one, too. Karen, unfortunately, had to drive to Eugene for a hearing this morning - she just left the house a half-hour ago. Later this afternoon, when the wind and rain really hits, she will be driving back to Portland. Fortunately, she took my Subaru, which has better tires and traction than her Matrix. It will be a relief to see her arrive safely, late this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Yikes - getting weird in Mexico

We are heading there next week, so it's a little alarming to read this.


This. The money quote:

"...the appalling, unnecessary calamity of George W. Bush's presidency".

Juan Cole today

Go read his December 13th piece. He discusses the emerging alliance allignments in the Middle East, which, from his perspective, have Israel, Jordan, the 'official' Lebanon government, and Saudi Arabia allied against Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah faction in Lebanon, with the Iraq Civil War being the battle-ground where the conflict is playing out.

The notion of the Jewish State allied with the most repressive, right-wing, Islamic fundamentalist regime in the area is mind-boggling, and the US occupation of Iraq was the catalyst for this whole mess.

But I thought the whole 'project' was going to be a cakewalk.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

buh-bye, Jeffrey

Off to the slammer. I guess he refused to tell the prosecutors where Kenny Boy is hiding.

Meanwhile, I sure am getting a kick out of my WiFi iPaq. This noon, I had plans to have lunch with two former bosses (!), but had a chore downtown first. After doing that, I sat in Pioneer Courthouse Square, successfully logging into the free WiFi to check my mail.

As I sat there, tapping away, who should walk up but Ben, on his way to lunch at Todai, the all-you-can-eat sushi place. Today is his 20th birthday, and a friend was taking him to lunch there. It was nice running into my boy, and we walked together for a couple of blocks. He's no longer a kid, but not quite an adult.

Back to the iPaq (sorry, just can't help talking about it). Finally, this afternoon, I got everything working to my satisfaction, including syncing my calendar (Yahoo) with the handheld, and getting send/receive working with my email provider, using Pocket Outlook. Turns out that I had to upgrade to their 250 MB package, in order to get SSL, which is required to do wireless email. Naturally, there was nothing on their website telling me about the SSL requirement, and I spent many hours, the past few days, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Now, it's a snap, and amazingly cool to have everything working. I have also downloaded a few free utilities and games, and even the Opera browser (which works incredibly well). In the past, I was always dubious about the usefullness of handheld devices for me, but, with the WiFi, it now becomes an amazingly useful extension of my cyber-life. They even have a Skype client for Pocket PC - may have to give that a try one of these days.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oregon - Nature gone wild!

James Kim dominated Oregon's face in the national news last week, and, this morning, the top story is 3 Mt. Hood climbers missing. Next week, look for a story about some guy harvesting a Christmas tree that fell on him and poked his eye out.

It's brutal out there.

Went out to dinner last night with my two boys (Ben turns 20 tomorrow, believe it or not) and Dylan's girlfriend. We went to our local mexican place, and the boys ordered the 'macho nachos'. The waiter looked dubious, so I cancelled my order and said I'll dig into the nachos, too.

All heads in the restaurant turned our way when it was delivered to the table - the largest mound of food I've ever seen. With three of us on the attack, we made it all the way down to the bottom layer of encrusted chips and melted cheese, but I certainly had carnivore's remorse afterwards. Still, it was nice to have a family dinner - it doesn't happen very often anymore.

My work-load is pretty slim for the near-term, as things are getting wrapped up for the year. I have a lunch scheduled tomorrow with two former bosses (Randy from Blue Cross and Dan from Enron), neither of which still works in the big-business world. Should be fun to compare notes, especially since Dan just became a father for the first time, a couple of months ago.

Still having fun with my new WiFi iPaq. I don't have everything in place that I need just yet, but it's close. I can't get Pocket Outlook to consistently send and receive to my mailbox - something is still not right, but the Opera browser for Pocket PC is incredible - it really renders pages well, with zoom and display tools for moving around.

Lots of chat this morning about Gordon Smith's recent anti-war statements: are they a sincere epiphany, a bald-faced pandering to the Winds of Change, or is this simply how the system is SUPPOSED to work, according to Thom Hartmann's famous explanation of the Politician Mind:

"Politicians look around for a parade. When they see one, they march to the front and say 'follow me - this is MY parade'. In order to effect change, it's the Public's job to create the parade."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

who killed James Kim?

It's coming out now (and this appears to be the definitive word) that the road they hoped to take to the coast IS normally gated this time of year. Apparently, some 'vandals' recently cut the lock and left the gate open.

They killed James Kim.

Were they looking for a place to go snow-mobiling? A secluded spot in the woods to have a party? Were they part of the "the Government can't tell ME where I can't go!" crowd, or just simple idiots?

Somewhere down in rural southern Oregon, I just believe that some guy is looking down into his beer, muttering about stupid Californians who don't have enough sense to know about winter travel, and another yahoo who is looking down into his beer and muttering 'oh, shit.'

Saturday, December 09, 2006

nice variation on Worst.President.Ever

In the light of Bush 41's public, self-pitying sobbing the other day, this was seen on an Atrios comments thread:



Thursday, December 07, 2006

the lust for gadgets

So, we are going on a cruise over Christmas. This is a family thing, with 12 of us altogether. It wasn't my idea of a great vacation, but my 95 year-old amazing mother-in-law has mobility issues, so it is what it is.

We depart from San Diego, and will visit PV, Mazatlan, and Cabo - all places I've been before.

We had a pretty good time on the Caribbean cruise last year, once you get beyond the surreal notion of a giant ship, burning all that fuel, in order to make a round-trip, carrying a boat-load of overfed, often-demanding, generally well-to-do Seniors. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Every time I go on a trip, I like to take along some new toy. For Spain, it was a new digital camera. I just discovered that the cruise ship has several WiFi hot-spots. I hadn't planned to take my laptop, hoping to avoid work, but it would be convenient to be able to check my email without having to wait for a terminal at their Internet center, or rent a laptop for WiFi access.

So, off we go to craigslist.

Within minutes, I found a guy selling a souped-up iPaq, with *built-in* WiFi, a 512 MB SD card, and, best of all, it runs the new Windows Mobile 5 (so it can rotate the screen portrait or landscape). He's asking $130, which is a darn good price.

I need a Windows Mobile 5 device for testing software that I wrote and support, so it's a tax-deductible purchase. Plus, the guy has a detachable keyboard, originally for a Palm device, that *might* work (he's looking for drivers now), that he said he'd throw in for free. Plus, he bought a 2-year replacement warranty from Fry's, that he can transfer to me (for a slight charge).

What could be cooler than sitting in the sun, with tropical breezes wafting about, and a drink-with-an-umbrella at my side, while listening to MP3s and checking my email for penis-enlargement ads?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

on Robert Gates and James Kim

I think Juan Cole has it right, as usual. It's totally ironic, but the fact that Gates was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal may be a good thing, since it suggests that he might still have some contacts in Teheran, that would help US relations with that troubling country.

Meanwhile, I can't help thinking about poor James Kim, still lost in the wild canyons of south-east Oregon. Looking at the map, it's clear that his intuition about the direction to take to find help was totally wrong, and he headed off into an even-more-remote region.

If they don't find him today, I can't imagine his strength and clarity of thought lasting much longer. Very sad, and, after 9 days, I can easily see myself making the same decision he did, despite the traditional wisdom of 'stay put until they find you'.

Monday, December 04, 2006

heard on Randi Rhodes this afternoon

John Bolton is resigning as US Ambassador to the UN, to "spend more time screaming at his family".

heh, heh.

the last push before the next vacation

Early Monday morning - sitting in the dining room looking out at the mostly-gray sky, but with a luminous band of yellow on the eastern horizon.

Just looked at my calendar for the next couple of weeks. I have 7 scheduled music performances, mostly with the chorus at the Rose Schnitzer (Jewish Old Folks) home. There's also a bar mitzvah (the klezmer band) probably two get-togethers with Brooke and Richard, and a private party (solo piano).

Then, on the 21st, we fly to southern California for a week - a couple of days in Pasadena and then the cruise down along the Mexican coast (with about a dozen family members). Lots to do before that surreal scene happens.

But, at the moment, I am enjoying my cereal and the sunrise.

Heard there's a new book out, advising blog newbies on what not to write. It's called something like "Nobody cares what you had for Lunch.' Probably applies to breakfast, too.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

It's the oil, stupid

If there was ever any real doubt that the Bush Administration is little more than a machine for furthering the interests of Big Oil, we have this shocking piece from Daily Kos. From the beginning, that was the goal, and, as time goes by, the lust for control over oil explains the Iraq project better than any other geopolitical theory.

They can try to cloak it in any number of phony rationals, but I really think it all comes down to 'keep it flowing', and that applies not only to the crude.

I also believe that, at some level, these people sincerely believe they are acting in the best interests of the American people (to keep our society moving and fed), and that, once our oil supplies were guaranteed (at the expense of everyone else in the world), the American Consumer would understand that all the sacrifices were worth it. Further, they believe they are entitled to be well-compensated for doing all this 'hard work' on our behalf.

If only we would shut up and keep driving.

Meanwhile, I saw a great clip of Al Gore on some show, talking about the 'An Inconvenient Truth' DVD. Apparently he was asked a question something like "isn't it true that people will be terrified by what they will learn?", Al replied, "it's not nearly as alarming if you watch it in slow motion."