Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

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Disney Divas!

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“This is not a family friendly show! We are chicks with dicks! So for those of you who came and expected not to get offended, I recommend you get over that real quick!”

The drag queen, dressed as Tinkerbell, paraded the stage with her microphone confidently, wearing thick make-up, a perfect green pixie dress, a pair of wings, and a huge yellow wig. She was hilarious, teasing various members of the audience with plenty of swag and sass. “Oh, hello there, Daddy,” she said to a man on the front row, then asked his girlfriend, “are you with him ’cause he’s got lots of money or a big dick?” She teased a girl on the other side, saying she’d be happy to give her make-up tips after the show.

Tinkerbell recounted how, back in the 1950s, she’d been approached by Walt Disney himself, who saw her as a real star, but in the end, he’d cut all of her dialogue from the show, and simply named it Peter Pan, not even using her name in the title. “He knew what he was getting into,” she explained, “so he couldn’t have been surprised when I used a bit of language on camera. All those girls going after my man. ‘Fuck you, Tiger Lilly! Fuck you, Wendy!’ just didn’t play well for the kids,” she explained.

And sitting on the raised seating on stage right, on my uncomfortable stool, I sipped on my gin-and-tonic and laughed my ass off. She really was very funny.

The show had opened with a robust and enthusiastic medley of Mary Poppins songs, a lengthy set of Step in Time, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Jolly Holiday, and I sang along with every word. The packed audience sang along, clapping, tossing dollar bills and the drag queens dressed as Mary, Burt, and the chimney sweeps. A girl across the stage and I made eye contact, as she sang along as well, and we shared a smile.

I’ve been to a lot of good drag shows over the past seven years. Drag shows, in my experience, tend to fall into one of four categories. (Well, the professional drag shows anyway, not the ones that are performed on random stages in parks or on Pride weekend). There’s the really amazing ‘female impersonator’ shows like this one, that run regularly, with seated audiences and food and drinks. There are the drag queens who host various tired events and seem to run out of material very quickly. And then there are the traveling drag queens, the late night crowds and dance floors, with long wait times and packed audiences, wall-to-wall drunk people all screaming for every move and shake.

This drag show, the Disney-themed one, was the first kind, the female impersonator show, with a regular cast, incredible costumes, and amazing lip sync performances. Shows like this require set design, painstaking costume design, choreographed routines, advertising, merchandising, themed drinks and bartenders, social media campaigning, state licensing certifications, and a hell of a lot of leadership and organization. I was damn impressed. I’d seen shows like this in San Francisco and Seattle, and to see one here in Salt Lake City running regularly, with changing themes and variable performances, was downright delightful. Just weeks before, we had seen this same cast performing as Dolly Parton, Cher, Katy Perry, Adele, and others, and it had been just as good.

The show continued with drag queens performing Disney songs from every era, with characters like RapunzelMoana, Cruella de Ville, Ariel, Ursula, and others, and the first act culminated in a very bold production of Snow White with all Seven Dwarves. As the second act continued, I was astounded by some of the choices, with songs from CoCo and Frozen. The girl across the stage knew a lot more words than I did at this point, and I gave her a mock bow, recognizing her Disney superiority.

My friends and I had an intermission discussion about which Disney character we most represented, and we had a good laugh as we made our decisions. One said he was Gaston, and I said his husband was likely King Louie. Another couple said they were Prince Phillip and Flynn Rider. I laughed with delight when someone compared my boyfriend to Hades from Hercules, then surprised myself by declaring that I was Prince John from Robin Hood. This was fun, I thought out loud, realizing a group of grown-ups was delighting at men dressed as Disney characters.

Getting sleepy after a few drinks, and a few hours of sitting, and after sitting for more than two hours, I stood back behind my table to stretch a bit and keep myself awake. (I’m always lame like this, getting sleepy anytime it’s past ten pm. It works wonders for my weekend social life). As I watched one of the drag queens perform, I turned my head to the side and saw someone pass through a curtain that gave a peek into the back stage area. I saw one of the performers sitting on a bench, his skirt pulled up over his knees, fanning himself as he waited to go on.

Shortly after that, Tinkerbell (the performer who also played Mary Poppins, Snow White, and Elsa) herself exited through the curtain, making another grand entrance, and gave me a quick hug as she rushed in. “HI!” she said with enthusiasm, recognizing me from social media (I presume). And as I leaned in to hug her, I noticed her thick layer of make-up, and inhaled a mouthful of Aqua Net. As Tinkerbell rushed the stage, I gagged on the hair spray, and couldn’t get the taste of it out of my mouth for several minutes.

The show ended, and for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the professionalism of these performers, giving their all to a crowd out of love for their craft, but I also couldn’t shake the image of that drag queen fanning herself on a bench, or the taste of the hair spray. These performers, like any other, must love what they do, entertaining a crowd. Love it enough to spend hours hand-sewing dresses and lining them up with sparkles, enough to learn the lyrics to long intricate songs while learning routines to go with them, enough to tape their genitals back while wearing contouring and shaping mechanisms before draping themselves in dresses and wigs, enough to spend hours applying and re-applying make-up before every show (and likely hours more taking it all off afterwards), enough to keep their equipment clean and laundered, enough to apply noxious amounts of hair spray to keep their wigs just perfect.

As the show ended, I stood up with the rest of the crowd and clapped heartily, a standing ovation for a show well done, for a group of performers who gave it their all.

Universal

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One day, an executive for a company sat down and thought, Hmm, people love the movies. And people love parks. What if we made a movie park. Disneyland did it with Snow White and Cinderella and all that. They have rides and castles and people in costumes. What if we did that for beloved movies?

And so that executive pitched the idea, and it was accepted, and a giant plot of land was purchased, and worlds collided as giant rides and structures, food stations and shops were built around common themes. Jurassic Park, King Kong, the Simpsons, Marvel Super Heroes, and the newest crowd draw, Harry Potter. They built the parks, and they came up with marketing strategies, and they opened the doors, charging hundreds of dollars per person to come inside. And soon, billions were pouring.

On our first day in Universal Studios, all 30 members of my family wore matching shirts, black and white striped prisoner of Azkaban shirts emblazoned with our names and prisoner numbers, and the employees gushed at our creativity. We waited in a long line to park, walked a long distance to the park entrance, and waited in line to enter. Friendly employees scanned our tickets (my two sons and I cost nearly $700 for park tickets for two days, not including parking, lodging, airfare, or food), and then we started to walk. And walk. And walk.

The large family group had agreed to meet for a photograph on the bridge in front of Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter section of the park, and it took us a full hour for everyone to assemble. We smiled for our photos, then moved into Hogwarts itself, where we stood in line for an hour to go on an incredible motion ride with Harry Potter and his friends. Hungry, we moved to a nearby food line, where we waited for 40 minutes to order, and the kids fell asleep on the bench while eating, already exhausted. We browsed the shops, displays, and decorations, then waited in line to enter the wand shop to see a magical display.

The kids were troopers, standing still and staying good-natured and staying quiet during the long line waits, but we were all a bit worn down already and the day wasn’t even a third over. Over the next 7 hours, we found dinosaurs peeking through trees, avoided some long lines while standing in others, purchased snacks, splashed in Dr. Seuss structures, rode the Hogwarts Express to the other side, snapped photos of SpongeBob Squarepants, and eventually trundled back to our cars and back to the hotels, where we soaked in the hot tub for a few minutes before passing out.

A second day in the park seemed daunting, especially as a few family arguments erupted and one of the kids seemed to be having tummy troubles. As we parked again, there was tension in the air and we waited in the long line to enter the park again. I kept a giant smile on my face, telling the kids how excited I was for King Kong and Shrek and the Minions and they stayed smiling. We walked through the park quickly, knowing the lines would be mounting, and I had to do some quick calculations.

As a conservative estimate, I guessed there were 10,000 people at the parks on any given day, who each paid about $150 for admission, that was $1,500,000 per day, before the cost of food, parking, and souvenirs. I don’t have a great business brain, but I calculated that many of these rides and structures had been running for several decades, and I was flummoxed by the amount of money rolling in at this place.

We rushed to King Kong just after the ride opened and stood in line for over an hour to ride it, then another 90 minutes later for the Spider-Man ride, and another 45 later for the 3-D Shrek film. I pictured people back home, blaring on their horns over a few extra seconds at a stoplight, or haggling over the nickel cost increase on their box of cereal now here maxing out there credit cards for an $8 cup of root beer and a 90 minute wait for a 3 minute decades-old ride.

We left the park early the second day, our feet and backs tired, ready for a good night’s sleep. And then we lost our car in the parking lot, unable to remember where we had parked in the tension of the morning. 45 minutes later, we finally drove out of there, our souvenirs clutched in our hands and our stomachs full of heavy foods.

I sat down with the boys that night and recounted our favorite parts of the last few days as we had tried to get our money’s worth in the busy parks. Added all up, we had a great time, but it cost a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to vacation, I thought, and I wasn’t sure this was my favorite way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Frenchman and the American

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So what is it the Americans think of the French?

That’s a rather broad question.

Yes, but I mean traditionally. Culturally. There must be some existing stereotypes. 

Okay, sure. There is a tendency among American comedies to make fun of the French for being, well, cowards. They called them frogs was back when. I think it dates back to World War II.

Oh, that is nothing. That is actually a world-wide stereotype. I lived in Ireland for work for a few years, and was teased about that all the time. I think it is rather funny, actually. 

And there is a perception about the French that they love their wine and love their women. In the 1950s, the country seemed enamored of France. There were a bunch of musicals about Paris, all the Maurice Chevalier type, an older man constantly drinking wine and champagne and lusting after women.

Well, there is truth to that as well. We do love a fine wine or a strong drink. And we French men, we definitely love our women. It’s rather funny, many Americans expect me to be an expert on wine, but I am not. But because I have a French accent, they expect that I do. I throw a few fancy words around and everyone thinks I have a very educated opinion. ‘Ooh, this wine, it’s from 2013? That was a very good year for red wines in oak barrels. This is delicious.’ I have no idea what I’m talking about, but suddenly everyone is ooo-ing and aah-ing over the wine. 

The same with cheeses and breads?

Of course.

Growing up, I based my knowledge of France off of that chef character from the Little Mermaid, chopping up all the fish and crabs. Sacre bleu, what is zis, how on Earth could I miss such a sweet little succulent crab?

Oh my, you must stop singing. 

Clearly I need more wine.

The funny part of the Little Mermaid is it sends such a terrible example for children, and for women. It seems to suggest that 16 year old girls should defy their fathers and give up everything for some boy. Give up your legs, give up your voice, give up your life for the boy. Beauty and the Beast is the one that is actually based in France.

Oh my god! The candlestick! Flirting over the feather duster the whole show! That’s you!

I’m hardly the candlestick. 

So I went up to Park City today. It’s the Sundance film festival right now, so the city is packed with people in jackets and hats, bustling down the street in a rush everywhere with full cups of coffee in hand. I pass these two men, both of them clearly French, and very snobbish. They are sauntering down the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes, blocking traffic, as they talk in their French accents about how awful the last movie was. It’s like the were critiquing a cuisine.

Well, they sound very French, except for the sauntering part. They must not have been Parisians. Everyone there is in a hurry.

Okay, so the same question back to you. What do the French think of Americans?

Well, to be honest, not just the French, but most of the world, at least the places I have been, they think of Americans as idiots. Very boastful idiots. Always going on and on about how America is the best country in the world. But when asked why, Americans say because of Freedom. It is so annoying. Much of the world has freedom, yet America has the highest prison populations, the most gun violence. Not that France is perfect, we definitely have a lot of racism there, but America takes racism to another level. I don’t see what everyone is bragging over. 

Well, fair enough. There is some truth to that as well.

I think the stereotype exists, but more in very religious communities in the south. In Texas and Alabama perhaps. French stereotypes exist as well, but only in various parts of the country. 

People from any country only need to see one Donald Trump rally or Sarah Palin speech to realize we have a lot of gun-toting idiots in this country.

And the gun violence. My god, so many mass shootings. It seems like every few months or weeksDon’t get me wrong, there are many things I love about America. I did choose to live here for the next few years. 

You definitely picked an interesting city to live in. Salt Lake City is fascinating.

It really is! I researched a lot before I moved here. But I am regularly surprised by it. 

Well, Utah is a state that formed outside of the United States government. Brigham Young led hundreds of thousands of people out here and basically became the emperor of the land, settling the whole place in the name of their God. So when the government came along, Young was elected the first governor. It is literally the Mormon holy-land.

Yes, but the city does not feel so Mormon.

Well, down the road is literally the headquarters of the Mormon church. Yet we have a lesbian mayor, a fairly Democratic government, and a huge LGBT population.

It is a fascinating place. There is much going on in the city, from live music to bars on every corner. I think I will like it here. 

Come on, you’re doing fine. You’re already meeting girls on Tinder.

Yes, yes, I have met one girl. That must make me quite the ladies’ man, as you say. 

Ha, shut up and drink your wine, Frenchie.

After you, American.

 

 

The Misogynistic Merry Widow

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The colors were astounding.

As Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou exposed their ankles, lifted their frilly skirts, shook their bosoms, and danced gaily around the stage, I was most astounded by the colors of the set. At the evening performance of the Merry Widow, an opera with a full symphony, I sat in the center balcony absorbing the music and color, the very spectacle of the impressive show.

I tend to rate productions in multiple categories, my internal critic going down the checklist. It makes it easier for me to sort it out. A movie, for example, may be brilliantly filmed yet have terrible actors, or may have beautiful imagery and a terrible story.

I surveyed the Merry Widow carefully. The costumes and sets were stunning. The actors were top notch, selling their characters with full commitment, silliness and seriousness, lust and love, and I had laughed out loud many times. The vocal performances and the symphony took my breath and raised gooseflesh on my arms and neck; a few of the soft high notes in the operatic solos left me gasping, my hand on my heart in pure fulfillment. And the show itself, written over a hundred years ago, was, frankly, hilarious and relevant, for the most part. This was a top-notch production, and I was having a blast.

I sat next to my colleague and friend, Kara, and we made comments throughout the show, poking fun at the roles of the women in the show. It was written in a different time, when women were seen as acquisitions, annoyances, or trophies. So when Valencienne sings about being a virtuous wife even as she cheats on her husband, it’s easy to smile and laugh. And when the dancing girls strut about the stage, singing of how they can woo married men away from their wives, it was easy to laugh.

But I had to grimace in discomfort when a group of male characters sang about women in politics, and how men generously gave them the right to vote yet women still grew discontent and had opinions. I still laughed, but I grew a bit more uncomfortable.

And then came the song about women directly. A group of male characters (all hilarious) step on the stage to discuss the problem of women in their lives.

“It’s a problem how to manage willful women when the bloom of youth is gone”, one sings. Then, in song, the men pontificate on all of the different ways women can be impossible. One likes fashion too much, another is too focused on romance, another is too moody and inconsistent, another frigid and opinionated. After they finish classifying the women in derogatory categories, the men decide, as a group, that they can never do enough to possibly satisfy a woman, but that women have enough assets to be worth the aggravation.

The production ends when (warning: 100 year old spoilers!) the wealthy widow, Hanna Glawari, who has an untold fortune left to her by her deceased husband, finds true love with Danilo Danilovitsch, a whiny drunkard statesman who has spent the entire production espousing his philosophy of making love to many, proposing to some, but marrying none. And although Danilo likes Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou all very much, he decides to marry the widow. But wait! The dead husband’s will states Margot loses her entire fortune if she marries another. Oh well, they will marry anyway, because she needs to be with a man more than she needs riches.

Kara turned to me, shock on her face. “Wait. Why couldn’t they have just lived together and shared the money?”

We shared a good laugh as we walked out of the show, delighted with the production and yet disgusted with the utter patriarchy of it all. “Wow, that was awfully… misogynistic.” I said. My mind raced to early Disney movie productions, where each princess finds love in the arms of a man before her destiny is fulfilled and happy ending written. More modern Disney productions feature women a bit more liberated and complex.

Then I thought of watching the old 1950s musical movie, Gigi, with friends a few weeks ago, when Maurice Chevalier, then an older man with a cane, walks around a promenade looking at little girls and singing about how they will all grow up to be beautiful and complicated women.

I wonder how many songs have been written over the years about how aggravating, impossible, and difficult women are, only to decide in the end that they are beautiful enough to be worth it. There must be dozens.

Kara and I had a good laugh, then headed our respective ways. Later, I told a friend about the production.

“How did you like it?” he asked.

I smiled, the music still playing in my head. “It was fantastic, but perhaps slightly mistitled. Maybe they should call it the Misogynistic Merry Widow.