Thursday, July 24, 2014

A couple rants and Casserole Kitchen

This post was going to be a rant. I haven't ranted in a while here. Let me still do my rant...I'll make it short...pretty please?

1. Pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, "parties" where people sell you crap you don't need or want and THEY usually end up in the hole because some company convinced them that they could get rich quick and made them buy a whole bunch of inventory that they can't offload.

No, I don't want to buy your crappy stuff. If I buy your crappy stuff even out of pity, then it will just reinforce this idiotic idea that you can sell stupid item X for $40 (of which, $35 goes to the company and the people in the pyramid higher than my friend) when I can go to Target and buy it for $5 if I actually wanted it. But since I don't want stupid item X, it's really a moot point.

2. People who do not have a handicapped sticker and stalk the closest parking spaces at Costco. You could probably insert any number of stores, but for some reason I really only notice the parking lot stalkers at Costco. I park my car as far away from everyone as possible--it's not that I don't want to get it dinged or anything. I am just fundamentally lazy, and stalking parking lots takes way too much work. I'd rather just walk and save the time. (Yes, it's faster to just park at the end and walk vs. trying to navigate those parking aisles.)


Today was my Casserole Kitchen (my nickname for it) volunteer night. Once a month I volunteer at a church (not my church) that offers a meal for anyone who wants to come. The intent is to provide those with little means with a "nourishing" meal in a pleasant environment. I guess it's a soup kitchen that mainly serves casseroles. I still haven't tried the food, but most of it looks kind of yucky. White sauce (that I know isn't alfredo) or canned cheese sauce over pasta/rice with a token canned vegetable. Even when there's meat, it's a meat that I won't touch (stew meat, ham, pulled pork).

My job is a greeter, and I do the statistics. It's not particularly hard work, but it's detail-oriented--capturing data on each person who comes in. Many guests are regulars, and after doing it for six months, I know them--they have nicknames I gave them initially (e.g., Tree Guy, who talks about trees like Bubba Gump talked about shrimp) and that evolved into their real names, but I use the nicknames with people outside of the volunteer group.

Usually, I'm a very curious person, but I tend not to ask the guests many questions. I guess I'm afraid of the responses. Some of them likely have apartments and just come to be social. Others...I don't know. One guy parks his shopping cart full of his worldly possessions outside the door.

I asked one guy how he was doing today. Most of these people have a very tough life, but they are optimistic. He said, "I woke up dry, so that was a blessing." Someone had given him a tent before the rainstorm. Those who wake up dry every morning don't often think of that blessing.

This volunteer gig gives me so much perspective. I go into the evening thinking of the 30 things on my to-do list, work stuff, worrying about my daughter (i.e., how bad am I screwing her up?), and then I am humbled by these people. I need that reality check and probably need it far more often than I get it.

There were a LOT of kids there tonight. 11 kids...usually there's none or one or two. My mom and I were poor for the first six or so years of my life. She took me to one Christmas event for poor kids, and I remember getting an ET doll from the Santa at the event. We had WIC for a year or two. But to my knowledge she never took me to a place like this. I would have remembered.

I sit by the front door as a greeter. I can see the whole room, but I tend to watch those that sit directly in front of me. I can overhear that table's conversations. I watch them eat as I sign in other people. At that table last month there was a guy hitting on a woman, which was interesting to watch (she turned him down) but sad to watch at the same time.

Today there was a woman with her four kids at that table. This was the first time her family had been to Casserole Kitchen. She told me that she just got laid off, and it was great that she and her kids could come eat. She was so nice and polite; her kids were too. You could see that this is what the church intended--families down on their luck could get some food and not worry about their necessities while they figure out their job situation.

She had what looked like a 5 year old boy, a 7 year old girl, a 10 year old girl and a 16 year old boy. The 16 year old boy looked uncomfortable about the whole thing (as I would have been as a teenager); he refused the main dish but had two servings of dessert. The three other kids cleaned their plates of the tuna casserole (with canned nacho cheese sauce...ick), salad, corn and jello. Mom cleared her plate. They were about to leave, and I told him that seconds would be served soon. The family, minus the teenage son, became excited. The kitchen volunteers ended up giving her 7 additional plates of food in tupperware to take home. The mom was so appreciative. Seeing this family light up over having food for the next day or two was a double-edged sword: happy but sad at the same time. You could see that the kitchen volunteers were taken aback by this family's appreciation and manners. They came out with loaves of bread for them (the good bread too). But the mom said she picked up three loaves at the food pantry, and that would tide them over. This family wasn't greedy.

While I hope everyone at Casserole Kitchen gets on their feet, this family has a special place in my heart. I wanted to ask the mom what kind of work she does; maybe I can pull some strings?? Maybe if I see her next time, I will ask.

There are a few people there that are *interesting*. Some with mental illness, some with likely drug/alcohol problems. I spoke with one guy tonight with dark brown front teeth. Seriously, they were one shade away from black. And they weren't just dark brown; there was stuff protruding from them as if they had some contagious disease. I wanted to ask, "Do your teeth have gangrene?" or advise him to see a dentist. But let's be honest, he has NEVER had dental insurance nor has he ever seen a dentist. Who knows if they are that way due to neglect, a drug problem or maybe it's just really bad genetics.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holland America Westerdam Cruise Review

We took Holland America's Westerdam cruise from Seattle to Alaska, and it was the one that had the boiler room fire on June 28th, the day we departed (which I will try to avoid talking about, but I am bummed we missed out on Sitka due to that incident). This was our first cruise, and we learned that these devastating incidents are very rare. Of course, we have to experience a rare incident such as a boiler room fire instead of a rare incident like winning the lottery! Just our luck.

Much like almost everything I encounter, I want to understand the cruising experience. There's an imposed rhythm to it; perhaps a better word is a script. I wanted to understand the pieces of the script. I wanted to understand the layout of the ship. I'm one of those people who really needs to get my bearings and then let my natural navigation take over. I was curious about the crew. For the most part, the wait staff and cleaners were from the Philippines. My need to understand this new environment over the first day or two overwhelmed me. It was hard to relax when I had so many questions.

And I couldn't find the freaking trash cans. For some reason, I couldn't get over this. Aside from a tiny trash can in our room and bathroom, there were NO trash cans or recycle bins on board*. I'd carry stuff around wanting to DO something with it, but there was absolutely no spot so I'd carry it back to the room and then it wouldn't fit in the tiny trash can. After a while, I did what everyone else did and left stuff wherever it ended up. Your messes were picked up quickly by the Filipino crew, which made me feel like an overprivileged white person who thought other people should clean up my messes.

* I eventually found one trash can and recycle bin outside on the promenade deck, which was probably to deter people from throwing stuff overboard (my theory).

Around Monday afternoon I started feeling able to relax, probably because I was starting to understand the rhythm of things and how to get where I needed to go without relying on a map. Some things constantly annoyed me, such as announcements over the PA system (right over your bed, the bathroom, the hallways, outside, etc.) where you couldn't control the volume. I once made the mistake of trying to take a nap at 2pm. Thank you 100 decibel announcement right in my ear! And it didn't even tell me anything important, just that Bingo was going to start, which was in my program for the day. If I had wanted to go to Bingo, I would have already been at Bingo instead of in bed.
See, I digress. Who else talks of trash cans and the stupid loudspeaker when they discuss their first cruise? As you can tell, I'm weird. Let's try to force myself to have a REAL report.

People - not as geriatric as I expected. Lots of multi-generational families though. A lot of people from the south (their twangs are so freaking adorable). There were also some couples our age. Most people had been on a lot of cruises before. We didn't meet any other newbies like us. We met some people playing trivia and during meals, but we didn't end up exchanging our info with anyone for after the cruise.

Food - There was a lot of it, but I didn't find that it was that great. Maybe I'm a horrible judge of food though. The buffet was open nearly all the time. The formal dining room was open for breakfast, most lunches and dinner. The buffet was usually nuts. People everywhere, tables full, you'd have to go to several different sections to find the food you wanted. Drinks were inconvenient to get to. We had to get our food, find a table, get our daughter's food, juggle plates…all while on the high seas and the boat was rocking (navigating crowds while walking around the room in circles holding 2 or 3 plates while stumbling around due to waves is a sure fire way to even get strong stomach me to feel a little nauseous). By the time we sat down, I had a headache and didn't want to eat. 

We found that the formal dining room was just easier. Yes, my overprivileged white butt just wanted to avoid the crowds and eat in peace. The breakfast menu was similar to what you'd find at an upscale breakfast bistro. I'd have a frittata Italiana, pineapple juice and fruit each morning (not a breakfast person). My husband likes denser breakfasts. Lunch was a five course meal and so was dinner. They'd have a static part of the menu (salmon, steak, Caesar salad) and then have 4-5 new selections in each of the appetizer, soup/salad, main dish and dessert sections. I was fond of the chilled fruit soups, which were really just smoothies. You also had 2-3 other food venues. There was a burger shack near the pool. There was 24 hour room service with a full menu, and most days there was a themed meal on one of the decks (Mexican, salmon bake, etc.). All of the food was included in the cruise price, so it was all-you-can-eat. Good alternatives, but I didn't eat much that I thought, "OMG, this is the best _____ ever!" However, I completely overate, given the elaborate meals and hourly temptations.

 Accommodations - tight. In our room, only one person could be "up" at once. The bathroom was definitely a one-person bathroom. It was claustrophobic even helping our daughter get a bath. We ended up getting an upgrade to a room with a balcony, which was great, but sailing in Alaska--even in July--is cold with the wind. It was hard to spend more than 30 minutes at a time out there. In the Caribbean, I could imagine being out there much longer at a time. The balcony was good to have because it was a quiet place outside to read, take pictures, watch the scenery. With 3,000 people on a ship, it gets crowded. It's nice to have your own personal space while outside. 

Kids Club/Club HAL -  My daughter loved the themed evenings from 7pm-10pm. She didn't so much care for the daytime activities. I think that's because she's near the older end of her age range, and she would have preferred the next age group's activities. Duck Duck Goose when you're in first grade is apparently not cool. The kids club had an awkward break in the middle of the day when they closed, which was a tad annoying. Plus, if there was something on the schedule that started at 1pm, it would create a scheduling bump because the kids club opened at 1pm. So you'd be late to your 1pm event because you had to do the paperwork for your child when you did the drop off and then take the elevator to where the activity was.

Entertainment - This is where I was disappointed. Now this part is likely because of the specific cruise line. It just so happened that a lot of the activities didn't appeal to us. For some people, Holland America's entertainment options would be more appealing than to us. Maybe we're too weird, or too young, or too boring. I don't know what it was, but more often than not we were shrugging our shoulders as we looked at the next day's schedule. My husband had a bit better time because the World Cup was going on, so he would camp out in the sports bar. 

                Nightly shows - Most were musicals. We're not big fans of musicals, but they'd typically sing and dance to a few songs we had heard of. It was okay, but if you're not into musicals, you're just not into them.
                Trivia - We loved these. There were music trivia games (Name That Tune), pub trivia (general trivia) and themed trivia (chocolate trivia). There was also a game show they did that was similar to The Newlywed Game. That was fun to watch.
                Comedy - There were 2 stand-up comedy shows. Loved, loved these!
                Bingo - meh, not our thing
                Art Auctions - Sure, art is pretty, but I didn't bring $5,000 with me to buy art. And it's an awkward place to buy art since most of us can't easily price compare art while on a ship. But wait, that's probably why they do it that way.
                Culinary Shows - Holland America "partnered" with some cooking magazine to have a kitchen and a chef on board to show you how to cook. It's basically a cooking show but in real life, and then you can sample the end product. I didn't see the point in watching a cooking show for 45 minutes to get a little sample when I can go upstairs and get a meal. I guess cooking shows aren't my thing.
                Microsoft Classes - Holland America "partnered" with Microsoft to offer Microsoft classes. I did sit in on the Windows 8 one because I still haven't figured out all the features of my new computer and nothing else on the schedule at that hour appealed to me. It was an okay class.
                Specialized Sport Things - They had a putt-off, a tennis serve thing, and a few other sports things. I'd rather just walk around the promenade deck.
                Casino Tournaments - While I wouldn't mind playing with fake money, the buy-ins were too high since I'm a novice gambler. 

So really the things we were "YES!" about were the two hours of comedy throughout the week and the daily trivia game (sometimes there were two trivia games per day). All in all, not a huge to-do list while on the ship. But we kept occupied with reading, people watching, hanging out in the sports bar, minor gambling…all things we could easily do near our home. They did have two pools and hot tubs, but the pools weren't very big or deep.

So would I do the cruise thing again? Probably. I might relax a little easier the next time around, likely acclimating to the cruise life faster. We'd probably be more conscientious about picking a cruise line with on-board activities that more closely aligned with our interests. 

Overall, there are a lot of advantages to a cruising vacation vs. a more traditional airplane/rental car vacation scenario. Cruising is a lot less complicated, particularly for us since we lived close to the Seattle port. You don't have to be as strict about luggage. You don't smell like an airplane when you cruise. You wake up in a new destination ready to hit the ground running and can easily book (expensive) shore excursions or just walk around the town. If you're the type to eat five course meals while on vacation, stay in nice hotels and take in shows/entertainment, cruising is probably very price competitive. For us, we're Motel 6'ers who are fine with fast food and a subeconomy rental car while on vacation, so there was a cost premium associated with us taking a cruise compared to what we would otherwise do on vacation. But it's one of those things that was worth it, at least this once. I can't foresee us taking 2 or 3, or even 1, cruise per year. However, I can see us taking a cruise every 5 years or so. But heck, we don't take vacations every year, or even every other year, so for all we know cruising could be our standard vacation from now on. 

All in all, interesting experience. If I did it again, I would require a balcony to avoid the claustrophobia. I would really research the on-board activities available on that ship. I would investigate the ship's background a little more. I liked our ship just fine (aside from the boiler room), but some of the other ships we saw seemed a bit sketchy: older, falling apart, tacky fake lit-up palm trees on the deck.  

Monday, July 7, 2014

Alaska Vacation

I got back from my first cruise ever this past Saturday. We went to Alaska. It was great, except for the fire. There was a bit of scariness when the cruise ship caught on fire, but it was put out, then re-ignited, then put out again, and then the Coast Guard required an inspection. After all that drama, the cruise was decidedly less dramatic, which was more my speed.

There is so much to write about. Pictures would help. I suppose I will have to get those off my camera sometime soon. This will probably turn into many blog entries. After all, it's our first vacation in 14 years without my husband's family, which means it's my first vacation in 14 years.

Why Alaska?

1. It's easy to get to the port in Seattle, and there's very few other destinations that leave from Seattle. We didn't want the complexities of air and ship travel and everything that goes with it for the three of us (e.g., logistics, more things to go wrong, time changes, additional packing, more cost, etc.).

2. Neither of us has been to Alaska. One of my friends in college loved to go to Alaska to camp. He marveled at the beauty of Alaska, and I never forgot that.

3. I'm lazy. I liked the idea of an agenda for the next day being left in my room, and I just show up to the things I want to and eat anytime I want to. And read. And sleep. Plus, there's child care on board. So we can put our daughter in child care and have alone time or do something with her. Again, having all these options are nice.

So that's why we chose Alaska.