Friday, September 30, 2011

Entry 182 9.30.11 Summing Up

Entry 182, September 30th, 2011, 10:16pm (GMT +2)

This will likely be the last blog entry I post from on board the Grandeur. Tomorrow morning at 9:30am my ship expense account stops working, and that includes internet. Looks like I better get my drinking done tonight . . . I hope to post again by Sunday or Monday.

Lincoln, our long-time bass player and a good friend of mine, signed off today. I first met him at the tail end of a marathon ten-month contract, and then he came back from vacation to spend a couple more months here before transferring to the Azamarra Quest. Maybe one of these days I'll get a chance to visit him in Australia (although if all Aussies are sarcastic bastards like him I'm not sure I want to go).

His replacement is a fresh-faced, long haired Californian who's brand new to ships. I'm relieved because this means that after a six and half month stint as the FNG (Fucking New Guy) I'm finally free of my “newbie” status. Granted, I'm only on the ship another 36 hours, but it's better than nothing.

So. How do I sum up? I've spent the past seven months of my life living aboard the Grandeur (two hundred and ten days, on Sunday, or thirty weeks). I haven't slept on land since March. I've lived in extremely close quarters with friends and coworkers from all around the world, spending every hour of every day with them for more than half a year (we quite literally cannot get away from each other). How do you sum up such a thing?

If this stage of my life has a theme, it is unlearning – unlearning the old assumptions to make way for a bigger life. Lao Tzu says in the Tao te Ching that:

In pursuit of knowledge, every day one thing added.

In the pursuit of wisdom, every day one thing taken away.”

When I graduated college, I thought I had things pretty well figured out. Life was stable, externally and internally. I thought I knew what I wanted. The loose thread started to show the next October. It was small at first, but as I pulled and pulled on it more and more things started to get attached. Moving to the ship – the sudden changes in habitat, work, culture, language, etc. – helped the process along.

And the process of unlearning is exhilarating. When you let go of something that you always assumed was true, you realize that there's a freedom you always had but never used. I've realized that I don't have to be shackled to a life in the arts to live in a meaningful way. I've realized that I can think past my professors' musical tastes. Traveling is easy (or easier than you think, at least). I've rejected an entire system of basing my own worth on competence – in other words, I am not my profession. I work it, not the other way around.

And most importantly, I've realized that the universe does not care what I do with my life. There is no audience – no, I take that back, there's only one person in the audience that matters, and that's me. What a tremendous sense of freedom!

I see now how much of a mistake it would have been to go to graduate school straight away. This was exactly what I needed from life. Graduate school, while useful, would have been more of the same patterns of information that I had already been studying. I needed new patterns and new ways of thought to challenge the old ones, because that's the only way to find out which ones are strong and which ones are used up. I would have been digging the same ruts deeper and deeper, maybe even so far that I could never get out of them. Now I know that I never want to lose that personal flexibility, and that it is something worth fighting for.

And the longer that I am away from it, the more I become aware of my education's shortcomings. Not in the individual educators (although I did have some pretty bad teachers in my time), but in the system itself. It is a schooling that teaches you how to stand in lines and sit in rows, and to shut up and memorize by rote material that you can't stand. The overriding message is “follow the rules, follow the rules, follow the rules!” I was taught discipline, analysis, and how to blend in to mass society, but I was never taught how to figure out what I want.

Although perhaps I would not have been set up for this current rejection of outside systems of value if it weren't for my schooling? Maybe the assembly line nature of public education is really designed to inspire a rejection of the system? It would be a brilliant subliminal plot, but then I remember the miles of suburbs named things like “Woodbrooklake” and “Meadowfieldshine” outside all of our major cities. Maybe not.

So that's how I sum up. I've begun the process of de-educating myself, and I'm finally starting to learn a thing or two. In the meantime, I've made a little money, met good people, visited exotic new locales, and spent time with beautiful women. It's been a good contract.

What's next? Well, this blog has already passed it's expected deadline of “six months and three weeks.” I'm not heading home anytime soon, and as long as people are still reading I'm going to keep writing. Fear not, there are adventures in the works! Barcelona! Paris! Vienna! Amsterdam! London! Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Entry 181 9.28.11

Entry 181, September 28th, 2011, 11:43pm (GMT +2)

Alright, I promised another entry about Bruce Chatwin's “The Songlines,”and it's about time I got around to it.

Check out how he starts the book. This is one of my favorite openings.

In Alice Springs – a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers – I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals.

His name was Arkady Volchok. He was an Australian citizen. He was thirty-three years old.”

Argh, I love it. Dude writes like Hemingway. Steven King talks about including the right details, and this is a perfect example. Men inlong white socks, forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers? I love it. It's a pity Chatwin had to die of AIDS in France in 1989.

Anyway. The book is ostensibly about the Aboriginal songlines in Australia, but the songlines are actually just an excuse to address deeper questions. One of them is this: is mankind, as a species, inclined towards violence and aggression between one other as a matter of instinct?

I quote Chatwin:

Suppose, for the sake of argument, you cut all the loose talk of 'aggression' and focused on the problem of 'defense.' What if the Adversary on the plains of Africa, had not been the other man? What if the adrenal discharges that precipitate 'fighting fury' had evolved to protect us from the big cats? What if our weapons were not, primarily, for hunting game, but for saving our skins? What if we were not so much a predatory species as a species in search of a predator? Or if, at some critical watershed, the Beast had been about to win?

Here – let there be no mistake – lies the great divide.

If the first men had been brutish, murderous, cannibalistic, if their rapacity had driven them to acts of extermination and conquest, then any State, by providing an umbrella of force, will have saved men from themselves and must, inevitably, be considered beneficial. Such a State must, however frightful for the individual, be counted a blessing. And any action by individuals to disrupt, weaken or threaten the State will be a step in the direction of primaeval chaos.

If, on the other hand, the first men themselves were humbled, harried, besieged, their communities few and fragmented, forever gazing at the horizon whence help might come, clinging to life and one another through the horrors of the night – might not all the specific attributes we call 'human' – language, song-making, food-sharing, gift-giving, intermarriage – this is to say, all the voluntary graces which bring equipoise to society, which suppress the use of force among its members; and which can only function smoothly if equivalence is the rule – might not all of these have evolved as stratagems for survival, hammered out against tremendous odds, to avert the threat of extinction? Would the, therefore, be any less instinctual or directionless? Would not a general theory of defense explain more readily why offensive wars are, in the long run, unfightable? Why the bullies never win?”

It's important to remember that he was writing this during the latter part of the Vietnam war. There's also a long discussion about possible candidates for this hypothetical beast, including one cat (now extinct) that seemed particularly designed to slaughter humans. I'll leave it out for now, but it draws a lot on his background in archeology (not making this up . . . Chatwin = Indiana Jones?).

But it's an interesting question. History is full of examples of people who normally fight each other brought together by a common threat. The cooperation of Roosevelt and Stalin to fight Hitler is on example; the alliance of Greek city-states during times of war is another (although they had varying success). Is that what we need to live in harmony as a species? An external threat scary enough to unify the entire world? It reminds me of “The Watchmen.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Entry 180 9.28.11

Entry 180, September 28th, 2011, 3:28am (GMT +2)

Christ! Life is so full sometimes, I feel like I can't hold it all in. Like it's going to burst out of my seams.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Entry 179 9.27.11

Entry 179, September 27th, 2011, 12:22am (GMT +2)

I went looking for a haircut today in Barcelona. There's a little shop I went to last time where a Saudi Arabian guy gave me a great haircut for only 5 euro. I remember it being near a church . . . but here in Europe that doesn't narrow it down very much. For a largely secular continent, Europe has a shitload of churches.

I didn't find it, but I did get lost of to the West of La Rambla, which was probably more fun anyway. I saw lots of interesting things – my favorite was the scooter messenger wearing a yellow winged helmet. He looked like a modern day Hermes.

I also passed a restaurant that I'll be back to in La Bocqueria. Immediately inside the entrance and all the way to the left of the huge outdoor market is a place called “Universal Kiosko.” It's open air with bar and table seating, and all the food is cooking right in front of your nose. You have to fairly aggressive to get a seat, but the delicious smells are unbelievable. The Barcelona equivalent of the Carnegie deli.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Entry 178 9.26.11

Entry 178, September 26th, 2011, 1:18am (GMT +2)

Found this today while reading about Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP):

"The unfortunate fact is that in mainstream society, few people are skilled dreamers . . ."

Interesting that someone would consider dreaming a skill. Can it be developed through practice and exercise? What sort of things would help someone become a better dreamer?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Entry 177 9.25.11

Entry 177, September 25th, 2011, 1:10am (GMT +2)

Tonight's music: “Be Anything (Darling Be Mine)” Sarah Vaughan, Live at Mister Kelly's 1957

It is an evening of delicious melancholy. A slight alcoholic fog, brought on by whiskey, mixed with a seat in the darkened crew mess, and a few slightly grainy old jazz recordings . . . it's an evening of flickering halogen and dry dust off the street.

Be a beggar/ or a thief

Be my sunshine/ or my grief

Be anything

But darling, be mine”

I'm definitely a night person.

Tonight we played one of my arrangements during the big band set. Our arrangement of “Night in Tunisia” was so terrible that I needed to write another one. It worked out well; a few revisions are necessary, but on the whole it worked out well. It's a strange instrumentation, the orchestra; the horn section has no bottom to it. Two trumpets, trombone, tenor and alto . . . really, we should cut the second trumpet and add a bari player (actually, keep the second trumpet player – that's me).

So the voicings are not working quite right, but the arrangement works. Really, I should have been doing this the whole contract (writing for the orchestra). Missed opportunity, I guess, but I have another week. Maybe I'll write another “Jumpin' at the Woodside” arrangement, since we need a new one of those as well.

This Sarah Vaughn sounds so good – I can't concentrate on my blog writing.

Be the angel/ of my prayers

Be the devil/ who cares?

Be anything/ be anything

But darling, please be mine.”

Friday, September 23, 2011

Entry 176 9.24.11

Entry 176, September 24th, 2011, 3:16am (GMT +2)

Pretty good jazz set tonight. One of the Polish bands came and sat in with us . . . first jam session I've been to in six months.

Also, I played lead tonight on the headliner shows. Chops = tired.

And it was my last day in Italy for the forseeable future. That is a sad feeling.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Entry 175 9.23.11

Entry 175, September 23rd, 2011, 12:22am (GMT +2)

One of the orchestra musicians and I were talking today on the train back from Rome. He mentioned that he'd spent three years after college barely playing music at all, working at a store that sold refrigerators. I asked him what his “ah-ha” moment was, where he decided to leave the refrigerator store and come play music for a living on ships.

He hesitated for a minute, before laughing once. “I don't usually tell people this.” Here's his story:

“I was working one day, hating life, when this old man came in. He came straight to me; 'I need a refrigerator, but I don't know why I came here. There's a store much closer.' The man took one look at me and his expression changed. 'What are you doing here?'

'Excuse me?'

'You're a musician. You play (my friend's instrument), right?'

'How did you know?' I'd never seen this man before in my life – I figured that maybe he'd seen one of my gigs on the weekend.

'Are you playing much right now?'

'Not really.'

He the proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about my life that he had no way of knowing. The man had had a stroke several years ago, nearly died, and heard voices now. He finished by saying, 'I was drawn to you when I came in; there's a very bright spirit following you around.'

What he didn't know is that I have an older brother who passed away about ten years ago. When he died, my mother spent a lot of time researching mysticism and ways of communing with the dead. I didn't think much of it.

'So what are you doing here?'

'Uh, working?'

'Why aren't you playing music?'

'Well, I was thinking about applying for some jobs, playing on ships.'

'Do it. That's what you should be doing.'

We talked about many other things for another half an hour. No one else came by. None of my coworkers needed me. My cell phone didn't ring. Eventually the old man left.

I quit the next day. A month later, the cruise line called me. Now I'm here. No one else saw the man, or saw me talk to him. I can't prove any of it happened, but it changed my life.”

Compare that to this bit from Paulo Coelho's “The Alchemist.”

“. . . Meanwhile, the old man persisted in his attempt to strike up a conversation. He said that he was tired and thirsty, and asked if he might have a sip of the boy's wine. The boy offered his bottle, hoping that the old man would leave him alone.

But the old man wanted to talk, and he asked the boy what book he was reading. The boy was tempted to be rude, and move to another bench, but his father had taught him to be respectful of the elderly. So he held out the book to the man—for two reasons: first, that he, himself, wasn't sure how to pronounce the title; and second, that if the old man didn't know how to read, he would probably feel ashamed and decide of his own accord to change benches.

"Hmm…" said the old man, looking at all sides of the book, as if it were some strange object. "This is an important book, but it's really irritating."

The boy was shocked. The old man knew how to read, and had already read the book . . .

". . . Where are you from?" the boy asked.

"From many places."

"No one can be from many places," the boy said. "I'm a shepherd, and I have been to many places, but I come from only one place—from a city near an ancient castle. That's where I was born."

"Well then, we could say that I was born in Salem."

The boy didn't know where Salem was, but he didn't want to ask, fearing that he would appear ignorant. He looked at the people in the plaza for a while; they were coming and going, and all of them seemed to be very busy.

"So, what is Salem like?" he asked, trying to get some sort of clue.

"It's like it always has been."

No clue yet. But he knew that Salem wasn't in Andalusia. If it were, he would already have heard of it.

"And what do you do in Salem?" he insisted.

"What do I do in Salem?" The old man laughed. "Well, I'm the king of Salem!"

People say strange things, the boy thought . . .

. . . But before the boy could say anything, the old man leaned over, picked up a stick, and began to write in the sand of the plaza. Something bright reflected from his chest with such intensity that the boy was momentarily blinded. With a movement that was too quick for someone his age, the man covered whatever it was with his cape. When his vision returned to normal, the boy was able to read what the old man had written in the sand.

There, in the sand of the plaza of that small city, the boy read the names of his father and his mother and the name of the seminary he had attended. He read the name of the merchant's daughter, which he hadn't even known, and he read things he had never told anyone.


"I'm the king of Salem," the old man had said.

"Why would a king be talking with a shepherd?" the boy asked, awed and embarrassed.

"For several reasons. But let's say that the most important is that you have succeeded in discovering your destiny."

The boy didn't know what a person's "destiny" was.

"It's what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their destiny is.

"At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their destiny."

None of what the old man was saying made much sense to the boy. But he wanted to know what the "mysterious force" was; the merchant's daughter would be impressed when he told her about that!

"It's a force that appears to be negative, but actually shows you how to realize your destiny. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth."

"Even when all you want to do is travel? Or marry the daughter of a textile merchant?"

"Yes, or even search for treasure. The Soul of the World is nourished by people's happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation. All things are one.

"And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

They were both silent for a time, observing the plaza and the townspeople. It was the old man who spoke first.

"Why do you tend a flock of sheep?"

"Because I like to travel."

The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. "When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he's an old man, he's going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of."

"He should have decided to become a shepherd," the boy said.

"Well, he thought about that," the old man said. "But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds."

The boy felt a pang in his heart, thinking about the merchant's daughter. There was surely a baker in her town.

The old man continued, "In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own destinies."

The old man leafed through the book, and fell to reading a page he came to. The boy waited, and then interrupted the old man just as he himself had been interrupted. "Why are you telling me all this?"

"Because you are trying to realize your destiny. And you are at the point where you're about to give it all up."

"And that's when you always appear on the scene?"

"Not always in this way, but I always appear in one form or another. Sometimes I appear in the form of a solution, or a good idea. At other times, at a crucial moment, I make it easier for things to happen. There are other things I do, too, but most of the time people don't realize I've done them."

The old man related that, the week before, he had been forced to appear before a miner, and had taken the form of a stone. The miner had abandoned everything to go mining for emeralds. For five years he had been working a certain river, and had examined hundreds of thousands of stones looking for an emerald. The miner was about to give it all up, right at the point when, if he were to examine just one more stone—just one more —he would find his emerald. Since the miner had sacrificed everything to his destiny, the old man decided to become involved. He transformed himself into a stone that rolled up to the miner's foot. The miner, with all the anger and frustration of his five fruitless years, picked up the stone and threw it aside. But he had thrown it with such force that it broke the stone it fell upon, and there, embedded in the broken stone, was the most beautiful emerald in the world.

"People learn, early in their lives, what is their reason for being," said the old man, with a certain
bitterness. "Maybe that's why they give up on it so early, too. But that's the way it is."

The boy reminded the old man that he had said something about hidden treasure.

"Treasure is uncovered by the force of flowing water, and it is buried by the same currents," said the old man. "If you want to learn about your own treasure, you will have to give me one-tenth of your flock."

"What about one-tenth of my treasure?"

The old man looked disappointed. "If you start out by promising what you don't even have yet, you'll lose your desire to work toward getting it."The boy told him that he had already promised to give one-tenth of his treasure to the Gypsy.

"Gypsies are experts at getting people to do that," sighed the old man. "In any case, it's good that you've learned that everything in life has its price. This is what the Warriors of the Light try to teach."

The old man returned the book to the boy.

"Tomorrow, at this same time, bring me a tenth of your flock. And I will tell you how to find the hidden treasure. Good afternoon."

And he vanished around the corner of the plaza.”


So did my friend meet the King of Salem? Hard to say. But the similarity between the two stories is uncanny.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Entry 174 9.20.11

Entry 174, September 20th, 2011, 5:31am (GMT +2)

A passage from "The Songlines," by Bruce Chatwin. He's detailing a Bororo manhood ritual in Niger.

"In the iner court were the young men, who for the past four years had been obliged to parade about in female dress. We heard a volley of whooping cries: then, to the rattle of drums, in walked the two boys plastered with Marie's make-up . . .

. . .another young Bororo came out carrying a choice of three "Herculean" clubs, each freshly cut from the bole of an acacia. He offered the beauty (one of the boys) his choice of weapon.

Removing his sunglasses, the beauty pointed languidly to the biggest, popped something in his mouth, and waved to his friends on the rooftop. They howled their approval and raised their plastic boaters at spearpoint.

The master of ceremonies picked up the beauty's choice and, with the solemnity of a waiter serving a Chateau Lafite, presented it to the tough one (the other boy).

The beauty then took up his position at the centre of the circle and, holding his sunglasses above his head, started warbling a chant in falsetto. The friend, meanwhile, swinging the club in both hands, piroutted around the rim of the circle.

The drummer stepped up the tempo. The beauty sang as though his lungs would burst; and the tough one, whirling faster and faster, closed in. At last, with a bone-crunching thud, he whammed the club down on his friend's ribcage and the friend let out a triumphant 'Yaou . . . o . . . o . . . o . . . o . . . !' -- but did not flinch.

'What was he singing?' I asked the ancein combattant (old man sitting next to Chatwin).

'I can kill a lion,' he said, '. . . I have got the biggest cock . . . I can satisfy a thousand women . . .'

'Of course,' I said.

Having repeated the same performance twice more, it was the beauty's turn to club the tough one. When that was over, the two of them -- best friends and blood-brothers for life -- went sauntering around the spectators, who reached their hands forward and stuck banknotes on to their face-paint . . .

. . . It was almost dark when, from the inner court, there came more blood-curdling cries. Another rattle of drums, and all six boys marched in, hard and glistening, in black leather kilts, their hats stuck with ostrich feathers, swaying in their shoulders, swinging their swords -- as they moved in to mix with the girls.

'They are men,' said the ancein combattant.

I looked down, in the half-light, at the mass of blue and black figures, like the waves at night with a whitecap or two, and silver jewelry glinting like flecks of phosphorescence."


First of all, fantastic writing. I included the last paragraph just because I like it.

But there is an issue here that I've been thinking about. Chatwin's description of the manhood ceremony of the Bororo invites comparison with our own manhood ceremonies.

"What manhood ceremonies?" you might ask. "Americans don't have any ceremonies." I disagree.

The Bororo youths' song sums up the qualities of manhood in quite succinct fashion. "I can kill a lion, I can satisfy a hundred women, etc." These are our instinctive drives -- to fight (for protection and for sustenance) and to procreate. Becoming a man means embracing these instincts and demonstrating prowess.

Go to any college town in America and you will see clubs and bars full of young men attempting to participate in their own manhood rituals. Think about it -- what do guys do in clubs? They try to get laid, and they fight. They fight each other because no more dangerous predators are present (a whole different discussion that Chatwin pursues with varying degrees of scientific rigor and will likely be the subject of tomorrow's post) and to show prowess in front of the women present. They hone their social skills to demonstrate superior status in the tribe and make themselves more desirable mates. The successful ones wear eye-catching clothing, just as the two Bororo boys Chatwin saw were the best dressed of the six (hemp necklaces and upside down visors have become our ostrich feathers and leather kilts).

But here's the curious thing. Amongst the Bororo, the transition to manhood is done in full view of the tribe. The boys are urged on by the onlookers . . . but in our society, it is hidden away. We become men in dark clubs with no windows. The transition takes place under an alocohlic haze that simultaneously deadens our memories, impairs our judgement, and postpones the time when we have to deal with inhibitions. We are not taught by our community's elders how to be men -- we're thrown into the process alone and expected to know how to do it right.

Why is it that the transition to manhood is something to be hidden away in our culture? Why are the instinctive drives we feel as men downplayed and discouraged? I'm not saying that we should all be aggressive and selfish -- that's not what manhood is either -- but we're taught to be "nice guys" and that's not what the world needs.

Entry 173 9.20.11

Entry 173, September 20th, 2011, 12:39am (GMT +2)

I was rereading Bruce Chatwin's “The Songlines” today (because that's what you do when you work on a ship – you read every book you own, you read them again, and then you read them a third time) and came across a bit he wrote about moleskin notebooks.

In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine,' in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie . . . Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get . . . The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and, almost with an air of mourning, said, 'Le vrai moleskine n'est plus.'”

I glanced across my lap to the cabin desk where my own moleskin sat, a little black book bound with an elastic band and filled with travel notes taken in preparation for my little European junket. I had found it in a Barcelona bookshop that wound back from the street like a catacomb; room after low vaulted room filled with books organized in haphazard fashion. I'd found this book stowed in an old roll-top desk with countless brothers and sisters.

Something tickled my brain. I picked up the book and started leafing through it. A little pamphlet fell out, entitled “The History of the Moleskin” in about twenty different languages. Lo and behold, it began with a quote: Bruce Chatwin's discussion of the moleskin from “The Songlines,” repeated word for word there on the paper.

What are the odds?

Bruce Chatwin, by the way, was a professional traveler and gifted writer, possessed of a narrative voice that cuts like a crystal blade through one story to the next. This particular book, “The Songlines,” is a hilarious and heartbreaking account of his journey to understand the system of songlines that bind together Aboriginal culture in Australia. It's a search for a culture that has been almost totally destroyed . . . but more on this tomorrow. I hear that he died in Nice, France, and since we're in Cannes tomorrow maybe there's something to see . . .

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Entry 172 9.18.11

Entry 172, September 18th, 2011, 4:44pm (GMT +2)

I am beyond excited for the end of this contract. Not because life is bad here on board, but because I've been working on my travel arrangements and there are so many things to go out and see!

It's going to be a busy eighteen days between my sign off from the Grandeur on the 2nd and when I meet the Independence on the 20th. I'm spending sign off day in Palma, relaxing at a hotel. I plan on sitting on the beach, drinking a beer, and watching the ship sail off into the sunset (something I've never done yet, thank goodness). Granted, this will probably take about four hours, as the Old Lady usually only makes about four knots around the island of Mallorca, but I'm okay with that.

The ferry takes me to Barcelona the next day, where I'm staying in a youth hostel off of the Plaza Catalunya. I hope to hit some jam sessions and catch some of the night life that we've been missing each week. Three days later, it's an overnight train from Barcelona to Paris where I'll be seeing my family for the first time in seven months! They're on holiday (vacation, David, vacation . . . damn I've been around the brits far too long) outside the country for the first time, and I'm spending a week with them there.

Still working on the rest of the travel arrangements, but Vienna, Amsterdam, and London are likely choices. You can see why I'm beyond excited. One week, six days, thirteen hours, eight minutes, and twenty three seconds to go . . .


You can tell that the new captain is on board because the ship is rocking back and forth much more than usual tonight. He doesn't like to use the stabilizers.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Entry 171 9.18.11

Entry 171, September 18th, 2011, 12:59am (GMT +2)

Today's entry: a little thought experiment.

What if you could, with a sweep of the hand, erase your entire personal history? This is something that Coelho talks about in his first book, “The Pilgrimage.” For his pilgrimage to be successful, he must allow his previous self to die. The first exercise that his guide gives him is about rebirth . . . but I'm getting off topic here.

What if you could be suddenly free of everything that has happened so far in your life?

You would still remember everything that has happened, of course, but it would no longer have any power over you. It would the mind free to exist in the present, and accept truths for what they are. So what if things didn't turn out the way you thought – that part of yourself is in the past, and the past is dead.

It would also free you from doing what everyone else expects you to do. People expect you to act the same way now as you did in the past, but if the past is erased then you have a clean slate to work with. Again, you are left free to act in the truth of the moment.

People define themselves by their personal histories – “I am a painter,” “I suck at relationships,” “I usually win.” If your personal history disappeared, what would be left? Maybe it is like mathematics. Remember the concept of a function from high school? A function is the way in which one set of numbers (inputs) is related to another one (outputs). Take away the numbers, and all you have left is the machinery that connects them. That's what would be left of me if my personal history was erased – the process by which I react to stimuli.

Or maybe it is like calculus. Calculus can be used to look at the relationship between that first set of numbers and the second, even when given an infinitely small window of samples to look at. If the current moment is one of those infinitely small portions of time, and our lives consist of a series of those moments strung together. What's left when everything else is taken away is that relationship between the numbers.

Maybe that's the soul that people have been looking for these past thousands of years? Not a physical or metaphysical substance, but rather the relationship between lots of things as time passes. It's procedural – it exists in the same way that the quadratic formula exists. You can't “find” or “reach” the quadratic formula (“ooooh, it was behind the couch the whole time!”). It only exists as an abstraction, but clearly it does exist because we use it all the time. Are our souls the same way?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Entry 170 9.17.11

Entry 170, September 17th, 2011, 3:50am (GMT +2)

Feeling the love onboard. We had a real wonderful cabin party last night . . . the situation was vibing seriously hard. It almost reminded me of the old Eureka Street house in minature.

The social networks here on board run in cycles. A circle forms, with a few important people in the center as it's nucleus. There are usually a few couples and most of these members are long-time crewmembers who have been on board more than four or five months (and are generally not officers, because officers are boring (except you, Nicky)). These people host the parties (both in cabins and on theme nights) and generally shape the time, place, and vibe of social interaction on board. They bring in others, members of the group who are less important and are not always present, but fill out the dynamic.

Eventually enough of these core people sign off or are transferred, and the group fractures. Time passes, until eventually a new core forms with different members and the process begins again. I'm in the third cycle here on board after being around for six and a half months. There was an orchestra circle a couple months ago that has since fractured and been absorbed by the new cruise staff/sports staff/cast nucleus. I'm pretty involved in this group -- hence the cabin party last night, and the one we're going to have tonight as well. I anticipate this group fracturing when the ship transitions to Panama and there's a big turnover for Spanish-speaking crew, but I won't be around to see it happen anyway.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Picture Post 2

Barcelona's Sagrada Familia

The Colosseum (duh): Backstreeets in La Spezia, Italy:

St. Peter's:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Entry 169 9.13.11

Entry 169, September 13th, 2011, 11:07pm (GMT +2)

Ibiza continues to be the hive of celebration and debauchery that it has always been, despite the passing of the height of summer season. Bora Bora beach was a little less crowded this week, and the bass was turned up a little less, but it remains the everlasting party that it is famous for.

Afterward I was walking back to the ship from the taxi with my compatriots (co-conspirators?) when I realized that we still had an hour left before all aboard. “I'm going for a walk,” I declared. They called me crazy but I left them for a little spit of land near the breakwater.

After a bit of a walk, a clamber up a ruined staircase, and a bit of a scramble across some broken rocks (keep in mind that I'm two liters of sangria the worse for wear at this point) I found myself on the end of the point of land, projecting out into the ocean towards the moonlight. It's a magnificent full moon tonight, and the milky reflection stretched all the way from the horizon to my toes. The white rocks gleamed like daylight, and the only thing I could hear was the waves and the gentle summer breeze coming off the island.

Well, and the jetliners taking off every five minutes. But can't win them all, I guess.

Short version: it was pretty nice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Entry 168 9.13.11

Entry 168, September 13th, 2011, 1:27am (GMT +2)

I saw a New Orleans style, trad-jazz group today in Barcelona. There was a banjo, trumpet, and a piano. The banjo player sang as well, in a curious side-mouthed style that sounded like the old recordings (strange that he would work so hard to sound like a record player instead of actually singing). The trumpet player in particular sounded beautiful – he was an old guy, with not a lot of range left, but a really sweet tone and a nice feel for the old language. He's certainly more familiar with it than most trumpet players I know – cats may forget about it, but the old school is some hard shit.

It was great to see people come out of the upscale shopping boutiques with their pumping, cookie-cutter electro-Eurotrash bullcrap store soundtracks and start dancing to the trio outside.

Here's an interesting story. A crewmember from Jamaica was talking about a problem he had back home. His neighbor had six large dogs that would come over and poop all over his driveway twice a day – once in the morning, once in the evening. He talked to her a couple times, but she said, “tough,” and nothing changed.

So what did you do?” we asked.

Shot 'em.”

He shot the six dogs, and then threw their bodies over the fence into his neighbor's back yard! The group was split between horror and hilarity. “Dogs are dogs, you can always get more,” he explained. “I had a problem, and I solved it.” Apparently the neighbor never said anything, but did get some new dogs that never visited his driveway once.

Word to the wise: don't piss off Jamaicans. Also: life is hard on pets in Jamaica.

Entry 167 9.11.11

Entry 167, September 11th, 2011, 11:55pm (GMT +2)

When I first made the decision to pursue music as a profession, one of the influencing factors was a inherent perceived “meaningfulness” possessed by the arts (as opposed to other professions, such as engineering or business). A career in music, while perhaps not as lucrative as stock brokering, was something I could be sure would carry meaning. It was something that I could be sure was worth doing.

I've since learned that this is not true. The arts have no more inherent “higher meaning” than any other human pursuit. They can be reduced to a mindless, repetitive assembly line just as easily as automobile manufacturing can. That's what this job has taught me.

But that means that the opposite is also true. That means that any type of work can become meaningful depending on how it is done. I came to this realization while reading about the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most perfect engineering triumphs of the 19th century. Completed in 1883, it has been in constant use with only minor maintenance ever since. Roebling's (the chief engineer) hand-drawn plans outline not only every inch of the bridge in loving detail, but every piece of every machine that had to be invented to build the bridge. Even today, when a part wears out, the City of New York goes back to these plans to determine how to replace it.

It is Roebling's plans that brought me to this realization. In modern blueprints, when a line of rivets are required, the first few rivets are shown and the rest are represented with a line of X's. A notation at the side lists how many there are. This is not the case with Roebling's plans – if a piece has 4,568 rivets, he draws all 4,568 rivets. The houses under the bridge are the houses that were actually present during the construction. A relief comparing different sizes of ships sailing under the bridge has the clippers and steamships rigged with historical accuracy.

The plans are drawn with an exactitude and detail that can only stem from love of the subject matter; it is this love that gives them meaning and makes them art. In music, they say that it's not what you do, but how you do it that's important – I think that this principle applies on an even broader scale than my professors meant. It's not what you do that is meaningful, but how you do it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Entry 166 9.11.11

Entry 166, September 11th, 2011, 6:13am (GMT +2)

I'm still awake. I'm experiencing something I've never felt before – we arrive in Palma de Mallorca especially early for turnaround day, but I've never been awake for it. The smell of the breeze blowing off the land in the early morning is brand new. It's the smell of a late summer night, but with more to it – a bit of salt and weed from the ocean, of course, but also with that hint of activity that heralds daybreak. Combined with the unique vibe of fluorescent lighting and activity of the ferries docked near us, it's delicious.

Looking forward to the sunrise.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Entry 165 9.10.11

Entry 165, September 10th, 2011, 11:18pm (GMT +2)

I've been MCing the jazz and big band sets for the past several weeks. It's a learning experience that often proves hilarious for the rest of the band. So far I've learned to avoid the "girlfriend voice," (that voice guys go into when they get on the phone with their girl and start talking a little higher; "Baby, don't worry, I'll be there a little later . . .") and am smiling at them with some regularity. My next goal is to actually make eye contact with them when I have the microphone . . . baby steps, baby steps. Some day I might even learn a couple jokes!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Entry 164 9.9.11

Entry 164, September 9th, 2011, 2:22pm (GMT +2)

I forgot to mention (during my Titanic-inspired rant) that I visited the interior of the Colosseum yesterday. High tourist season has just ended in Rome, and while the lines are still considerable it is actually possible to start visiting things again. If you ever are interested in seeing the Colosseum, I recommend buying your ticket at the Roman Forum. The line is shorter, and it's a joint ticket good for two days that will get you in both places. This gives you an excuse to go to the forum as well, where there are much more extensive ruins (even though the Colosseum is more famous). I really recommend the Palatine hill . . . but I digress. I covered all that in an earlier entry anyway.

The Colosseum, or Flavian Ampitheatre (named because is was built by the Flavian dynasty – Domitus, Severus, and some other guy I can't remember), was begun after the death of Nero as part of a project to reclaim the huge portions of Rome occupied by his palace (the Domus Aurea, I think?). Thus, any movie showing a descendant of Julius Caesar pronouncing the death of gladiators in the Colosseum is historically inaccurate, as Nero was the last of his line, but I suppose that's not really very important. It could hold up to 70,000 spectators and was in constant use for over 500 years, except when damaged by earthquakes. That's actually why many of the facades have collapsed – it was built on a variety of substrata that shift differently when earthquakes strike. The original structure was built in only ten years by the extraordinary effort of manual laborers and anonymous architects; one hundred days of solemn festivities were required to properly dedicate it. Imagine a structure twice the size of a standard basketball stadium constructed in the first century A.D. and you begin to understand the Colosseum.

The building originally had a wooden stage, covered in sand. Two stories of “backstage” areas stretched beneath the surface, a warren of connecting passages and small rooms. These are the masonry structures you can see exposed now on the Colosseum's floor. A complicated system of winches and trapdoors allowed people, animals, and scenery to be brought up from below, recreating far off climates or illustrating scenes from well-known stories. I can only imagine the chaos below the Colosseum floor – lions and tigers being herded into cages, gladiators arguing before a fight, and managers trying to call cues, all done in stifling half-darkness and with sweet sticky blood trickling down the walls from the combat above.

The building itself is a hodgepodge of architectural styles and technologies. Given the number of times it has been partially knocked down and then rebuilt, I suppose that it makes sense, but I wasn't expecting it. I stood on the floor and tried to imagine it in it's heyday – the roar of animals being hunted through an African or Egyptian scene, the screams of criminals being devoured by lions, to occasional roar of the crowd over the general hum of conversation and merriment in the stands. There are small hollows in the stone for cooking or reheating meals (events could go on for days). Rough grids can still be seen scratched into the surface of the amphitheater where the commoners used to play the Roman equivalent of tic tac toe or backgammon. There's graffiti, too – simple pictures of favorite gladiators, with nicknames scrawled underneath. Most gladiators were slaves, captives, or convicts, but a few free men joined the system as well for fame and glory.

We may build larger stadiums now, but how many of ours are going to be in use for the next 500 years?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Entry 163 9.8.11

Entry 163, September 8th, 2011, 9:13pm (GMT +2)

I apologize for the lack of post last night; I had some fajitas in the mess that disagreed with me. I went to go practice after dinner, and after about fifteen minutes I realized that what I really needed to do was to go back to my cabin and stare at the wall for several hours. Ah, the perils of life at sea . . . I'm reminded of the russian roulette burrito stand near the old Eureka Street house. Delicious but deadly . . .

My neighbors, the dancers, had a get together last night to watch “Titanic” (I think they were inspired by the Celine Dion act we had on). I have no huge problems with “Titanic,” (besides the amount of bad luck they're incurring by watching that movie ON A CRUISE SHIP) but there is something that I have to get off of my chest.

I really don't like Jack.

“But you can't not like Jack!” “He cares about her, like, SO much!” “Oh, and Leo's so cute!”

I have no problems with Leonardo Di Caprio; he's done pretty well turning a tween heartthrob one-hit wonder into an interesting career. No, it's not him; I don't like Jack.

“But they're so cute together!” “And he cares SO much!” “And it's, like, totally so SAD when he dies! I just wish they could be together forever!”

We need some background to explain my disdain for Jack – specifically, we need to talk about the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” See the link:

“Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) is a term coined by critic Nathan Rabin after seeing Kirsten Dunst's character in “Elizabethtown.” He describes the MPDG as:

“. . . that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

The MPDG is a female character introduced solely to prod the protagonist into growth; she has no dreams, desires, or thoughts of her own. She remains static throughout the plot; a cute, bubbly thing with just enough eccentricities to throw our dour hero on his head. To put it differently, a MPDG is:

“. . . largely defined by secondary status and a lack of an inner life. She's on hand to lift a gloomy male protagonist out of the doldrums, not to pursue her own happiness.”

Titanic could have gone this direction. Imagine a stifled, young, aristocratic Jack, meeting an energetic, pretty, but poor young woman who convinces him to live but dies before experiencing any character growth of her own. Conceivable, yes, but boring. Women would be only vaguely interested (see any Adam Sandler movie made in the past ten years – I'm looking at you, “100 First Dates”) and men would be bored waiting for the implied-sex scene and/or iceberg to come kill them all.

James Cameron's genius here is to switch the gender of the MPDG. Instead of a brooding young guy, it's an oppressed young woman meeting her Prince Charming. Bang! Instant blockbuster. I know that I'm generalizing here, but let's be honest – how many adolescent girls have felt oppressed by the society they live in? And how many fantasize about meeting a “Mr. Right” who will fix everything that's wrong in their lives? It's not a small percentage. Couple that with a visually stunning disaster movie and the chance to see a beautiful female lead topless, and Titanic's commercial success makes a lot more sense (throw in Harrison Ford and a Nazi plot to steal a powerful religious artifact and we start to have a pretty good movie (“Truck? What truck?!?”)).

So why do I dislike Jack? Because he's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl! Think about this: what do we know about Rose? Well, she's got all sorts of internal conflict. She wants to help her mother, but resents the loveless marriage she's being pressured into. She's afraid not to be rich. She's suppressing her sexual side as only a Victorian-era woman can. She knows her life is going the wrong direction but feels powerless to stop it except through suicide . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But what do we know about Jack? Well . . . he loves Rose. He's willing to give his life for Rose. And . . . um . . . did I mention that he loves Rose? Take her out of the movie and the only thing we know about him is that he's a poor American who likes gambling with his Italian friends and has really bad luck when traveling. You can remove Jack from the movie and Rose is still an interesting character (heck, the plot still works almost unchanged without him) but take Rose out and Jack falls over like the cardboard cutout that he is.

So perhaps what I really don't like about the movie is the relationship between the leads. It's not balanced; it's not healthy. One of them is a fully developed, flawed, interesting character. The other is merely a solution to all of her problems. She sucks him dry for every bit of character development he has, and when she's finally figured her shit out (and he's saved her life) the plot chucks him in the water and he freezes to death. “You're the best thing that ever happened to me . . .” Are you sure about that, Jack? Because it doesn't look like such a good deal from where I'm sitting, pal. Let's see: one fancy dinner, one topless drawing, one night of steamy car sex, and then – splash! – into the North Atlantic with you while she goes on to fly around the world and drop priceless jewelry into the ocean.

If his love for her was so magically life-changing, shouldn't he have changed just a little bit in return? Nothing big, necessarily, but couldn't the writers have thrown him something? Or even just given him a flaw – any flaw! Alcoholism, ugliness, temper – anything to turn Jack from a flat, two-dimensional pretty boy into a real live human being.

Imagine if Jack had survived the sinking, and he and Rose decided to stay together. They're happy for a few months, but things begin to unravel. The realities of the poverty Jack lives in are not nearly as romantic as Rose hoped, coming from such a background as hers. More importantly, Jack has awakened in Rose the desire to go out and achieve things for herself, but he's a two-bit painter and wanderer with no particular life goals. His lifestyle begins to annoy her – she's fallen in love with an idea, a person that only existed for a week aboard the Titanic, and the reality is much different. Maybe they scrape together enough money to travel on another ship to try to recapture the magic, but it isn't there. Eventually Rose meets someone else,
someone who is consumed with a passion for what they do and is headed up the social ladder. She falls for them, and Jack goes back to his Italian buddies (those who survived the sinking, that is) and drinks himself into a stupor before dying in WWI or of lung cancer. Not such a successful movie.

Clearly I care more about this than I thought I did. Somehow I doubt that my neighbors share my many concerns.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Entry 162 9.6.11

Entry 162, September 6th, 2011, 11:15pm (GMT +2)

Today we were in Cannes. I explored the island of St. Marguerite last Italian cruise with some friends, but I forgot to write about it. It's more interesting than this week, so I'll write about it now.

The island lies just off the coast of France, within easy sight of Cannes. The ferry ride is perhaps fifteen minutes on one of the many blue and white Trans-Cote de Azur boats. There are actually two islands, of which St. Marguerite is the larger (about 8km all the way around). Most of the island is wooded, with conifers and pines thriving in the sandy soil. There are a few rocky beaches, but other than that the edge of the island is white stone. The stone has many thin strata, and is crumbling apart (due to erosion) into lines of spider-webbed, broken white teeth.

The day was hot, but in the shade of the trees is was cooler. My friends soon decided to turn back and find a beach, but I felt like walking and so kept on around the island. There's a nice example of early industrial fortification on the island – a French fortress built on the Northern side is all thick stone pentagrams. The forest is beginning to overtake it, but you can still walk between the fortress proper and the island fortresses that cover the walls. These were usually connected to the main walls either by a bridge or an exposed stairway, the idea being that while the enemy could make it up the stairs onto the island, they would be so exposed to musket fire from the main fort that it would be suicide. The island forts, meanwhile, protected the main fort from sappers and from long distance cannon fire.

Continuing around the island, I found an odd series of roads. There is a grid criss-crossing the island for no particular reason – wide dirt avenues with trees lining either side. I can only guess that it used to be some Baron's personal garden spot. I also found the remains of a kiln for firing heated cannonballs at passing ships. The red hot steel was a formidable weapon against wooden sailing ships, with their canvas sails and tarred rigging. Napoleon sailed under these very guns on his return from the island of Elba; they didn't fire on him.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Entry 161 9.6.11

Entry 161, September 6th, 2011, 12:07am (GMT +2)

I played with our new lead trumpet player for the first time today. He's a nice guy from Poland named Bruno. We had a tech run and two production shows, so I had about three solid hours of playing to really start to lock into his sound. There's a lot of changes to get used to; after six months of playing with the same lead player six days a week it will take me a day or two to adjust. That's alright, though, everybody sounds different and that's one of the things that keeps the music interesting.

CNN has been running 9/11 tribute material for about two weeks now. "9/11: The Day That Changed Everything," or something like that. It got me to thinking . . . what exactly did 9/11 change in my life? The answer: not much. Sure, there are a couple big things. My best friend went on a tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. I missed him and worried for his safety, of course, but there was no emotional connection between 9/11 and that in my mind. Intellectually I could understand what happened, why, and know that he went through some serious shit, but there's no way I can actually understand what he went through. It remains an intellectual abstraction.

It's the same thing with the victims of the terrorist strike itself. I'm sad that people died, yes . . . but I didn't know any of them. It didn't hit me on a personal level -- it remains an abstraction, an intellectual exercise that has since been overshadowed by atrocities here and elsewhere around the world. Let's face it: 9/11 for us is business as usual for a lot of people.

It did give a corrupt administration the card it needed to stay in power and continue to muck up the economic and legal systems of the United States. If anything, that's where the biggest impact was to me -- economics. But to say that it was the day that changed everything is a bit too hyperbolic for me. It smacks of sensationalism and lazy reporting. This was no Pearl Harbor -- there's no draft, no rationing, no tax hikes, and . . . well, I guess we did build internment camps this time, too, but you get my point. 9/11 only has as much power over us as we let it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Entry 160 9.4.11

Entry 160, September 4th, 2011, 9:43pm (GMT+2)

The sail away from Palma de Mallorca is one of my favorite evenings here on the ship. We loop most of the way around the island, and so the sun is setting right as we pass the West coast of Mallorca. The sheer walls of rock get painted red by the fading light, until finally all one can see is the steady blink of the lighthouse and a small village of orange flickering lights on shore. I'll miss this part of the job, certainly.

My roommate's girlfriend signed off this morning. Looks like I don't have the cabin to myself any more . . .

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Entry 159 9.3.11

Entry 159, September 3rd, 2011, 11:26pm (GMT +2)

Rob, our lead trumpet player, signs off tomorrow morning. With his departure the entire orchestra will have rotated during my six months here -- some seats twice, and the bass player three times (this includes the guy who got carried out of the pit in the middle of a show). It will be interesting to see who the new lead trumpet player is.

Four weeks left!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Entry 158 9.3.11

Entry 158, September 3rd, 2011, 4:16am (GMT +2)

There was a huge thunderstorm off to starboard tonight. Apparently people's hair was standing up on deck 10, due to the static charge of the ship. I don't know if I believe it, but weird stuff happens on the ocean and several people all told me the same story . . .

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Entry 157 9.1.11

Entry 157, September 1st, 2011, 10:29pm (GMT +2)

I found one of the things I need for an upcoming project today on la playa Malagueta in Malaga. It's a seashell -- but more on this later. There's business to attend to tonight still.