Monday, July 24, 2006

Musical Interlude

Couple albums that have taken me lately:

TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

Finally! This is the breakthrough break-out break-in blowed up piece of musical shrapnel that will take over the world, if enough people hear it. This is a fully complete TVOTR album, fulfilling the potential of the original EP and minus the occasional lapse in judgment and weak bridge of their debut album. There are rhythms and melodies that are completely original, utterly TV on the Radio. The two new members - an actual human drummer and a smooth bassist - add much needed dimension to a band that strives for something greater than just music. This is passion in sonic form. Their lyrics are passionate and topical. There is talk of war that feels so personal we're not sure if they're meaning Iraq or some kind of personal relationship battle. There are images of floods and homes drowned and we know it is the ghost of Katrina. TV on the Radio are notorious as some of the only non-whitey indie rock music, but here they are more than just a color or a city or a genre, they are a statement of purpose and power.

Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That

This is the little band that could. As in, you can hear the potential on their songs, but I could never sit through one of their albums. A combination of boredom, repetition anxiety, and frank disillusionment would set in. Not this time. This is an kick-ass rocker of an album from start to finish. Phoenix seem to have let down their hair a little with this one. The tightness and over-calculated attention to detail of their previous works were admirable but not necessarily enjoyable. Again, not here. This album is simply fun. It is a breathe of fresh air. It lacks the pretentiousness of a lot of other, similar, bands that employ synths as if the 90's never happened, who sing in high-pitched flare unconscious of any metrosexual connotations, and whose lyrics don't make any rational sense, but are fun to sing along to. One of the best albums of 2006.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Our Mistake

The Middle East is about to erupt. There’s a war in Lebanon, a conflict that threatens to spell over into Syria. There’s chaos and rebellion in Gaza. There’s a civil war in Iraq. The pawns are on the field, killing each other. The major players, The United States, Iran, Russia, and China are still in shadow, waiting for their time to intervene.

Neighbors to the north, the European Union watches with apprehension. They know world wars. They know what they feel like, what they sound like, when they’re coming. They may not be able to see the smoke over the mountains, but they watch the explosions firsthand on TV. Neighbors to the South, Africa turns away from its own problems for a moment to watch the display on their doorstep.

Everyone has their reasons. Israel strives to defend itself. The Islamic jihadists seek power and the fulfillment of their prayers. The rich and the powerful protect only themselves.

Meanwhile, America waits, a slumbering giant whose selfishness and short-sightedness opened the door for this conflict.

What if there had been someone in our current administration who could read between the lines and think proactively? What if someone could have seen this coming?

For a moment there, when the Iraqis voted, when the suicide bombers in Israel, when we seemed poised for victory in peace, I believed our President.

I believed Democracy was the reason for the Iraq invasion and that once seeded in Iraq, it could and would spread across the region. Well, it has. Elections have brought criminals into power. The people voted based on their religion, based not on the facts, but the image and the propaganda. Look what happened when people did that in this country.

The biggest mistake, though, was we had misplaced faith as well. We believed in them, in the regular Arab and Israeli people of the Middle East who would rise to the occasion of democracy. Who would allow peace into their hearts if it meant safety, security, and separation. But we shouldn’t have. We should have been there, not in Iraq, but in Israel and Lebanon and Gaza to keep the other monsters at bay.

What do you when two people start fighting? You get inbetween them and try to reason with them? Where was America to do that? We were there ten years ago, Bill Clinton stood between Yassif Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin, and they shook hands. We should have stayed there and stick our bigass nose where it didn’t belong, but where it might help.

Right now is the time to look around. Right now is the time to evaluate mistakes and promise to correct them.

We’ve been selfish. We were distracted before 9/11 and then we were selfish and paranoid afterwards. We may not have pulled the trigger in the current situatuon in Israel, but we weren’t there to stop it. Why not?

Monday, July 17, 2006

So, war.

It seems to be affecting me more than most, this "crisis," this conflict, this war. I work in a building full of Jews and it's the talk of the town - and the country, I'm assuming - but it's all talk. It's all, "What happenned..?" or "Did you hear.. ?" or "Shame about..." But for me, it feels emotional. The images on TV don't shock me as much as the fears in my head. Fear of my family in Haifa, caught in a missile attack, my young cousin who I barely know but love so so much and the thought of something happening to her makes me want to... to not think anymore.

There's a Solidarity Rally tomorrow run by my job and a temple. I suppose I'm going. I don't feel the need. I don't believe in rallys or marches, cause they don't do anything. We have this false sense of importance that anything we do can change the course of history, can alter the opinion of governments and rebels and terrorists. But, we can't. We are as helpless as the frightened civilians on both sides of the border huddling together in bunkers and waiting for peace.

I was just informed that I have to go to the Rally. The whole office is going. To show suppport. For who? I don't know. For our collective jobs, apparently. I guess some people need to DO something in the face of all this sadness. Maybe they're the smart ones.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Alaskan Memories: Journey's End

Our seventh day of vacation, fifth on the cruise, found us settled in completely to the life of the rich and unemployed. We woke up early enjoyed breakfast in the fabulous Lido restaurant which had these huge windows with beautiful views of the outside and since we weren't set to arrived at our last port of the trip, Ketchikan, till after lunch, we spent the morning relaxing on deck, walking around, playing ping-pong. The weather was changing rapidly, from the constant rain and clouds of the days before to brightness, blue skies, and - surprisingly! - warmth.

After a relaxing morning, we arrived in Ketchikan to some bad news. An excursion that I had booked back in Miami and was REALLY looking forward too, a kayaking trip, was cancelled due to bad weather, a super-blustery wind that would have had us capsized in no time, apparently. To make for it, we decided on a completely different kind of trip for the day, a rather pricey (but worth it!) floatplane ride into Misty Fjords National Monument (kind of like a National Park, but slightly different). It was a clear bright beautiful blue day, not a cloud in the sky, so the name Misty Fjords didn't seem to apply, but, whatever!

Cliff faces rose hundreds of feet into the air, dusted with snow, while thin waterfalls fell in sparkling cascades into large lakes below. Fjords are created when ancient glaciers recede completely and in their wake they leave huge mountainous chasms that are filled in with lakes, some called "hanging lakes" that are perched high up in the air. It's an incredible sight to see from a low flying plane. But the best part was actually landing inside the park, in an abandoned cove a million miles (or so it seemed) from civilization and any other people. Once landed, the captain told us to "get out!" We were a little dubious. We would be going swimming. No, we stood on the flotillas (the legs) of the plane and soaked in the peace and serenity of this quiet spot. I could have stayed there for hours. I felt more at peace, more centered, more separate from the noise of the world, than ever before. It was truly cleansing. Unfortunately, we had to leave. We clambered back onto the plane, smiling and calm, and returned to the air, where more sights awaited us.

Later, we explored Ketchikan, nick-named Alaska's First City, because it is the southernmost city in the state and often the first stop for cruise ships. It is noteworthy for its proliferation of Totem Poles and for a certain street built on stilts over a creek, called, simply, Creek Street. it was once the red-light district in Alaska's Gold Rush time, but now - Alaska's Tourist Time - it's a tourist-friendly row of shops and stores. We did our gift-shopping for friends and family here and found some really great stuff.

The next day was another day out in the open ocean, on the way to our final destination, Vancouver, Canada. Like the first day, the speed of the boat seemed to immobilize both Shawn and I and we both took some Dramamine pills to settle our heads and stomachs. It mostly worked. We started to get sad, what with the end of our wonderful trip, but we tried to make the most of our last day, spending time in the Thermal Suite, napping comfortably in our room, and enjoying our last dinner on board. the Ryndam.

We were smart, though. Instead of rushing back home to work after the end of the cruise, we rewarded our general awesomeness with two days in beautiful Vancouver. It was our first time in this city, which was so impressive and so interesting. A lot of the city's older-style architecture reminded me of the brownstones of Boston while the glass-heavy urban sections reminded me of Chicago and the hills and electrical cables lines reminded me of San Francisco and the scattering of construction sites and tall metal cranes reminded us of Miami. So, it was sort of like visiting four cities in one.

Our first day we followed all the tourist guide's suggestions and went to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. It sounds cheesy, but it was super fun. The bridge was a little frightening and definitely exciting and beyond the bridge was a small nature park, with foresty paths, all these platforms overlooking a gorgeous valley, and something called a Treetops Adventure which is a series of small suspension bridges linking big trees to each other. The only thing missing, really, were little guys in Ewok costumes and the occasional Stormtrooper running around. That evening, we again followed all the tourist guides and went to a brewpub called Yaletown Brewing Co. for some great beer and lots of food (although the portions were huge and we barely finished what we got.)

The next day was all about Stanley Park. We'd read about it, saw pictures of it, and I kinda thought it would be like Golden Gate Park in SF, but it wasn't. It was three or four times larger, with tons to see and do. We visited a wonderful Aquarium where we saw beluga whales and walked along a sea wall overlooking a beautiful bay and the city. Finally, we walked down something Lover's Lane and although it seemed to be infested with insects, it was pretty and quiet and romantic. That night, we went to another romantic dinner, a fancy place called Vij's in the West End of Vancouver. We had a craving for Indian food - the one kind of food not available on our cruise - and so we googled around and found the most famous Indian place in the city. It was great although spicy as all hell! Canadians must like their spice.

And so, on that tasty note, our trip officially ended. It was a wonderful experience, full of incredible sights, amazing adventures, beautiful scenery, extreme relaxation, and I couldn't imagine doing it with anybody else except my lovely Shawn. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of shared WOW's, and a lot of quiet time enjoying a break from reality.

Obviously, I highly recommend doing an Alaskan cruise. You won't be sorry!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Alaskan Recap (Cont'd)

On the first day of our cruise we were on the open ocean, traveling down the Alaskan coast to the Inside Passage, a series of islands, inlets, rivers, and archipelagos that would be our playing field for the next six days. Our first day involved lots of getting-to-know the boat and enjoying good food and the relaxing atmosphere of the ms Ryndam. The crew was all foreign, mostly Indonesian and Phillipino. A more charming and relaxed people I could not imagine. Everyone was smiling, everyone was pleasant. I felt completely at home within the first few hours.

The second morning sticks out in my memory for a few reasons. It was cold. Seriously cold. Cold is something foreign in Florida, it comes occasionally, more infrequently than hurricanes, cold like this was definitely something we weren't use to. We bundled up in all the layers we could find and headed out to view College Fjord, our first national park, named because all the glaciers have names of Universities, like Harvard, Yale, etc. It was dark and misty and the clouds were so low, you could smell them. It was, in retrospect, the rainiest and cloudiest morning of the trip, but beautiful and haunting and memorable. So many glaciers calve all day all week all year here that the water is covered in small icebergs. They told us to keep our eyes open for any seals or otters using the icebergs as sea buses to travel, but we didn't see any. In fact, save the whale watching later and the copious Bald Eagle sightings, our wildlife quota was very low. Which was fine, the scenery more than made up for it.

The next day, the Ryndam sailed into Glacier Bay National Park, a large inlet that was once sealed off from the rest of the Inside Passage by glaciers. When the famous George Vancouver sailed into that area two hundred years ago, where his map showed a shore, there was an opening, revealing a series of finger-shaped lakes and bays that awe to this day. At the far corner of the park is the spectacular Margerie Glacier. The Ryndam came up amazingly close to the Glacier and parked, as if it would at a port, for a full hour while 95% of the boat stood on the open decks, enjoyed the surprising sunshine, and stared at the incredible glacier.

There's a sound glaciers make. The natives call it, White Thunder. It comes from little pieces of ice falling off the glacier and hitting the water below. There's also a waterfall-ish stream coming off the glacier. But that's nothing compared to when the beast begins the process called calving. There's a grumble, almost a moan from the ice, and massive pieces of it slide off and splash gloriously in the water below. Words can't quite describe the natural majesty of it. There's something ancient and fulfilling about glaciers, like old old trees; it invokes an almost god-like awe in the presence of them, especially when they are as detailed and beautiful as Margerie.

The next day, with the rain coming down in sheets, we arrived at our first port, the town of Haines. We had nothing planned for the day (my fault) and attempted to go on a nature hike through a rainforest, but we hadn't planned well in advance and there was nothing available. We instead went on a small trip in search of bears. We didn't see any. But we did get to see a very pretty lake and a whole bunch of bald eagles. We spent the rest of the day doing some gift-shopping in the town. We got some great stuff, including little totem poles and a native knife thing-a-majig callled an Ulu that Shawn fell in love with. (Maybe she just liked saying the name.) Click here for more info and pictures on Ulu's.

After spending the day being drenched by an angry Alaskan sky, we retreated daily to something called a Thermal Suite. I highly recommend doing something similar when going on a cruise, if it is available. We paid a small flat fee for the whole week and had acess to a semi-private suite in the Spa area. In this suite, there was a Turkish bath, steam rooms, and hot stone beds. It was the perfect way to soak in some relaxation and often Shawn and I were the only ones in there, so it was like our own little corner of the big boat.

Next day: Janeau, Alaska's small capital city. This was not a day for shopping or idle sightseeing, but rather adventure! Early in the morning, we ventured out in search of excitement. We had an excursion planned for the morning, but we wanted something in the afternoon, too, and we had decided two days ago that we liked whales and wanted to see some, dammit. From the boat, a lot of people were able to see whales thanks to their binoculars, but we were cheap and didn't buy any, so we didn't get to see anything. Besides, we weren't going to be satisfied by seeing a toy tail miles away, we wanted to be so close, we could touch them! But I'll get back to that.

First up was our helicopter ride towards the Hubbard glacier. Seeing a glacier from above is an incredible sight to behold. It was like passing over a blue mountain or something that looked like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. And to actually land on it! We set down next to an alien blue lake and stepped out of the helicopter. Those first steps are cautious and unsure. It's ice, for crying out loud! What if it breaks or gives? But it's didn't. Turns out ancient ice is as hard as stone. So, passing danger, we let ourselves by awed by wonder. The rain was back in full force causing clouds of mist the size of cruise ships and we were surrounded by these black mountains sliced by waterfalls. It was like another world. We walked around like astronauts without the zero G. Way too soon, it was over, and we had to return to normal land.

Later though, we embarked on our whale watching tour with the incredible Orca Enterprises and their newest boat, the Purple Streak. There were a few whale sightings that day in other parts of the surrounding waters, but our fearless captain and excited tour guide took us to a deserted part of the inlet system where three or four straits meet and there was no other boats in sight. It was there we saw incredible things. First, a distance shadow. Then, a waterspout. Then, a tail, slowly and seductively rising and falling out of the water. It was a pod of humpback whales netting, or feeding. They parked themselves not fifteen feet away from our boat and swam and ate and almost breached a few times while we watched in awe from the top deck of the Purple Streak. Suddenly, a cry from the other side. Another group. Two groups of humpbacks surrounding us, feeding. It was almost too much. But there was enough eye-candy for everyone in the boat. We took tons of pictures and even some video of the incredible mammals. Up close, even just seeing the curves of their torsos and their tails, you are gripped by excitement. We saw so much, even the tour guide broke out a video camera and started to take footage of what we saw.

Again, too soon, we had to return, specifically because Shawn and I were late for our boat! We had been told by the sales people earlier that day that the trip would last only til 4:30, which would give us enough time to make All-Aboard at 5:30. But it was coming up on 5 and we were still on the water! Thankfully, the people at Orca Enterprises are professionals and made it their upmost priority that we would not miss our boat. They sent one of their representatives to wait at the gangway of the Ryndam and make sure it waits for us and sent an umarked private van to take Shawn and I back. There were some stressful moments there as we pondered what would happen if we were stranded in Juneau, Alaska, but I was confident we'd make it in time. As soon as returned to the boat, though, we changed and headed straight for the Thermal Suite to decompress.

Alaskan Recap (Part 1 of a few)

Is this really a state? one is likely to exclaim upon arriving at this massive mountain range that calls itself Alaska. Flying over, thirty thousand feet in the air over the Canadian Rockies, snowy mountain peaks emerge and often I saw a huge mountain and thought, Is that the highest peak in North America? Definitely not, as the next mountain was even larger and whiter and more impressive.

Landed, in an hotel shuttle from the airport, I was on-the-verge-of-awestruck. There's a certain US-born familiarity in any US city, even one called Anchorage, Alaska, that is, according to a sign, 5433 air miles from Miami, Florida (home, unfortunately). So, as we drove through "downtown" Anchorage, I saw familiar names: Hilton, Burger King, Starbucks, and felt more at ease. This was not some alien country ... or so I thought.

The air was cool, not cold - as you might imagine - just cool. Almost bright. Sunlight lasts almost twenty hours a day in the summer here in the Mid-Alaska and instead of baking the air like the hot sun does in Florida, here winds from the mountains come and sweep softly across the valley. The city of Anchorage is hilly, full mostly of shops and restaurants. We quickly dragged ourselves to a brew pub on that first night and I had my own personal first taste of Alaska: beer. A tangy, sun-colored brew that rightly deserves the name, Gold Rush, and a sweet Pale Ale that tasted like summer.

Next day we were up before 6 to catch a morning train to Seward, Alaska, and the beginning of our cruise. This turned out to be an early highlight. The Alaskan railroad is an old institution, up to the 80's, it was the only federally run railroad in the country. Finally, the US Government sold it to the state of Alaska and it retains a wonderful charm: part transportation, part sightseeing. Alaskan citizens sleep peacefully in the nearby seats while wide-eyed children like Shawn and I stare out at the windows and snap dozens and dozens of pictures of the incredible scenery rushing past. We saw wildlife, some glaciers, and lots and lots of mountains, all of which had us squirming in our seats and wanting more.

Seward, Alaska, was not impressive. The proof, as I say, is in the tourist traps. We hit the Sea Life Center because I'm a sucker for aquariums (and beer) and quickly boarded what became our home away home for seven long, full days: The MS Ryndam (that's Mother Ship - i.e. carries smaller ships).

You know those scenes from the first episodes of The Real World when the kids get to their swank new pad and they run around and scream and go, WOW. Well, it was sort of like that. Much tamer. And with better music. The boat was empty at this early hour so we had the run of it. We walked and took in the internal sights. A lot to see! Leaping dolphins at the apex of a pool flanked by hot tubs, a beautiful three-story mermaid fountain, a large theater, huge open decks, small mini-decks, walkarounds, tenders, halls with large windows, lounges with smaller windows, bars with stages, a nightclub, sports fields and courts, ping-pong tables!, boutique lounges for the richer people, the massive two-deck Rotterdam Dining Hall, the spa.

As you can tell, this was my first cruise. And I was mightily impressed. Not just with the design of everything, the luxury of it, the cleaness of it, the courteousness of the crew, but especially the food! It was lunchtime when we boarded the boat and so we walked up to the buffet restaurant, the Lido, to find it empty save a few lounging crew members. Still, the buffet was stocked. Asian food, Italian food, main entrees that looked like dinner. We started our cruise very well. Ate, drank coffee, and then sat outside on the deck for the first time. (Aside: Time is such a vaporous thing on vacation. Reality is full of "work-time", "lunch-time," "evening-time" all these labeled sections of life. On vacation, there is no labels. It was as if Time was open and we could spend hours sitting on one spot, staring at the still or dynamic scenery, just breathing it in. And we did.)

Later that night, we left port, sailed off into the evening light, too early for a sunset, but not fast enough for me, eager for what's to come.

More to follow.

First round of pictures can be found at Getting To Maybe.