Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pinter's Old Times -- Dramaworks' Inspired Rendering

If you try to "figure out" Old Times you might miss the performance.  At Dramaworks' "Knowledge and Nibbles" -- which is held the afternoon of the first preview performance (the one we attend) -- Resident Director J. Barry Lewis compared it to a jazz riff (my thought exactly when I read the play beforehand). It is meant to wash over you like a piece of music, performed by the three major "instruments," Deeley (a successful film-maker), Kate (his wife) and Anna, a friend of 20 years ago who is visiting the couple in their gentrified farmhouse near the English coast.

It is about the unreliable, fungible nature of memory and its affect on relationships, told in "Pinteresque," a variation on the theatre of the absurd. The opening of the play introduces us first to the married couple as they are waiting for the arrival of Anna (although she is already on the stage with her back turned to the audience). Parts of their dialogue are like an overture to what will follow -- the ambiguous later recounting of the past in the play.  In just the first few minutes, phrases like "I think," "I think so," "what does that mean," "when you look back...all that time," "can't you remember," "it's a very long time," "she remembers you,"  "do you think," "I didn't know," "I don't know," "I don't think so," and "I hardly remember her" are tossed around, foreshadowing the action (and the pauses) that will follow. 

At one point Anna says (reinforcing the dreamlike feeling of the play), "Can you see that tiny ribbon of light?  Is that the sea?  Is that the horizon?"  That sort of sums up how I felt looking for clarity (not Pinter's intention).  Instead, look for transparency in Pinter's pauses, as much of the story is told in those silent moments.

The plot is ostensibly simple, but beneath the words are questions.  An old friend visiting a married couple, Anna now living in Sicily married to a wealthy Italian (an object of some jealousy on Deeley's part? Deeley has been to Sicily. Did he see Anna there?).  Anna and Kate were good friends (perhaps lovers?) before Kate met Deeley (or was it before or during the time Deeley knew Anna?).  It is a dance of divergent memories and even roles (are they all really one person, or is Anna dead and Kate and Deeley are discussing her?).  As Anna says at one point:  "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened.  There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place."  That sort of sums up the entire play.

There is one particular conflicting memory and that is Deeley's description of his meeting Kate for the first time at a showing of the film, "Odd Man Out" (the title could describe Deeley's relationship with Kate and Anna).  Perhaps Kate had gone to the film WITH Anna, as later Anna asks Kate whether she remembers those days when they explored London, they had gone to "some totally unfamiliar district, and almost alone, saw a wonderful film called "Odd Man Out." (Emphasis, mine.)  The opening title of this 1947 British film noir reads in part, "This story...[is] concerned...only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved."  Indeed, the characters in Old Times are "unexpectedly" but, more so, inscrutably involved.

Also, Deeley and Anna might have met (before Deeley met Kate) at the "Wayfarers Tavern," although Anna does not think so, but Deeley claims to remember her vividly, describing exactly what she wore. Later, Anna acknowledges "It was me.  I remember your look...very well.  I remember you well."  Kate turns to Anna and then says "But I remember you.  I remember you dead."

Given the ambiguity of this play, its success is even more dependent on the performances of the three characters, their direction and the staging. The actors, as well as the scenic and lighting designers are newcomers to Dramaworks, but all highly experienced professionals.  As J. Barry Lewis explained, Dramaworks "wanted to work with a group of artists not known to our audience so there are no expectations."  I found this Tabula rasa approach interesting and particularly relevant to seeing Old Times.

As the play's Director, J. Barry Lewis has made the most of Pinter's script, making sure the pauses are as significant as what is said.  It is part of the rhythm of the play, like gaps in memory the action on stage have their moments of rest so the audience can watch the characters, their bodily reactions having as much (or more) meaning than the words. Nonetheless, Lewis moves the action along and this two act play, without an intermission, glides by like a passing dream.

The set is particularly important, as it is real, tangible, denoting something, the action on the stage being so ethereal.  Victor Becker, a highly experienced stage designer, has created an expansive set for the first act.  Becker said the "play needed something grounded"; hence, the beams, reminiscent of the frame of a barn, with the modern windows indicating that the home had been renovated.  The second act is in the bedroom, the top part of the set lowered, "raising" the audience to the second floor, with two divans and an armchair replacing the furniture of the living room.  It is a more intimate set now and this is where the play's tension rises. But as Becker related, it is "less about creating and more about editing -- getting a sense of the play and what it feels like. "

Inevitably, the success of this play depends greatly on the three actors making their company debuts, Shannon Koob (Kate), Pilar Witherspoon (Anna), and Craig Wroe (Deeley).  They are more than up to the task, totally consumed with their interpretations of the characters.  Wroe walks a fine line between the loving husband, the jealous lover, the angry "man out" and manages to carry much of the humor in the play (yes, there are some subtle amusing moments, some of which are delivered with a twist of sarcasm).  Koob has a difficult role as Kate as some of her work is done in silence, the bodily reactions to her husband and Anna, her facial expressions of hurt and anger -- actually seething anger at times and one wonders how Koob decompresses after each performance.  Witherspoon plays a more animated character, a catalyst in the lives of Deeley and Kate, almost like a breath of fresh air entering a stale, worn relationship.  The actors are simply superb.  

Paul Black said his lighting design was very different between the two acts, using his craft to "make emotional connections."  As such, the lighting is fluid, moving imperceptibly between colors and intensity. 

All elements are in sync to make Old Times another Dramaworks unforgettable performance.  I particularly liked the numerous threads of lyrics briefly sung by Deeley and Anna to Kate, almost as if they were trying to "top" each other, songs written by the likes of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, among others, songs representative of the past, evocative and in keeping with "old times."  As Deeley remarks "they don't make them like that anymore."  Similarly, there are few professional theatres that can put together such a seamless, memorable production of Old Times

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Compare and Contrast

In a sense, this is a continuation of the previous entry, setting down my thoughts on two books I read on our recent cruise.  But, as a reminder, my comments are not "reviews" of the books, although aspects of what I write might so qualify.  These are obviously my personal impressions and how the content often relates to my own life.  There are plenty of excellent reviews of both all over the Web.

These novels were as unlike as they were alike, I know a confusing contradiction.  If I was an English teacher I would assign them for the classic compare and contrast assignment. Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending is about the meaning of memory in one's life (or how we prefer to remember things, or how the gaps in our memory are as significant as those moments we remember) whereas Louis Begley's Shipwreck, is about an unidentified narrator who is approached by a stranger who over the course of three days confides a story of exacting detail, with the impeccable memory of an observant writer (who is indeed the stranger).  In a sense, they both have elements of mystery novels, with endings that leave as many questions as answers.  Each have three major characters, are both first person narratives (although Begley's book is "told" through the unidentified narrator), with the introspective view of character driven novels.  They are each concerned with the unexamined life, anxieties of self doubt, Begley's set in a middle age crisis while Barnes' is looking back from the perspective of a retired protagonist.  Begley's novel has many erotic elements while the sexuality of Barnes' novel is one of sexual frustration, the young woman who latches onto Begley's protagonist bordering on nymphomania while Barnes protagonist's main love interest is completely repressed.  And we all like to see a little bit of ourselves in what we read, with both protagonists expressing parts of my own, such as Tony in Barnes' book, "I had wanted life not to bother me too much." (Playing it safe in one's personal life and career.)   And, like John in Begley's novel, "I'm no good at joining groups and rather proud of my misanthropy."  Both lines resonate.

I began with Barnes' book, and as it is a novella, a fast and engaging read.  As I have a greater interest in contemporary American literature, Julian Barnes, an English writer of a number of novels and short stories, was a departure for me.  Perhaps it is the "Downton Abbey influence" that has awakened a long dormant interest in English writers.  Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens were among my earlier reading interests.  I need to go back to them. Most recently, I've been drawn to Ian McEwan's workbut I had heard much about Barnes, so why not start with a Booker Prize winning novel?

The three main characters in the novel are the narrator/protagonist, Tony (who is now divorced and retired), Veronica, perhaps the love of his life (or perhaps not?) when he was in school, and Adrian, a brilliant schoolmate who commits suicide later in life.  Along with two other friends, we are treated to a description of English school life of the 60s, and Tony's obsession with Veronica which culminates in one dry hump and Tony masturbating while visiting Veronica at her parents' house.  Meanwhile, Veronica finally pairs off with the intellectually gifted Adrian, leaving Tony bereft.  Later, we learn that he wrote a letter to Adrian, about Veronica (and more -- don't want to reveal any spoilers), a letter he has completely forgotten until some forty years later, and his complicity in a series of events that may (or may have not?) have led to Adrian's suicide, Veronica's unhappiness (although that seems to be her natural state), and an institutionalized (now adult) child (there are interpretations of whose child it might be; I have mine, not to be revealed here).  The letter begins, Dear Adrian -- or rather Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter) so one can imagine its contents. 

But all of this is woven in memory, faulty, unreliable memory.  After all, what is memory other than certain significant moments in our life, with great gaps in between?  And memories are sometimes stories we tell ourselves about our life -- almost a form of cognitive dissonance -- and perhaps I told some here in this blog.  There is certainly large chucks of personal information I've written about, but they are my interpretations of the past, not necessarily the same past as one would have witnessed via a video tape.  And, perhaps, the most important memories are the ones I've chosen to forget or not to reveal (there is a fine line when writing in this space).

That is why Barnes' novel appeals so much to me.  Tony Webster's memories may be self serving, or maybe not:  How often do we tell our own life story?  How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?  And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.  Told to others, but -- mainly -- to ourselves. As Veronica accuses Tony, in the beginning and at the end, an accusation he even considers for his epitaph: “Tony Webster — He Never Got It.” 

Is what we remember called history or is history the accurate recounting of memory? When Tony first meets Adrian Finn at school, he seems to be a shy, introspective boy.  The school master is discussing the causes of WW I and puts the question to Finn,  Finn, you've been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were, our Serbian gunman....Would you care to give us the benefit of your thoughts?"  One can only imagine the impact the heretofore unknown Finn had on his schoolmates with the remainder of the exchange (and his answer feeds into the heart of the novel, memory and consequences):
"I don't know, sir."
"What don't you know?"
"Well, in one sense, I can't know what it is that I don't know. That's philosophically self-evident." He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. "Indeed, isn't the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it's all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is-was-a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."

Once Adrian was long gone, Tony, from the perspective of a senior citizen, ruminates about him and in so doing, the inadequacies of his own life: From the beginning, he had always seen more clearly than the rest of us. While we luxuriated in the doldrums of adolescence, imagining our routine discontent to be an original response to the human condition, Adrian was already looking farther ahead and wider around. He felt life more clearly too-even, perhaps especially, when he came to decide that it wasn't worth the candle. Compared to him, I had always been a muddler, unable to learn much from the few lessons life provided me with. In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came.

Tony had imagined a different kind of retirement (as a retired person myself, I can vouch for the veracity of this observation -- it's profound) : Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don't you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business. Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire-and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records-in words, sound, pictures-you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. (Perhaps this blog is the wrong kind of record-keeping.)

The novel is not all about looking back though and it's ending (or the "sense of an ending") is filled with unanswered questions, intentional vagaries, and the reader has to make his own interpretations.  I found myself rereading the end several times to come up with my own conclusions, I guess the hallmark of a good mystery novel.  Barnes book is well worth reading.

What a change of pace with Begley's Shipwreck (an ironic title given I was reading this on board a ship, although, thankfully, not the Costa Concordia).

Like the old joke goes, a man walks into a bar (the L’Entre Deux Mondes -- which could be anywhere), and then.....Well in this case, it's not a joke, unless you consider three days of story-telling to a stranger in a bar, over innumerable drinks, a preposterous tall story.  The man who has walked into the "between two worlds" is the famous author, John North, going up to a stranger to tell the entire content of the book I was about to read.  The stranger is never named, and although he is the "narrator" mostly he is conveying, word for word, what he is hearing from North.  He is us, the reader, although he does have a few things to say, especially at the strange initial meeting, describing North as this man so like me in appearance and demeanor, from the crown of his neatly barbered head to the tips of his brogues, well worn but beautifully polished.  Listen, he said. Listen, I will tell you a story I have never told before.  If you hear me out, you will see why.  I would have been a fool to tell it.  With you, somehow I feel secure.  Call it instinct or impulse or fate -- your choice.

And so the story begins, involving three major characters, North, his wife Lydia, and North's dalliance with a young French journalist who he met when she interviewed him for the Paris Vogue magazine, Lea Morini.  To me, there were several dimensions to this novel, the story itself of choices made, how North cheats on his wife, who he dearly loves, acknowledges the dangers of his extramarital affair, but is so hopeless to end because of, to put it mildly, the incredible sex (mostly in Paris), realizing later in the tale how the walls are closing in on him and what limited choices he has for ending the affair.  It's a good tale, and the title of the book foreshadows its conclusion, but, like Barnes' book, it is an ending that leaves some questions.  But what really interested me is that North is a writer, so why tell the tale verbally to a stranger?

Begley, who comes to the literary world late in life after a hugely successful career as an attorney, writes with the lapidary precision of his former profession.  And I don't mean this in a negative way as he is a pleasure to read, words chosen carefully and gracefully as well.  His novels exude erudition and in my opinion he has become one of the best writers today.  His Schmidt trilogy alone makes him a novelist of importance.  One could say that Shipwreck is somewhat a variation of the Schmidt novels, the older man with the younger woman, but it is much, much more than that.  In particular, Schmidt is an attorney, just like Begley WAS, but North is a writer, just like Begley IS.  So to me, the many passages about writing, and a description of the literary scene, held my close attention.

North has written an "important" novel, The Anthill, which takes place in Paris, one that is being made into a film, and he is currently working on a new novel, Loss. Although an accomplished novelist, he is racked by self-doubt (perhaps like Begley?), questioning whether his writing is REALLY that good.  His wonderful, faithful wife, Lydia, is his biggest supporter, but nonetheless, his doubts remain.  One has to wonder whether this is universal of all good writers.  At one point, North goes to the shelves of his library:

There are things you do only when you are alone. I sauntered over to the shelves reserved for the first editions of my novels and their translations and stroked the familiar spines. Then, as though under a compulsion I was unable to resist, I took down first the new book and later all the others and looked at certain passages. I was to remain in my armchair the whole night and the next day, and most of the night that followed, with hardly any pause, although I suspected that I had a fever. I reread my production. At a certain point, entire sentences I had written seemed to disintegrate like figures in a kaleidoscope when you turn the tube, only my words did not regroup and coalesce as new wonders of color and design. They lay on the page like so many vulgar, odious pieces of shattered glass. The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them. Not even my second novel, the one that won all the prizes and was said to confirm my standing as an important novelist. No, they all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books. Novels that are not embarrassingly bad but lead you to wonder why the author had bothered. Unless, of course, he had only a small ambition: to earn a modest sum of money and short-lived renown.......And what should one think of a man who writes such books, he continued, where does he belong if not to the race of trimmers, men who live without infamy and without praise, envious of any other fate?

The self-doubt of the nature and quality of his work is again expressed in the context of the movie that was being made of his award-winning The Anthill.  I found this fascinating as Begley's About Schmidt was adapted for the screen, and the movie bore little resemblance to the novel.  I wonder what Begley thought about it, how much he might have protested.  The novel is much better than the movie and I had to erase the memory of the movie from my mind to read the novel.  I could never get the lead, though, Jack Nicholson, out of my head and that's the way I see Schmidtie in my mind's eye.  Again, North labors with the anxiety that his work is poor:  The proposition was brutally simple and dreadful to consider: if the books are no good, if they are unnecessary books, then my life, of which I had given up so much in order to write them, had been wasted. What set me off was nothing directly concerning Loss; its progress had been slow, but I was moving along and, from time to time, when I reread and corrected the text I was even amused and surprised. I couldn't imagine where I had gotten some of the stuff I had written down, but I was glad to see it was there. The screen adaptation of The Anthill was the immediate cause. I received from the producer a text he described as the almost final version of the screenplay. According to the contract, I had the right to review it and send in my suggestions, revisions, and so on for his and his colleagues' consideration. Nothing more than that. As drama, the screenplay struck me as pretty good. Certainly, it wouldn't put audiences to sleep. I was distressed, though, by the sentimentality of the story and the main characters. That was certainly not what I had intended, what I remembered writing, and that is not, I made quite sure of it, a defect of the novel, which I very conscientiously reread. But was it not possible that the screenwriter- I knew him and knew he was no fool-had seen through some flaw at the core of my book? Something I had not been conscious of that he had brought to the surface? And there was a touch of vulgarity to the screenplay. Had my book invited it? Or, equally sad, was there such a huge and unsuspected gulf that separated me from most of my readers? I asked Lydia her opinion. She reassured me: there was no such flaw and no such gulf. In that case, was she the only reader who understood me?

But Begley must have learned much about the craft of screenwriting when About Schmidt was filmed, as North is concurrently working on adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, detailing the distinction between the two arts: Writing a screenplay based on a great novel is foremost a labor of simplification. I don't mean only the plot, although particularly in the case of a Victorian novel teeming with secondary characters and subplots, severe pruning is required, but also the intellectual content. A film has to convey its message by images and relatively few words; it has little tolerance for complexity or irony or tergiversations. I found the work exceedingly difficult, beyond anything I had anticipated. And, I should add, depressing: I care about words more than images, and yet I was constantly sacrificing words and their connotations. You might tell me that through images film conveys a vast amount of information that words can only attempt to approximate, and you would be right, but approximation is precious in itself, because it bears the author's stamp. All in all, it seemed to me that my screenplay was worth much less than the book, and that the same would be true of the film. The best I could say, to comfort myself, was that I had avoided pushing Eliot's work toward melodrama.

The most introspective passage about writing comes from North when he turns back to his new novel, Loss, which he had abandoned for awhile.  The process of writing and revision he describes, I bet, comes closest to Begley's own painstaking prose: The manuscript of Loss was waiting for me; finishing it, I decided, was a challenge I had to meet. I reread the hundred eighty or so pages anxiously, and was relieved to find I didn't completely distrust or dislike the story I had written. It would be a rather short novel in an age when it seemed that the proof of serious purpose and rich imagination was to write a work of eight hundred pages without a plot and without a single memorable character. But my method of composition has always been to write down all that I have to say on a given subject and stop. To strain for more is like adding Hamburger Helper. Usually, after so long a separation from a text, I would start by reviewing it from the first to the last page, making big and small changes as I went along. This time I was astonished to discover that I did not need to do that. Nor did I feel that I had to do over the chapter I had finished just before I left for Spetsai in order to jump-start the book or get back in the mood. Those are tricks I have used successfully when I have felt stuck. Quite miraculously, there seemed to be no obstacle to resuming work right away, at a steady pace. I welcomed the arduous task and the heavy fatigue I felt at the end of each day: these were, I thought, the only possible means of reestablishing my physical and mental health. By the beginning of August, I was able to hand to Lydia, always my first reader, a completed first draft. I decided that I would revise it only if her judgment was favorable. You must understand that revisions are a task to which I invariably look forward, however long I estimate they may take, because at least the book is palpably there. It's a blessing to be relieved of every writer's recurring nightmare: that he will find himself, perhaps without warning, unable to complete what he has begun.

So, there it is, the "other" story in Shipwreck, about the creative process.  But getting back to the plot, one knows that North's liaison with Lea is moving to some sort of conclusion; in fact, it must move in that direction as North loves his wife Lydia, and one can carry on a duplicitous life for just so long without disastrous consequences.  And while telling the end of the novel is not my intention, the very last line is not a spoiler -- North says to the stranger who has listened to all of this know more about me now than anyone else alive. Indeed, and this may refer as much to Begley the writer, as the protagonist North.

A Relaxing Cruise

Several months ago Ann said she'd like to participate in a Mah Jongg tournament that is being held on a one week Caribbean cruise, great prices with the group rate, so would I like to go?  We did this a few years before with our friends Harry and Susan, and as I did not want to "be on my own" while she played her games, I said, sure, if Susan goes, and Harry agrees, I'd love to, otherwise, please room with another participant and I'll stay home.  Harry and I had shared some fun times on the last cruise, so he readily agreed and therefore on Jan. 11 we departed on the Holland America's 'Westerdam' from Ft. Lauderdale and have just recently returned.

We've done many cruises in the past, so easy from neighboring Ft. Lauderdale, no planes to catch, just drive there and leave the car until we return.  And with group pricing, a nice, warm Caribbean cruise is so inviting.

Naturally things have changed drastically in the 14 years that we've been cruising  and I figure that we've spent nearly a year at sea, with several Atlantic crossings as well as one Pacific crossing, and a river cruise.  During those years, the cruise industry has been morphing from a select market to a mass market "product."  I don't mean to be elitist, but our tastes in theatre and traveling have been refined over the years and more and more they seem to come in conflict with the experience many cruise lines are now offering, mostly in an attempt to draw larger audiences, with each person a mini-profit center to whom they can sell drinks, services, tours, shopping, so-called art (at "auction"), cocktails and wine, and drinks (did I mention drinks?).  And of course there is the omnipresent casino to relieve passengers of any loose change left after the foregoing (although one of the Mah Jongg ladies at our table put a few quarters in a slot machine and won more than $1,000!).

To achieve their objectives, cruise lines are building their ships larger and larger -- Royal Caribbean International's 'Allure of The Seas' and 'Oasis of The Seas' topping out at about 225,000 gross tonnage, accommodating up to 6,200 people.  Other, larger ships are being built in the race for more passengers.  These are now small cities and their mere size makes them Disneyland kinds of destinations onto themselves.  Not every port can handle them, and tendering has to be a nightmare.

There is probably a direct correlation between the size of the ship and the nature of the services offered, one of the reasons we try to choose smaller ships, preferably under 2,000 passengers.  These now tend to be the older ships (old in the cruising business is anything nearing 10 years in service).  Oceania is now our choice cruising line, but some of the Holland America, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity ships can be found in the smaller vintage.

And that is one of the reasons I agreed to this trip as it was on the classic Holland America 'Westerdam' and although some of the photos might make it look leviathan, compare its "mere" 85,000 gross tonnage and 1,800 passengers to the large ships being built today.  It is still stately, and Holland America does make an effort to maintain some of the traditional aspects of cruising and ship architecture.  I particularly appreciate the Promenade deck, harking back to the days of swift ocean crossing vessels, which makes for a perfect, unobstructed place for a morning power-walk, it's teak deck usually wet from morning dew or heavy seas.  Three walks around the deck equals one statue mile and as I usually walked very early in the morning, I normally had the entire deck to myself, or occasionally just a few others, fairly remarkable considering the number of passengers on board, most sleeping in due to their nighttime activities.

Nonetheless, there is the inevitable feeling that you are always being marketed to, and later in the day it is sometimes hard to find a quiet corner.  For us, one of the big negative aspects of Holland America is that they still allow smoking on the verandah balcony, including cigar smoking, so if you are a non-smoker (and militant non-smokers as we are  -- Lady, can't you read the sign, smoking kills!), and you have a balcony, you are left to the vagaries of who might be next to you or over or under you if you want to step out and enjoy your own balcony.

For this reason, we now only book ocean view (no balcony) on Holland America, the irony being, on this particular trip, our stateroom was (unknown to us after much research) under the specialty restaurant kitchen and for some reason they'd be banging away, perhaps throwing pots and pans into the dishwasher, in the middle of the night.  After four nights of being awakened, and complaining, HA finally moved us to another stateroom, our friends Susan and Harry also moving with us to an adjoining stateroom.  We had assurances that those next to us did not smoke and therefore we accepted these verandah rooms as compromise, despite the inconvenience of moving.

Ironically, our one meal in that same specialty restaurant was a disaster.  My halibut completely dry and inedible, the shrimp cocktail served lukewarm, the maitre d insisting that that's how it's served at really fine restaurants!  Harry's porterhouse was tough and the coffee undrinkable. The main dining room on the other hand was consistently fine, food quality and variety, and in addition we enjoyed getting to know our table mates from Michigan.

We had been to all the ports on this cruise -- Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Half Moon Cay -- but there was one new one for us, Grand Turk.  The latter and Half Moon Cay have great beaches, and what else to do in the Caribbean?  Grand Turk is a fairly deserted island, perhaps best known for when John Glenn's 1962 Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft landed in the vicinity.  I remember anxiously following the flight in my college dormitory and Grand Turk meant nothing to me, a remote part of the world I would surely never see.  And here I was merely 52 years later. 

St. Maarten was a sea of humanity -- and that is how the newer cruise ships are impacting the cruising experience, even if you are not on one of the megaships.  There were seven ships at the dock in St. Maarten and one at anchor.  The ENTIRE island's population is about 70,000 and the day we were there those ships were delivering 24,000 tourists!  Imagine the lines and lack of facilities.  What's the sense?  After a brief walk, we returned to the ship for peace and quiet.

Puerto Rico's Old Town is always a fun place to walk around.  

Meanwhile, days at sea there were some 60 women engaged in Mah Jongg battle, including Susan and   Frankly, being with our friends, and being able to relax and read were the high points of the trip for me.  Poor Susan and Ann returned each afternoon slightly frustrated by the Mah Jongg games, Ann in particular who said she never played more horribly.  I don't understand the game, have no intention of doing so (actually, I don't play any games, too little time), but from what I do understand it is like most of them, a mix of luck and skill.  I think Chess -- which I used to play -- is the only game where pure skill prevails.  Any game that involves luck doesn't seem to be worth playing (it's too much like life!).  And Mah Jongg tournaments are intense, emotions running high, accusations of cheating, cat fights galore! (Again, too much like life!)
Ann, while Harry and I had to "endure" the hot tub, conversation with some of the other passengers (when they were awake) and then reading.

It appeared that Susan, with a very high score at the end, had a good chance of winning some tournament prize money, and we all had her hopes up, but it turns out someone incorrectly tallied her score and in the end, she dropped out of contention.  Meanwhile, Ann was in the running for the booby prize but at least escaped with her dignity.. On the very last night of the cruise, with suitcases mostly packed, she was invited to play in another "mini tournament" (these organized for the women who just did not get enough MJ during the day).  It turns out, she was on fire and came out not only the top money winner but with a final score higher than anyone had achieved so far.  Needless to say, she skipped back to our cabin with her $60 as happy a winner as anyone ever saw! 

All in all, it was a very relaxing and fun cruise, remarkably covering some 2,221 nautical miles in a week.  That's a lot of cruising and overall Holland America did a fine job providing enjoyable meals and excellent services.  I love being at sea when I have some time to read, and although there was a lot to do, I did manage to finish two books.  More on those in the next entry