“growing lawns,” cruise ships?

I’ve been on my fair share of cruise ships, not a ton mind you like friends of mine, but enough to know that I love cruising. As mentioned in my post of 9/9/10, “european getaway, holland america line,”

Cruising is like taking your hotel everywhere you travel. There’s no need to pack , unpack and repack. You needn’t fret about transporting yourself from city to city. All meals are included, selections ranging from Asian to Italian to American to Continental to everything-in-between. And contrary to popular belief, you needn’t stuff yourself to overflowing. But if you do, exercise opportunities abound. There are spin classes, elliptical machines, decks to walk, and pools to swim. I can attest to the fabulous shopping, especially in the jewelry shops. Some of my favorite pieces, real and costume, were shipboard “gems.”  Nightly entertainment rivals Las Vegas and Broadway. Then there’s the casino for gamblers, the lounges for dancers, and the amusement arcade for the younger set. A theatre features current films, special cooking classes satisfy the gourmands among us, non-denominational services gathers the religious together. Finally, the ports-of-call are yours for exploring, if you so desire. Our family chose walking tours, so we killed the proverbial “two birds with one stone.” We could eat very well onboard ship, and rid ourselves of excess calories on the shore excursions.

Cruising is my idea of a REAL vacation, no making up the beds, no straightening and vacuuming, no cleaning the bathroom, no cooking and serving, no clearing away the table and stacking the dishwasher. I can rise early or late, eat whenever, nap if I like, finish a book I’ve only read for 5 minutes before falling asleep at night. Time to myself with no chores to do before I’m allowed to play, is my favorite part of being on a ship away from land, hearth and home, at least for a week-and-a-half or two. That’s enough to get me back into the swing of living the life I love.

An article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, “Cruises Where the Grass Is Greener,” takes cruising to a whole other level. Ships are being equipped with ALL the amenities of home, leading you to think you’re still there. On the other hand the article’s opening line, Cruise lines are trying to solve a peculiar dilemma: How to make it actually feel like you’re on water,” seems to imply the opposite. Reading on, I understood their unique problem.

Built like fortresses these days, or at least like floating hotels or Malls of America, passengers might forget the unique experience of being on water. To remind them that they are indeed away at sea, “cruise lines are increasing the amount of outdoor space on both small, luxury ships and large, mass-market ships.” The Silver Spirit, Silver Seas newest vessel, with a passenger capacity of 540, “has 60% more outdoor deck space than previous ships, including larger guest-room verandas and the company’s first restaurant serving dinner outdoors. (Guests can cook their own meat and fish over hot volcanic rocks.)”

Celebrity Cruises’ Silhouette, which sets sail in July, will have two new restaurants with outdoor seating, an open-air art studio where guests can take painting lessons and VIP sea-view cabanas for rent. All will be located on the top of the ship surrounding a 12,000 square-foot lawn of growing grass.

Some suites on Oceania Cruisesnew 1,250-passenger ship, the Marina, have balconies outfitted with Jacuzzis and 42-inch flat-screen TVs specially made to withstand wind and salt water.

In an effort to lure younger customers to cruising, other lines are following suit. Carnival Cruises, however, has already secured its place as the premier party cruise company. I’ve never sailed with Carnival, but friends who have, were not disappointed. They wanted fun; they got fun. Sailing in May the lines’ newest ship,”Magic,” will “feature a 9,300-square foot water park, an outdoor video game area and an open-air sports facility with exercise bikes and rowing machines.”

In an attempt to compete with lavish sea-side resorts, cruise companies have incorporated spas, gourmet restaurants, rock-climbing walls, and Broadway shows like “Chicago” and “Hairspray” into their shipboard offerings. But increasing these to include grander outdoor spaces comes with a price, “ships face challenges that land resorts usually don’t.”

Nippon Yusen Kaisha’s Crystal Cruises sometimes ropes off the jogging track that wraps around its Symphony ship…in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, regulations require…(removing) paper coasters and napkins from all outdoor restaurants and bars. Alfresco activities are curtailed, too. “You can’t play ping-pong for fear the ball may go over,” says Mimi Weisband, vice president, public relations.

The grass growing in the Lawn Club atop Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships, had to be “hardy enough to withstand salt water and wind–and light enough so the roof wouldn’t cave in. The grass grows in a thin layer of sand, clay and volcanic pumice.”

On a recent afternoon onboard the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Eclipse, employee Eugene Creencia was ripping up areas of dried, brown grass and setting down wooden platforms in their place. …deck furniture and high-heels are banned…”It rips up part of the grass and we don’t have any to spare”…

Taking advantage of the shipboard lawn, when the ship docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, “several guests stayed onboard   and played bocce and croquet–and remarked on the incongruity of lounging in a park on a ship.”

Later that evening, a jazz trio played on the Lawn Club. Couples sat on wool blankets laid out on the grass while crew members passed around glasses of wine and plates of cheese and fruit. The lights of San Juan blinked on shore.

Not only are cruise companies expanding and enhancing the outdoor spaces, they’re seeking to bring the outdoor experience indoors as well.

Everything from gyms to manicure stations are getting floor-to-ceiling windows to enhance sea views. Carnival will place desiccated palm trees and agave plants on its new Breeze ship launching in spring 2012. “They don’t require soil or water. …You feel outside even if you’re in a climate-controlled,” space.

Cruise lines have not been exempt from the economic downturn, but have been making a steady comeback within the last year. “Carnival Corp.‘s earnings, for example, rose 22% last summer.”

If I were you I’d pack my bags and head for the open ocean.

just make sure you board a ship first…hugmamma.

putting a “face” on the “unknown”

Glad I stepped away from the keyboard to visit with dear friends last night. Because of them I overcame my reluctance to get gussied up for a fundraising event in the city. My husband knew nothing about the organization sponsoring the dinner; he didn’t know what the letters “HRC” represented. The hours slipped by quickly, as we listened and learned about the “Human Rights Campaign.” 

We’ve attended other fundraisers over the years, ballet balls, zoo events, symphony dinners, among others. At the ballet ball, I remember ending the night rocking to the deejay’s music on the dance floor. At zoo events, I thought it was cool to visit the butterfly house, and witness the jaguar feeding, afterhours. And at a symphony fundraising dinner, my husband bought me my favorite watch, which I wear every day. Unlike these, last night’s event had no gimmicks, unless one considers the guest speakers as the “drawing card.” If so then, in my estimation, they were the most relevant “gimmicks” I’ve ever entailed.

Washington’s U.S. Senator Patty Murray spoke of her genuine efforts on behalf of her constituents. She focused on 2 in particular, who wrote letters asking for  her help. One was sent by a young girl whose dream it is to proudly serve her country in the military, but isn’t allowed to do so while proudly “owning” who she is, because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The other letter was written by a dedicated teacher of 30 years, who tried to help a young student suffering the harassment of peers after she “came out.” Failing to garner official support for the youngster’s plight, the teacher informed the girl. Three days later, she committed suicide.

In his turn at the podium Joe Solmonese, HRC President for 5 years, brought me “up to speed” on the organization’s efforts to achieve total equality for a segment of the population that has been disenfranchised for too long. I was especially impressed when he emphasized that they are NOT victims, that they will not be deterred in their efforts, no matter what obstacles they encounter as they campaign for their freedom and rights. In the evening’s program, Mr. Solmonese wrote, in part, “Our community’s voice has never been more influential and never have we had a more friendly audience in our lawmakers. With your support, HRC can make our community’s voice heard loud and clear.”

A Child Protection Social Worker, Janice Langbehn, related a moving story of “man’s inhumanity to man,” to coin a phrase from a long ago episode of “All in the Family,” where Gloria attempted to explain a simple truth to her family. While she elicited chuckles from the viewing audience, including me, Ms. Langbehn’s words resonated with both my husband and I. With her legal partner, Lisa, and 3 of their 4 adopted children, they celebrated their 15th anniversary in February 2007, by boarding a ship in Miami to cruise to the Bahamas. While waiting to sail, Lisa oversaw a basketball game the kids were playing. Within 20 minutes they ran to their stateroom to get Janice, telling her that Lisa was sick. Janice and the children made their way to “Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center, where Lisa had been taken. When her family, Janice and the youngsters, arrived they were told by a trauma social worker that Miami and Florida were “an anti-gay city and state” and were not allowed to visit Lisa or receive any news of her condition. Despite securing the couples Medical POA required by the Center, Lisa’s family continued to meet with resistance, until Janice accompanied a priest who gave her partner the Last Rites. The children were also finally allowed a few minutes with their mom. But in the end, Lisa died alone on February 19, 2007. Since then Janice has publicly spoken on behalf of change to homophobic policies like those of Jackson Memorial. In April of this year, President Obama phoned Janice apologizing for “the treatment her family received and described the Presidential Memorandum he sent to HHS to direct Federal Regulations to allow same-sex couples the same hospital visitation rights as other families.”

What makes Langbehn’s story even more compelling is the dedication with which she and her partner committed their lives to helping children. “Their love and life together was defined by their care and passion for aiding special needs children. In 1992 they were the first openly gay foster parents in their county, fostering 25 children, 4 of which they adopted, and all with special needs due to drug and HIV exposure. Janice’s long history of social work and care for children began while employed with DSHS and the State of Washington as a Sex Offender treatment provider in a juvenile prison. She saw a need to intervene earlier in a child’s life and so became a Child Protection Social Worker. Janice completed her first Master’s in Public Administration in 1995 and in 1997 was accepted to the University of Washington Master in Social Work Program. In April of 1999, Janice was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. From 1996 until Lisa’s untimely death in 2007, the two were intimately involved in their children’s lives. They managed HIV appointments, taught first communion classes, volunteered in the children’s school and began a successful Girl Scout troop.” Janice continues to speak out as part of “the educational process that comes with the fight for equality.” To a standing ovation and thunderous applause, she was honored with the HRC Equality Award.

Introducing the final speaker of the evening, was a dentist who shared a childhood secret with us. He had always dreamed of becoming a figure skater. But he put aside his dreams, and fulfilled his mother’s dream instead. Forty years later, thanks to Johnny Weir, the dentist is taking ice skating lessons. Bravo!

The name meant nothing to me, until a video clip showed Johnny Weir in the spotlight, representing the U.S. at the last winter Olympics. He is a flamboyant figure skater, in his style, dress and makeup. He was not my favorite, so I wasn’t as impressed with his performance as I was with some of his competitors. But after hearing his story, I have more admiration for him, as a person. Starting late, he taught himself to ice skate at age 12 on the frozen ponds in back of the cornfields at his home in Amish country, Pennsylvania. With the love and support of amazing parents and younger brother, Weir “hopped, skipped, and jumped” his way into figure skating history, capturing the hearts of millions around the world (he is knowns as the “people’s skater”), and U.S. Figure Skating’s 2010 Reader’s Choice Award for Skater of the Year (Michelle Kwan Trophy). 

Weir makes no excuses for being gay, embracing his “fabulosity.” Having concluded that he wasn’t representative of the image of the U.S. Olympic figure skater, and would therefore not medal, he decided to do his best, for himself. So he brought to his dynamic performance 13 years of hard work, sacrifice and passion for his craft. When he finished skating, and stood up from a back bend, his eyes were met with an arena of waving flags from around the world. I understood his joy, for as a ballerina, my daughter strives to connect with an audience appreciative of her talent, sacrifice, hard work, and passion for her art.

I think in our own personal struggles to come to terms with life, we don’t see that others are also struggling. I’m guilty of such tunnel vision. It’s human nature to think there’s not enough time or energy to be stretched so thin. Some of us are more capable than others, depending upon our own circumstances of health, finances, and commitments. We needn’t all react exactly alike; we can’t, by virtue of our individual DNA. Perhaps what we all CAN and SHOULD DO, is “put a face on the unknown.”    

Senator Patty Murray, HRC President Joe Solmonese, Johnny Weir, the dentist, and most prominently, Janice Langbehn and her children, are the “faces” of the Human Rights Campaign. America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are no longer the “unknown.” I now know who they are. Each is someone’s child living on the periphery of society, “assigned” rights which are already theirs by virtue of their citizenship in the human race, and their birthright as U.S. citizens. I don’t feel their rights are mine to give or withhold. I believe they’re inalienable, as written in our Constitution. I am a spiritual person, a member of the Catholic church. I think religion offers us sound principles with which to live our lives, but I think we’ve succumbed to using religion as a weapon to pass judgment upon, and excommunicate, those who are non-compliant. I’m not God, and I don’t want to be God. As with Oprah, the job has serious responsibilities which I’m not equipped to handle. Better I leave it to the experts, God in his domain, and Oprah in hers.

I’ve been fortunate to know the men behind the “faces,” good friends we’ve known since moving to the Pacific Northwest. Leon and Ken made me feel comfortable and welcome, when I met them at the first gathering my husband and I attended at his boss’s home, 13 years ago. Before their arrival, I felt self-conscious and awkward, being a stay-at-home mom trying to mingle with career people. The 2 men were interested in knowing more about me, and soon we were joking and laughing like old friends. Through the years, our friendship has remained steadfast, and I’m able to relax in their company as soon as I see them. They’ve never had an “agenda,” other than to know that I’m fine. I always welcome that concern in friends, straight, or gay.

My friendship with Brent and Rick is more recent, although my husband’s known them for several years, because he and Rick are employed by the same company. Although I was acquainted with both men, I got to know Brent better when we accompanied our significant others on a business trip to Victoria, BC. As with Leon and Ken, I felt comfortable in Brent’s company because he made me feel my contribution to the conversation was valuable. Although he’s taking college courses toward becoming a social worker, I never felt like my 60’s college experience was arcane. In fact, Brent complimented my common sense approach to life. That’s music to the ears of a senior citizen! A smart man 20 years my junior is inspired by what I might have to say. Kind of novel in this day and age. Needless to say, I’m very happy to be in the company of Brent and Rick, 2 men with discerning tastes for quality of life for all, including the elderly.

Personally I know that I’m unlikely to be swayed in my opinions unless I can put a “face” on the “unknown,” whatever that might be. Rather than having someone force me to think differently, I’m inclined to change because of personal motivation. I don’t think any of us like being browbeaten into a decision. My husband and I made a contribution to the HRC, because last night we were educated about their worthwhile efforts, and because Leon, Ken, Brent and Rick are real “faces” for the cause of human rights.

Another real “face” is a nephew of mine who “came out” to his parents decades ago. He was a wonderful, young man when I knew him. He played the piano beautifully; he seemed a sensitive soul. Having lost touch, I learned years later that he’d contracted a near fatal disease. His partner at the time helped nurse my nephew back to complete health. He has shared his life with another partner for many years, adopting 2 girls who had been students in my nephew’s middle school class, several years ago. Before they became a family, the youngsters were in and out of foster homes.

Children are my concern, because of my childhood experiences, and because I wish all children would know the unconditional love and support to be who they are, and not what others want them to be. Our gay peers are intelligent, resourceful and hard-working. They will evince long-term change through their commitment not to return to the “dark ages” of society’s earlier days. We can either embrace the inevitable and co-exist, all striving to live our best lives, or we can maintain our isolation from certain segments of society, holding onto historical prejudices. It’s our choice; it’s our freedom. I choose, that others might enjoy the same freedom. I may have an island mentality about driving on freeways, and fear of black bears, but not in matters that are substantive. In these cases, I prefer to draw from the “aloha spirit” inherent in my native fibre, and welcome all as “ohana” (family).

hugs for conquering our fear of the “unknown”, by putting a “face” to it…hugmamma.

“last frontier,” holland america line

Rugged Alaska is truly the last frontier, where wide open spaces abound and wild animals still outnumber people. For me its appeal is in a topography that is so unlike Hawaii’s. The extreme cold requires hearty vegetation. Evergreens do not flourish as they do in the Pacific Northwest, the barrier of ice beneath the soil preventing the penetration of tree roots. Most of Denali National Park is comprised of craggy, barren hills dotted with low lying bushes and rivulets formed by melting snow. There it’s possible to see bears, in clear view, ambling up hillsides or wandering alongside the road in search of food. Some with cubs trailing behind, others meandering  in solitude. Moose or elk might be seen, if one looks really hard, standing like statues behind patches of tall trees and brush. They wisely remain safely ensconced, out of range of hunters and their guns. Bears don’t seem to have that same innate dread, sidling up to tour buses sniffing the air hoping for a tasty morsel. Perhaps a “tourist-Mcmuffin?”

A number of years ago, my husband and one of his sisters organized a family cruise to Alaska. Twenty five of us sailed from Vancouver, BC, for a week of fun at sea. We all agreed it was the best vacation ever. Traveling with relatives on a ship meant having companions close by, with “elbow room” to do our own thing when we wanted. We shared formal evening meals in the main dining room. We celebrated our daughter’s high school graduation in the Pinnacle Grill, a very special gathering. My husband hosted a cocktail hour for the entire group in the Crow’s Nest lounge. Other than these get-togethers, everyone ate breakfast and lunch where they chose, in the Lido Restaurant or around the pool. Ship board activities were also left to everyone’s discretion, which included relaxing, shopping, swimming and gambling. Evenings we lounged together in the Piano Bar, the Sports Bar, the Crow’s Nest, the Lido Lounge or the disco. After dinner, most of us strolled to the rear of the ship for a musical extravaganza or a magic act. Some of the men got sidetracked, settling at gaming tables where we found them later, still gambling. A couple might have been big winners, although I’m not sure if they “broke even,” having invested a good amount. What’s certain is that they had a fabulous time.

Shore excursions were a “free-for-all.” A few of the men went fishing, some toured Mendenhal Glacier by helicopter where they landed for a dog sled ride, others walked the ports poking around in museums and shops. My husband, daughter, a friend of hers, and I,  joined a tour to see black bears. We flew a prop plane to a small island, where we stood a short distance from bears feeding at a salmon hatchery. Thank goodness the river overflowed with fish for we never felt threatened, never worried that we were a backup food supply. One outing the entire group enjoyed was whale watching. Other attempts made by my family in years past while living in New England, proved fruitless. Alaskan whales showed up on cue, swimming beneath our boat, breaching alongside, feeding in groups, and displaying their calves proudly. I’m positive everyone took enough pictures to fill 50 albums.

My husband, daughter and I had cruised Alaska a few years before the aforementioned one with family. That trip too was wonderful because it was our first to the “last frontier.” I remained as enamored of Alaska, the second time around. Perhaps there’s a third trip in our future, with family members who weren’t able to make the first oceanic reunion.

Holland America casts its “line” in the hopes that it will reel you in “Imagine giant glacial peaks and massive snowcapped mountains that glisten in the sun. Such is the view from the spacious deck of your five-star ship. Watch for breaching whales, soaring eagles and resting seals as you pass by. In as little as seven days, you’ll have a chance to pan for gold in Juneau and fish for king salmon in Ketchikan.”

With our family we took the 7-Day Inside Passage, Roundtrip Vancouver. We sailed to Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay National Park. Watching the glacier “calve” (break off) into the icy, blue waters below, magnificently displayed the power of Mother Nature. The sight was awesome, and humbling. 

  • In 2011, the ms Zuiderdam sails Saturdays: May 14-Sep 17
  • In 2011, the ms Volendam sails Wednesdays: May 18-Aug 31
  • In 2011, the ms Zaandam sails Sep 18

My husband, daughter and I took the 7-Day Explorer, Roundtrip Seattle (originally Vancouver, BC). It sails to Juneau, Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay, Sitka, Ketchikan, Victoria.

  • In 2011, the ms Oosterdam via Glacier Bay sails Sundays: May 8-Sep 18
  • In 2011, the ms Westerdam via Hubbard Glacier sails Saturdays: May 7-Sep 17
  • In 2011, the ms Amsterdam via Glacier Bay sails Sep 16

“The pleasure of mid-sized cruising – Our fleet of spacious, mid-sized ships makes a big difference in your onboard experience. You’ll feel it in generously proportioned public rooms, elegant staterooms and airy open decks–with plenty of room at the rail to see glorious Glacier Bay. Our ships are large enough to offer the amenities sophisticated travelers expect while preserving a refined ambiance.”

So give your travel professional a call to discuss a one-of-a-kind trip to see the “last frontier.” Or call 1-877-SAIL HAL (1-877-724-5425), or visit www.hollandamerica.com for more information. And tell them hugmamma sent you. You won’t be disappointed. Others I know have given the same “thumbs up” review.

hugs for the great outdoors, on a HAL cruise…hugmamma. 

dancing backup to MJ

My nieces and nephews think I’m a pretty hip aunt. They know how I love to dance. Some have witnessed me grooving to the beat, even joining me, on an Alaskan cruise several years ago. I might have even outlasted them on the dance floor. So this post is to let them know that I haven’t lost my groove. It may not be on display as much, but I still bounce around in the car when MJ’s CD is blasting. Ask my husband and daughter; they still have to put up with my be-bopping. Once a dancing fool…always a dancing fool!!! I “coulda been a contenda”…dancing backup to Michael Jackson…hugmamma.