Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Iron Maiden Concert

"I don't want to have as much energy as they do when I am their age. I want to have half as much energy as they do now." -- my husband, David, on Iron Maiden

One of the highlights of our summer vacation was seeing Iron Maiden in New Jersey on July 2. My first encounter with this band was from Matthew Martin, one of my biggest influences as a pre-teen. To me, Matt could do no wrong. He was cute, funny, smart, and above all, cool. If Matt thought it was cool, it was cool. Matt was the guy who got me into heavy metal, and for that, I will be eternally grateful. His room was covered in posters from heavy metal bands, and I eagerly drank their music in: Motley Crue, Kiss, and many others, except one: Maiden scared me because of Eddie, their mascot. He is drawn for teenage boys, not teenage girls, and Eddie grossed me out. So, I dismissed Iron Maiden as "too hard" for me. Cue that wonderful invention of the 90s, Napster: I decided to download a couple of IM songs, cuz what do you have to lose when they're free, right? I got "The Wicker Man" and "Run To The Hills" (note to IM if you are reading this: I promise, I have since purchased them). The melodic sounds of the former and the catchy riff of the latter appealed to me, but I was still totally into glam rock, and I assumed those two songs were aberrations and not indicative of Maiden.

What ignited my love of this band was the release of their single "El Dorado" off "The Final Frontier," their 2010 studio album. Eddie Trunk played it on his show and I was blown away, like mouth-hanging-open blown away. The song rocks. I was amazed by Bruce Dickinson's character vocals: "El Dorado" is about a hustler/huckster and Bruce nails that character. I could envision such a character on a Broadway stage. I was also blown away that a 30 year-old band was still kicking so much ass. This led me to investigate more IM, and the rest is history. The only benefit of not having discovered them earlier is that now I get to spend some time delving into their amazing catalog. Their melodic music, thoughtful lyrics and song themes really speak to me. Steve Harris writes about epic, mythic topics, and the band is quite literary. If my English teachers had played IM's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" I would have paid more attention to that book. I also appreciate IM's thoughtful treatment of spiritual matters, such as in "Infinite Dreams." Years of listening to Rush, with Neil Peart's unending disparagement of religion, have made me a little sheepish about being a believer and a rock fan.

IM doesn't tour in the United States often, so we were bummed that they were playing the D.C. area on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, when we are unable to travel to a show, listen to music, or engage in the commercial activities that entail going to a concert. Undeterred, we scored tickets to the show in NJ. I had heard often that IM puts on an energetic show, and they didn't disappoint us. I was glad to hear some old favorites like "Phantom of the Opera," "Can I Play With Madness?" and "The Trooper," and learn some new ones, like "Afraid To Shoot Strangers." I enjoyed Bruce's bantering with the audience, like getting the crowd totally worked up about Independence Day and then saying, "Doesn't mean a thing to me. I'm British!"

The stage was just impressive. Eddies abounded. Oh, how they abounded: massive animatronic Eddies, Eddies as backdrops, huge puppet Eddies, and even air-inflatable Eddies. They didn't turn off the explosion machines, to paraphrase Butthead, and they had these fire-shooting pillars that were so hot, you could feel them from very far back. The band played for two solid hours. It would be unfair to not give a shout-out to Alice Cooper, the opening act. He put on a great show, as he has since the 1960s. He's still being resurrected after every "killing" on stage, too. Impressive! Alice and his touring band were energetic, and just on. I enjoyed hits from way back in the catalog, like "School's Out," as well as 80s resurgence songs like "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein." I thought he was a good warmup for IM.

Since buying an IM t-shirt and cloth tote bag at the show, I've noticed an interesting cultural phenomenon. IM fans compliment me in public. There aren't that many of them where I hang out in D.C., but when they're around, they say something. Today, a guy flirted with me outside the Rockville Metro station after eying my shirt, and a clerk at The Container Store complimented my tote. David has gotten the same treatment when he wears his IM shirt.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crazy Cruising (Oceans, Not Bars)

Continuing my thoughts on cruising, some of the cultural issues of the ship were really notable: they have a staff of more than 900 people for about 2,200 guests. Of those 900 crew members, 15 were American. I am convinced that the cruising industry is the only thing (barely) keeping the Greek economy on this side of solvency, because they seem to employ a huge number of Greeks. Truthfully, most employees are Indian and Malaysian, with many Filipinos as well. What was obvious to me was the great stratification of nationalities: all of the officers are white/European. All of the top dining personnel were also white and European, yet I didn't see a single white waiter. The same stratification exists in the hotel side of the ship as well; I didn't see any white stateroom attendants, the people who clean your room twice a day, make sure everything is in working order and to your liking, and turn down your bed at night, yes, with chocolates included. I asked a lot of employees about this, and they told me the separation exists socially as well, with people of most nationalities exclusively hanging out with others from their country. Please keep in mind, many of these employees work 13 hour days, and all ship employees work seven days a week, so there isn't a tremendous amount of social time if they want to sleep at all.

The thing I didn't grok about cruising is that it is its own culture, though I should've figured this out by the fact that there are two formal nights on board the ship, when people dress in black tie clothing. There are standards and rituals that seem to be unique to this form of transportation, and many of them are just freaking weird. The most notable example is the parade in the main dining room with all of the restaurant staff at the end of the cruise. They shut the drapes in the dining room to block out other distractions, blast music, flash lights, and literally have the dining and kitchen staff walk around the dining room while diners cheer and twirl their napkins in the air. It was honestly the strangest thing I've ever seen, yet allegedly it happens on every cruise ship and goes way back in history (though probably without the light and sound spectacle). It lasted about five minutes, at the end of which I asked David, "So, now do we kill them and eat their young?" It was truly bizarre, then the shades went back up and everyone acted normally.

As far as I can tell, everything that happens on a cruise ship happens for one reason: to separate you from your money. There is no limit to the amount you can spend on a ship. Coca colas start at $2.50, and all of the entertainment takes place in locations where it is desirable to have a drink, and would even be awkward not to. There is a whole floor of shops where they sell mundane tourist shlock, but also Faberge eggs and luxury watches and luggage. The Celebrity Millenium even had an authorized Apple reseller, so there were people buying iPads and MacBooks. The formal night plays into this: you dress up and then get your photos made for free. We bought a package at an exorbitant cost, and we never dressed in black tie.

There is no end of amusement on a cruise ship, and you can literally spend your whole vacation on the boat if you desire. There is some kind of performance every night on board. There is a house cast, which is quite good. I had to resist the urge to pull the cruise director aside and tell her that it is very ironic that a performance that includes "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray didn't have a single black cast member in it! There were various other acts, including a comedian and a very good magician named Adam Trent. My favorite performers were North By Northwest, an a capella group formed for the ship. They were really special, and we went to hear them a few times. I also really enjoyed the naturalist on board, who gave lectures on topics like glaciers and whales. He also narrated certain points of the journey. There are different games on board, like karoke, trivia, and a newly-wed/not-so- newly-wed game. They host daily fitness and dance classes, too. There are also daily AA meetings, those these are always inconveniently timed if you're actually off the ship for an excursion. The programming on the ship was so good, I always found myself trying to balance my energy between going and doing things off the ship, and doing things on the ship, too, that I wouldn't get the chance to do in my everyday life.

I have to admit I could get used to life on board. I enjoyed the hot tubs and pools, where we met a lot of fun people (and, admittedly, quirky couples). I loved having someone to tend to my room, and the ability to have cottage cheese, fruit, and hot tea delivered to my room 24 hours a day for free. However, it was also very awkward for me to feel "waited" on all the time, by people who depend heavily on passengers for their livelihood. I went back and forth between feeling like it was awesome they had a job where they earned such good money, to wondering if they were being exploited, and sad that they leave their infants for six months at a time to earn a living.

I would consider cruising again. It worked well with my energy/physical limitations, in that I always had the ability to get back on board if I was run down, and I got to see a lot of places without re-packing my things. What is sacrificed is any kind of depth, so I would prefer a cruise that docks for two days at some ports so you could explore the port city more thoroughly.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Kosher Cruising (Oceans, Not Bars)

I just got back from my first cruise and a lot of people had questions about how it went in general, and specifically how it went as a kosher consumer. My husband and I traveled with family on the Celebrity Millenium on a seven-day cruise of Alaska's inside passage (note: I found this blog, which details one passenger's experience of our cruise day by day, if you want photos of more details, and if my arms allow, I'll write my own reflections later).

Our biggest concern about this cruise, hands down, was the availability of food that meets our dietary needs. We keep kosher, and in addition, I don't eat gluten or sugar. Moreover, I have to weigh my food to treat my binge eating disorder -- meaning that combined foods don't work very well for me, i.e. I do much better with fish, potatoes, veggies than with a fish stew. If you just ask a cruise line for "kosher meals" you will get the disgusting airline meals. We weren't willing to cruise with that as our sustenance, so we upgraded our meal plan to Celebrity's Premium Kosher meals. These were strictly kosher, frozen, catered meals substantially upgraded from the regular airplane food that they serve you if you just specify that you keep kosher. Celebrity charged an extra $17 per meal per person for this service, but that airplane food is barely edible for anybody, and definitely does not work with my food plan, so it was worth it to us.

We had a whole hassle before our trip when we learned, quite by accident, that Celebrity had dropped their vendor for Premium Kosher meals. Panic ensued. Friends who have cruised have assured me that the ship's kitchen would cook fish double-wrapped in aluminum foil for kosher consumers (this would allow us to eat food cooked in an oven where non-kosher food is also prepared), but when we called Celebrity customer service to ask about this, they told us that this was up to the discretion of each ship's crew. Crap!

When we got on board with a ton of packaged food, we went straight to Guest Services to register our concern. We ended up meeting that night with Executive Chef Jason Baynor, who told us that "the most important thing" to him was that we were happy and satisfied. We worked out a system where they custom cooked our lunches and dinners for us every day; they actually have a portion of their kitchen separated with police-line-type tape that is covered in tin foil and reserved for kosher food, which we saw on a tour of the galley kitchen. Even better, they had brand new pans that they reserved for our use. For days, we ate delicious variations of fish, gluten-free starches, and veggies. When I got sick of fish, I ordered an omelet, and then Jason asked if his sous chef could make us Indian curries in the new pots, and that is where the fun began. For three nights, we had Indian feasts of fish curries, rice, vegetable curries, and naan made from rice flour, which was surprisingly delicious. Furthermore, Celebrity bakes all of its own bread on board, and the ice cream is made from milk, cream and flavors bearing reliable kosher supervision. Lucky David!

For kosher consumers contemplating a cruise who wouldn't be comfortable with this type of unsupervised kashrut situation, you have a decision to make: if you are one of these travelers who truly doesn't care about food and just wants to see the sights, you may be ok on a cruise. For me, I would have been furious and resentful choking down the airline food, and it would've ruined my trip. You've probably heard that a big part of cruising is the food. This is true, both in the sensual pleasure of it and the social aspect: you spend a lot of time socializing around food on a cruise whether you're with people you know, or with strangers. This is an important part of cruising culture, and I would be doing a disservice to pretend like our dining arrangements weren't important. They were huge in our enjoyment of our travels.

Chef Jason and his crew went way out of their way to bend over backwards to gladden our tummies and satisfy our complicated dietary needs. In fact, on two different nights, other diners in the dining room asked our waiter why they didn't see what we were eating on the regular menu and asked if they could get it too (answer: no). The last night of the cruise, I was speaking to the restaurant manager, who actually works on many different Celebrity ships, and he told me he knows his colleagues on the other vessels would be happy to do the same thing for us. Having this issue resolved so satisfactorily definitely means that we would be willing to cruise again, and truth be told, it was an issue of God giving us an outcome much better than we could've ever imagined for ourselves: the first night on board we had some of the remaining Premium Kosher food and it was less than premium. We ended up with delicious, freshly cooked food made to order! The staff was way more than grudgingly helpful; they seemed genuinely concerned and interested in making our dining experience good. The head maitre d', Lazar, whom I wanted to invite to live with us, told us that he was learning about kashrut (the noun form of "keeping kosher") to better understand his kosher clients. Interestingly, Lazar is Serbian Orthodox and said that his religion has many of the same restrictions as kashrut, such as requiring that you drain the blood out of an animal before you eat it. The point is, they really cared.

In other oceanic food news, weighing my food was difficult on the ship, as both the motion of the boat and the magnetic interference made both digital and spring-loaded scales less than accurate. I just had to do the best I could at any meal, and some were definitely smoother than others. The bottom line is, I didn't eat compulsively, and if you have been on a cruise, you know what an accomplishment that is! It is literally a 24-hour food fest; you can get pizza or a steak in the middle of the night at no cost to you. I attracted more stares than usual with my food scale, but the truth is, I'd rather be stared at for weighing my food than for being twice the size I am now. There were some shockingly obese people on the ship. Far from feeling condemnation, I just felt sad, because they were truly limited because of their size. I am so grateful that because of my recovery in OA-HOW, I am pretty darn average looking and am not limited by my body weight. David and I went dog-sledding on a glacier in Juno. The company that organizes this charges a hefty surcharge for people weighing more than 280 pounds. Given that my top weight was 250, I was close to that a few years ago. Someone who previously went on this excursion joked with me to "not lie about my weight" (they weighed you there, so that wasn't an option anyway), and I am so unbelievably grateful to not be at a weight where I'm even tempted to lie about it. Weighing all my food so precisely is a huge pain in the ass sometimes, but for me the choice truly is between that and being back at 250 pounds, or more. There is no question for me which is worse.