We all know that most Canadians are polite. I now know why. They sublimate their fury. Canadians drive like enraged Mongols. They walk through public places like they were electrons pinging around in a supercollider. I can only confirm that’s true for the ones in Montreal, of course, and only for some of them, but evidence is evidence.

Our hotel in Montreal sits next to the largest mall in Quebec. I mean I could spit on it from my window if I wanted to, and if my window opened. I was surprised, since I had only been looking for a reasonable rate at a hotel that was still inside Quebec. We had gotten into town right in the middle of the Montreal evening rush hour that lasts from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We were tired and snippy, and we just wanted to eat something cheap and fast, then go to bed.

At the mall I realized that only one in fifty or so Canadians is overweight. I now know why. Fast food at the largest mall in Quebec was not a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. It was a small bowl of tortellini that cost the same as a double cheeseburger with super-size fries. I wasn’t getting the same dollar to calorie ratio that I do at home, but I didn’t feel cheated. I felt kind of smug and superior. I drove around and cut people off in traffic for a while, and all the nastiness went away.

These Legos have nothing to do with anything except I saw them in the mall and thought they were cool. The Midgaard Serpent is just out of frame to the left.

I am objectively a lousy father. Compared to my father, I am a psychotic crack addict trying to raise orchids in a toilet.

It started with a rose-colored memory of my family’s driving vacations when I was a boy. Swinging through the western states and the national parks. Driving from Texas to the arctic circle and back. That sort of thing. My wife and I had long discussed a trip like that, and we finally decided to do it: Dallas to Montreal and back.

Many lists were made, and my wife declared them good. We packed the necessities, like phones, computers, and some other stuff, maybe underwear. We got the house-sitter, and the person to come in multiple unspecified times a day to check on the cats, and new shells for the shotgun. We packed the night before departure. My wife would no more wait to pack last minute than she would kick a puppy over the backyard fence.

This morning, the day of departure, we loaded the car and did a cat headcount. We came up one head short.

That didn’t worry us much. This cat is a big baby, and he probably hid someplace because we were acting weirder than usual. We checked his usual hiding places. We searched unusual hiding places. We looked behind things and under things, in every cabinet twice and every closet three times. We shook cans of treats and containers of food while calling his name like the kid in Shane. He did not appear.

My wife felt sure he was hiding in some super-secret kitty spot. I thought maybe he had run out when we were loading the car. He could be wandering the neighborhood, dazed with hunger, staggering onto Crazy-Street, the six-lane race track behind our house, to be crushed like a cat-shaped jar of jelly. My fears were valid—we once had a cat that sneaked out the front door and never came back.

We searched the neighborhood. No cat. At last my wife reasoned that the cat was too much of a coward to ever go outside, so we should get on the road. I agreed, but I felt bad about it—like a rotten kitty-dad. We notified the people staying in our house to watch out for the cat and tell us if they saw him.

I pulled the car out of the driveway, certain that our cat was, at that very moment, dodging cars someplace down the block. I drove the other way though, because Montreal is in that direction. After five minutes I couldn’t stand it. I turned the car around and drove home. Our cat was laying where he always lays, on our bed, with a, “Holy shit, what are you doing back?” expression.

As we drove our first leg to Little Rock, I felt relieved and thrilled that our cat was safe at home, thinking bad thoughts about it. But all the way there a voice in my head said, “YOU WERE WILLING TO LEAVE YOUR CAT BEHIND TO GET SQUISHED BY A CAR, WEREN’T YOU? ASSHOLE.”

Little Rock is beautiful. Here’s a picture.

By the way, east of Dallas I found out there are no Buc-ees on the way to Little Rock, and I strongly recommended we go back home.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 9 – Whittier

Ninety-five percent of the people on this ship disappeared this morning. The ship has reached its northern-most port of call and will begin sailing back to Vancouver tonight. Most people travel just one direction on this trip, but the cruise line doesn’t object to selling you a more expensive ticket if you want to go both directions. My wife and I are among the few who thought that would be a keen idea.

In the past week we’ve frequently heard the question, “Why do you want to turn around and spend another week seeing all the stuff you just saw?” The people asking this have a point. We will now be forced to once more look at all those mountains and glaciers and whales and sea otters and other stuff we may never see again. Watch us suffer.

By the way, here’s a sea otter we sailed past yesterday:

They don't have blubber on their paws, so they float on their backs with their cute little paws in the air to keep them warm. And to keep them poised to tear your liver out if you get too close.
They don’t have blubber on their paws, so they float on their backs with their cute little paws in the air to keep them warm. And to keep them poised to tear your liver out if you get too close.

Hanging in there for the return trip is benefiting us in a way I never expected. A whole ship-full of new passengers came aboard today, wide-eyed and anticipating their passage to Vancouver. And they don’t know a god damned thing about this ship. Their bewilderment binds them together, and it allows us to feel superior to them. My wife and I hear their plaintive cries as they wander the passageways like Spinal Tap, and we smile.

Here are some of their most common questions, along with the answers I’d give them if I had any kind of empathy or pity.

Which way is the front of the boat?

First of all, it’s a ship, not a boat. The distinction may not seem important, since both will drown you if something bad happens, but boats are small and ships are big. I don’t really know where the demarcation lies, but any vessel big enough to host a Def Leppard concert is certainly a ship. Second, to find the front of the ship you should look over the railing and note which direction the ocean seems to be moving. The front of the ship is the other way, unless you’re sailing to Canada in reverse.

What do I have to pay for on this ship?

The cruise line provides, free of charge, everything you need to keep from dying. That includes food, water, tea, and black coffee. Also, they don’t make you pay to sing karaoke, and you can watch all the singers, dancers, musicians and magicians you want. Everything else costs extra.

Do I have to sing karaoke?

No, you can play bingo instead if you want. However, everybody in the karaoke bar is getting hammered and working up the guts to sing Copa Cabana, so they’re a pretty accepting bunch.

Why isn’t there a single clock on the ship?

The immediate reason is that the cruise line doesn’t want to force any time pressure on you that might mar your relaxing, worry-free holiday. The underlying reason is that they sell watches in the atrium every day, and they want you to buy one.

How do you ever find anything around here?

Forget finding anything. Cruise liners are like hotels twisted and crammed into a ship’s hull by omnipotent howler monkeys. The ship’s geography resists human understanding. By the time your one-week cruise ends you may have memorized the path to the closest source of martinis, but no guarantees. Your best bet is herding. If you’re hungry, follow the people who look hungry. The strong ones will lead you to the buffet eventually.

Here’s a picture of our ship. You can see that it’s larger than a mountain, at least from certain angles.

I'm pretty sure I saw a minotaur at the piano bar last night. He was requesting a lot of Billy Joel.
I’m pretty sure I saw a minotaur at the piano bar last night. He was requesting a lot of Billy Joel.

Despite the vessel’s awesome scope, my wife and I are now initiated into its mysteries and can find the hot tubs that are off-limits to kids. That makes me kind of dread going back home where I can’t even find the right laundry detergent at Tom Thumb.

I console myself with this photo of four sea otters floating in front of four glaciers and serenading us as we sail away.

The farewell song of the sea otters.
The farewell song of the sea otters.


When our meticulously planned European vacation-of-a-lifetime was canceled by God, my wife and I found a great last-minute deal on an Alaskan cruise. We grabbed it and undertook this new adventure with shockingly little planning. Really, I’ve seen better-organized demolition derbies. I almost forgot to pack underwear and lithium. But now we’re underway, and I will record a few observations here in case we’re trampled to death by a caribou herd, and we never return with our thousands of glacier photos taken from minutely different angles.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 1 – Vancouver

The cruise would depart from Vancouver, and to lower our stress level we planned to get there a day early. Vancouver’s a beautiful city. Well, all the parts that I haven’t seen are beautiful. Our taxi driver took us through the nastiest, busiest, and most disorienting parts of the city to reach our hotel. It was like being dragged through The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by a surly Filipino in a pea-green Audi.

I now love the people of Vancouver. One lady saw us staring at a directory on the street corner like goldfish waiting to be fed, and she stopped to tell us about all the great restaurants three blocks away. Even though we didn’t eat at them because we didn’t want to spend $120 for lunch, she was sweet. And the wizened guy who ran the dim, claustrophobic crépe shop managed to communicate, through frowns, grunts and extra roasted peppers that he thought of us as his kids.

Officially one of the coolest statues ever. By the Vancouver Convention Center. (photo by Kathy)
Officially one of the coolest statues ever. Beside the Vancouver Convention Center. (photo by Kathy)

Alaskan Cruise, Day 2 – Embarkation

We don’t often drink coffee, but Vancouver has coffee shops on at least half the street corners, so we tried one for breakfast. The coffee was lousy, and I didn’t drink much, but the cinnamon roll as big as a baby’s head made sure I stayed peppy even without caffeine.

A couple of hours later we wound through the cruise line’s security/immigration/boarding pass gauntlet. We had arrived early and were rewarded with two hours in a waiting area until the ship was prepared to receive us. While waiting I noticed that we were younger than 95% of the other passengers. I’d been warned to expect that. I also noticed that about half the passengers were Chinese individuals visiting Alaska to examine the parts they intend to buy during the next decade. I spent most of the wait reading Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends and becoming increasingly depressed because I’ll never write that well.

We boarded and found our stateroom, which was as far forward as one can get without being cantilevered off the anchor. I didn’t care, since it had not just windows but also a balcony. On a prior Caribbean cruise our cabin had made me feel like I was Cool Hand Luke spending the night in The Box. We unpacked and met Panya, the gentleman who would be taking care of us.

Our packing had been a miracle. My t-shirts, cargo pants and sweaters came out pristine. My suit and dress shirts looked like something pulled out of a wino’s armpit. Panya promised to help, as long as we could pay the laundry bill. I felt compelled to agree, else I’d be attending formal dinners in my Jack Skellington t-shirt. As I looked around at our closet and drawers, a doubt skittered up my back on spider feet and whispered that we may have packed incorrectly.

Tomorrow… Day 3

Our room. Yes, those are real, live balcony doors, through which is pouring real cold ocean air.

Our room. Yes, those are real, live balcony doors, through which is pouring real cold ocean air.

In the first three days of our romantic Jamaican holiday, my poor decision making skills nearly killed my wife and me. I blundered into buying a deep tissue massage, and we would certainly have died if I’d had enough money for the two hour session, or if our masseuses had been a bit more muscular.

Yet we survived. In celebration, we summoned the will to drag our body parts to the beach the next morning, which was the first really sunny day of our trip. Back home I’d purchased some great spray-on sun block, so we needn’t smear our entire body surfaces with goop as if we were birthday cakes. The stuff came out of the spray can shockingly cold, but we coated each other with diligence, except for our faces of course. We slathered regular, semi-gelatinous sun block on our faces.

We took it easy on the beach. We relaxed for half an hour, swam in the ocean for half an hour, relaxed another fifteen minutes, and went inside to take stock. We saw the beginnings of a nice tan. On our faces. Everywhere else our skin had achieved the color of the surface of Mars. When we returned to our room, the temperature inside went up ten degrees.

It became clear that if we wanted to get home alive I must not make any more decisions of any kind.

The next day was Valentine’s Day, which called for romantic hi-jinks, since this was a romantic vacation. My wife was empowered to select romantic hi-jinks for us. She chose zip lining. As far as I knew, zip lining was how guys with guns dropped out of black helicopters to shoot other guys who didn’t happen to be looking up. My wife informed me that was a narrow view of the term. You can also dangle from a wire stretched between two trees and let gravity hurl you across the gap, with no opportunities to shoot anyone on the other side. That too is called zip lining. Since this was Valentine’s Day, and this sounded so damned romantic, and I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions anyway, I said, “Sure.”

Our romantic zip lining rendezvous would happen in a lovely canopy jungle, which sounded pretty good. But we were at the beach, where canopy jungles were conspicuously missing. The jungle we needed lay rather closer to the middle of Jamaica. We spent two hours on a cute bus driven by a charming fellow named Chris, and I learned three things on the ride. First, it does not pay to be timid when driving in Jamaica. Second, I would refuse to be a pedestrian in Jamaica. I’d sit in a room and starve before I stepped onto the street. Third, I’ve spent about six hours on Jamaican roads, and I have had the honor of passing through the only stop light on the island, twice, and never slowing down either time.

At Zip Lining Base Camp the guides organized us, distributed equipment, and gave a detailed lecture on technique and safety procedures. We all signed a waiver, which none of us really read. I did catch some phrases like, “able to walk for 30 minutes,” “not responsible for spine injuries,” “coronary event,” and, “nausea and vomiting.” Well, I figured the lawyers probably just made them put that stuff in there. As I walked by a table one of the guides asked whether I wanted to take such a nice camera with me. I said sure, I wanted to take pictures. He warned me it would be wet, but I said I’d be okay. He persisted, saying it might rain, but I just waved and kept going.

Three guides led us ten hapless dopes to the first zip line, and a few things became apparent right away. The guides were funny, funny guys. The guide who’d warned me about my camera had a better camera than mine hanging from his neck. Since I’d brought my massive Canon along anyway, the guides named me “Paparazzi.” And when we hit the first zip line the guides just hooked us up and told us to grab on and go. It was like that lecture on technique and safety had been some sort of dream.

The zip lining itself was a hoot, especially the longer, faster lines. The guides kept us from dying, and more importantly entertained us while they did it. But I’ll tell you a secret about zip lines. The end you start on has to be higher than the end you finish on. That means to get to the next line you have to walk uphill. Actually you have to walk up rough rock steps. Steep ones. And lots of them. After a while, some of us had our heads down, gasping like an ox in Death Valley. The disclaimers about coronary events and vomiting flashed through my mind.

Despite that, we zipped down seven lines in all and had a great time. I took some pictures that didn’t suck. As our bus hurtled back toward our resort, dodging larger vehicles and intimidating anything smaller than itself, I reflected that my wife had made a good decision.

Back at the resort and drunk on successful decision making, my wife chose an oriental restaurant for our big Valentine’s Day dinner. While the food was delicious, they served us an entire trough of sushi. My wife’s bowl contained enough noodles so that placed end to end they would reach the height of the Statue of Liberty. We’d been zip lining all day. We were hungry. We ate a lot.

In our room after dinner we lay on the bed and looked at each other. Valentine’s Day would seem like the right time for some romantic hanky panky, especially on vacation. Yet we lay on our backs like chubby otters, unable to do anything but roll a bit from side to side. My wife said, “It’s like a perfect storm. The deep tissue massage, then the sunburn, then zip-lining, and now we’re stuffed full of noodles. I don’t know if we can touch each other without screaming.”

We’re so in love. We’d better be.

A palpable wave of hatred is surging over me as I sit on this Jamaican beach. My friends are hurling that wave at me from a thousand miles away while they look out their windows at snow. I may not be welcome in their homes when I return. They certainly will not allow me near their children. I might infect them with my contempt for the spirit of everyone suffering together.

As I sip my rum and coke I’ll attempt to explain myself. I’ve had a hard six months. Nobody likes a whiner, so let’s leave it at that. I decided to get out of town before I began rising in the dark of night to slaughter unsuspecting wayfarers. And before my wife had to impale me in my sleep to protect the innocent. A toasty resort seemed like just the thing. Some of my friends mocked me for choosing a resort for which you pay a huge, heaving chunk of money up front and then don’t pay for anything else while you’re there. My friends prefer to experience the genuine Jamaica—the Jamaica of the people. I prefer a vacation that requires me to make as few decisions as possible. I’ve been here three days, and the only decision I’ve made is whether or not I want ice in my drink.

That’s an exaggeration of course, but almost accurate. We have a refrigerator/mini-bar in our room, and I had to decide what beverages to ask for. We were limited to one mini-bar bottle of each type of liquor, which I thought a bit stingy, but what the hell. I ordered rum and forgot about it.

After breakfast yesterday we waddled like geese down to the beach. A red flag lies beside every beach chair, and when you lift the flag a nice gentleman hustles over to bring you whatever you want to drink. A ragged-voice fellow moved down the beach singing Bob Marley and Sam Cooke, and he staged himself with as much virtuosity as any Shakespearian actor I’ve ever seen. A friendly fellow wandered the beach selling jet-ski rides, parasailing, and marijuana.

I began to feel embarrassed to lie there like a veal calf, so I walked up to a shack that housed a fountain soda station, just so I could say that I foraged for myself at least once. Attached to the side of the shack was what I could only call a bubble gum machine of booze. Four liquor bottles hung upside down in a glass-front box—gin, vodka, whiskey, and of course rum. A spigot tapped each bottle so that any passerby could take all he wanted. Now I’m not much of a drinker. But at that point I realized that not drinking rum would be an insult to the people of Jamaica. By now the people of Jamaica should like me a lot.

The Bubble Gum Machine of Booze

By noon we were bored with swimming, drinking, and laying on the beach. So we spent the afternoon swimming, drinking, and laying by the pool, which is more of a change of pace than you might expect. We dragged back to our room and were greeted by an entire fifth of Appleton Jamaican rum. I realized that in Jamaica “mini-bar” means no more than half a dozen full bottles of liquor at a time.

We wandered to one of the restaurants and were told there’d be a short wait. They couldn’t say exactly how long. An hour later, still waiting at the bar, we laughed at the German couple next to us who’d given up and huffed away. We’d never wait an hour for dinner at home, but it seemed fine here even though we could have walked 90 seconds to another restaurant and be seated right away. We didn’t have anywhere else to be.

This morning we decided to do something different, so we signed up for a massage. I’ve never had a massage, so I found the menu of massage types a fascinating read. The ones involving bamboo and hot stones didn’t sound like too much fun. My wife let me decide, and I picked the basic massage. Then I saw there was a “deep tissue” option. I figured that if a massage is good, then deep tissue must be better. I sprang for the 90 minute version. Our masseuses, Diane and Doreen, directed us to our room, where we disrobed and flopped on the tables like halibut.

I knew that “deep tissue” had been a mistake when Diane placed her thumb under my shoulder blade and pressed it through my body into the table. From the whimpers and rapid, shallow breathing at the next table, I assumed my wife was coming to the same realization. I can best describe the event as two nice women dropping a fire hydrant on you in slow motion for an hour and a half. After pulling my spine out like a licorice whip, Diane moved south, eventually reaching my feet. She crushed my feet, and I now understand why that was such a popular medieval torture. I’m not sure what she did to the soles of my feet, but I think she may have brought in a rhino to gore me a few times.

But the most interesting part of the experience was Diane’s discretion. I lay under a sheet to protect my modesty, but during this procedure modesty was a fuzzy concept. While moving about to assault various parts of my body, Diane manipulated that sheet with the skill of a fan dancer. At one point she stopped and placed a cloth over my eyes, and I found that a bit ominous. But I then realized that it was another attempt at modesty as Diane went to work on areas uncomfortably close to very private places. The cloth over my eyes was apparently an appeal to the “ostrich effect”—if I couldn’t see Diane then I would assume that she couldn’t see me either.

Diane and Doreen at last relented and left us with polite words and smiles. My wife and I stared at one another for a while, as if we were spies amazed to have survived a KGB interrogation. We rolled off the tables and dressed. My wife was so crippled that she couldn’t lift her arms high enough to tie her bathing suit. We staggered back to our room, our plans for the beach now destroyed. My wife refused to talk to me, or even look at me.

That’s what I get for trying to make a decision. From now on, ice/no ice is the only question for me.