Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Writer's Retreat Part II

Having done the Queen Mary, I moved across the street to the Carnival Cruise Line's port and boarded the Paradise for a four day cruise. The decor of the Paradise is pretty gaudy (especially in contrast to the magnificent taste of the Queen Mary), the entertainment painfully-excessive patriotic American musical tributes, and the passengers mostly out for a four-day drunken 'lost weekend', so not at all my crowd.

But the food was good and I was only interested in the cheap cabin and the chance to write. Indeed, I didn't even bother to disembark at either of the ports visited.
I mostly stuck to my cabin, emerging only for meals or to give the steward the opportunity to clean. I had brought my Neo2 with me, a wonderful portable writing tool, so would go to the library or an unoccupied corner to continue writing pretty much nonstop.

(The library on the Paradise is as tacky as the rest of the ship, with only a fraction of the bookcases of, say, NCL's Pride of America, and even half of that was given over to the storage of games or hymnals. The four tiny bookcases left for actual books contained nothing but trash -- the best I could find were two books by J.D. Robb and a Stuart Woods -- not exactly heavy-hitting literature. Clearly, "beach read" would be too challenging for the typical Paradise patron, interested only in gambling and duty free liquor.)

Unfortunately, I was mostly blocked. Under considerable pressure to put my retreat to good use, I ground away on the next chapter but without making much progress. The truth is, I had already written everything covered in my outline except for the final two scenes, but still have about 25,000 words of action between here and the end to fill in. Normally that wouldn't be a problem: I just start writing and see what happens. But I had stopped on a slightly complicated bit of business where the characters have to talk through who is going to trust whom, and I just kept getting bogged down in the problem that the basic premise of my hero winning over the others is completely ludicrous. Well, okay, that's largely the point of the novel, but there is only so much clever dialog a reader can wade through before somebody has to shoot somebody for the action to keep moving, and it just wasn't coming together for me. I'd try to speed things up and have one or other character cut through the chaff and say something to move things forward, but they kept balking and telling me they wouldn't say that until this or that condition had been met, which I couldn't get to without another 20 pages of dialog that was frankly beginning to bore even me.

Long experience has taught me that writer's block is largely a question of momentum, so rather than stare blankly at the keyboard, the trick is to get the juices flowing by writing something. (See anything by Natlie Goldberg for details on the technique.) So I switched to a short story I had wanted to submit to Tess14, though the deadline for that had already expired, but that wouldn't come either. So, I went further down the writing ladder to 'editor mode' and began work on a nonfiction manuscript that had been sitting on my desk, nagging me, for a month. That seemed to work, and I was able to bang through that in about a day (freeing up a day or two of writing time from my post-retreat schedule). Feeling better having accomplished something I turned again to the short story, and that started coming. As I got a bit of the story working, I switched back to the novel and made a bit of progress, though nothing like I had hoped. (But then, I always set unrealistic expectations for myself....) By the end of the cruise I still hadn't dug myself out of the corner I had written myself into, but I was starting to see a couple of possibilities -- when in doubt, you can always blow something up, and I had a couple of characters waiting in the wings I could drop in on the conversation prematurely....I just had to decide which one because each would take the story in very different directions.

Getting off the Paradise, I went to the Sheraton across the street from LAX for the day, wasted time bogging and emailing (Internet time on a cruise ship is too expensive for much of either of those) but did make some progress on the short story. Next day took off for Missoula, where I spent the night awaiting the bus to White Fish. Once again, the Neo2 came in very handy as I kept writing non-stop.

The view at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake

Mary booked me into the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, which was very nice indeed. The room they gave me was fabulous, with a spectacular view of the forest, and the dinning room was superb. We will definitely be returning there. Sitting with the Neo2 on my lap, looking out at that view was perhaps the most productive portion of the retreat, though it is fairly typical that I hit my most productive at the exact moment the retreat is over. Though in this case, I actually had the train from Whitefish to Shelby to go and was able to edit the first draft of the short story. The train back was even better than the first trip because of course during the day I had the benefit of the spectacular mountain views I hadn't been able to see going the other way. And the dinning car had real china this time.

So, all in all a successful trip, even though I did not complete my novel. The key, I hope, is that I was able to reconnect with the novel (I always re-read and re-edit what I have so far, before starting the next bit) which keeps the project alive. I have several colleagues who have half-finished manuscripts in their drawers, some as long as 100,000 words, that they just lost momentum on and stopped. I used to think that was crazy, but I'm starting to understand that a bit better now that mine has dragged on over three years with no end in sight, and with dozens of other writing projects jockeying for my attention. But devoting the week to the novel was enough to refocus me on the project, to get the enthusiasm back up, and to get me thinking about the characters whenever I have a moment. I've more or less figured out what happens next and can work on the details in my head until the next opportunity to get it down on paper.

And although I can already see that I will have to rewrite the short story before it can be sent off, I know what I have to do to make it work, so it is just a matter of squeezing a day out of my schedule somewhere to finish that up. I am quite pleased with it because it is entirely different from what I normally write -- it's good to push to the edges of

So, mission accomplished.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Home Movies

One problem with going on retreat is that my daughter's music teacher (Joanne Collier) scheduled Tigana's concert for the weekend I was away, after all my travel plans had been made (and largely paid for), so I ended up missing her concert. Using her pocket camcorder, however, Mary was able to make a crude recording of Tigana singing so I could have some idea of what I had missed.

So here is Tigana singing "Think of Me" (from Phantom of the Opera)and "The Christmas Song" (i.e., "Chestnuts roasting over an open fire...")

Tigana had a killer cold, but the show must go on. Still, gives a fair approximation of what Tigana is capable of. If this is her at 12, can't imagine where she'll be at 16. Canadian Idol?

(The first voice you hear on The Christmas Song video is Tigana's sister, Kasia, encouraging her as she approaches the stage.)

As long as I'm sharing home movies, here's some footage of Kasia's riding lessons, her number 1 obsession.

The compilation starts with her getting on the horse her first lesson, going from being led on the horse to trotting all in that one lesson; and then getting off the horse (ouch -- the horse is so much taller than Kasia!); riding a couple of different horses for different lessons; and finally going to get a horse from the paddock. The lessons include not just riding, but getting the horse, brushing it down, tacking it up, riding, untacking (right term?) brushing it down again, and returning it to its right paddock. Note near the end of the video as Kasia is putting halter on a unicorn-white horse, her intense wishing makes a pink horse suddenly appear!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Queen Mary (1)

I arrive at LAX at 8:30 PM, but it takes me till nearly 10 to get to Long Beach and the Queen Mary Hotel, 11PM my time. I'm fairly beat, but check-in is efficient and after marching down an impressively long ship's corridor, I arrive at A161. I am surprised at how large the room is, and at the spectacular harbour view of city skyline out my twin portholes. Mary had clearly outdone herself this time.

Above: bedroom portion of A181; note porthole style heating/air conditioning vents over bed. Below: Living room portion of the cabin; note electric heater on the right (directly below TV)

Extremely pleased, I start to unpack when there is this really strange / disturbing sound. I eventually figure out that it is a dog whimpering next door. I open the closet door to hang my coat, and the noise sets the dog off barking. I wait for it to subside, but no such luck. So after half a hour of this, I reluctantly call down to the desk to complain. The clerk is appropriately apologetic and asks which room it is, says he will phone them right away, and hangs up. I am doubtful this will help, because I do not anticipate the dog answering the phone.

So I wait through another fifteen minutes or so and then go down to the desk to ask if I can move because it's been a long day and I really need to sleep. The clerk courteously moves me into another room (B484) on the other side of the ship and a deck down. This room, it turns out, is half the size, has only one porthole, and no view out of that. (It looks out on a geodesic dome, the former hangar of Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose and current Carnival terminus, but this is in no way equivalent to the cityscape on the other side.)

Cityscape of Long Beach as seen from starboard side of Queen Mary

I return to the desk, point out that the room is not really equivalent, but that it will do for tonight if I can have my original room back the next night, assuming the dog is gone. The clerk assures me that the dog will be leaving the next morning, now that the dog show is over. (This admission that management had knowingly booked an entire dog show worth of dogs into the hotel somewhat upped their culpability in my view.) The clerk offers me a free breakfast to compensate me for my inconvenience, but since Mary had already bought breakfast vouchers for me, I decline. And I'm not the sort of guy who complains in hopes of caging a free breakfast.

So I go to bed in my diminished but still quite nice room. It is also a bit noisy, but the noise is human, and I figure since by now it is past midnight, the humans will eventually quiet down, which the dog clearly had no intention of doing. It is a bit chilly, so I look around for the thermostat, eventually find it, see it has been turned down to 0, and crank it up to 70.

I wake up hours later shivering. I get up and discover the vent directly over the bed is spewing out icy cold air. I check the thermostat again, crank it up as high as it will go but with no change. I try fiddling with various settings (having on previous occasions encountered systems where turning up the thermostat turned down the heat down), but my experimentation is to no avail. I try to huddle under the covers and go back to sleep, but it is too cold. I get up, put on my hoodie, and try again. It is still shivering-cold, so I start to put on my winter coat, but it is too bulky to sleep in. This, I think, is crazy. If I wanted to freeze, I could have done that for free in Canada; the whole point of going to California in December is to get warm.

I try to phone the desk again, but pressing the "front desk" button on the phone only gets me a 'beep', so after several tries, I once again hike all the way back to the desk to point out I am freezing.

I may have looked a bit pissed, because the clerk turned me over to the night manager before I even reached the desk. The manager smoothly apologizes, explains that the heat must be turned off for the area, picks up the phone, calls for the engineering section, puts a 'rush' on fixing the heat in my room and asks who is ever on the other end to let him know when it's been done. He assures me this is routine, will be fixed momentarily and tells me to go back to my room and to phone the desk again if my room is not toasty within the next fifteen minutes or so. I point out that the phone doesn't seem to be working. Taken aback, he offers me breakfast, which I decline again, and he tells me to try the 'zero' on the phone next time, because sometimes the 'front desk' speed dial button is broken but zero will always get through to the operator who can connect me to him.

I get back to my room read for another half hour, shivering. I go to the phone and press zero. I hear a 'beep'.

I go back down the mile long corridor to the front desk. I tell my story to a new desk clerk who says, yeah, well its the original heating system and very ancient. The manager comes back in, sees me, and phones the head of engineering to meet him at my room. The manager is polite and professional but clearly pissed that he was told it was fixed when it wasn't. He steps into my room and says, "This is really cold!" and I say, "Yeah, so it is not just my imagination." and he says, "Not your imagination at all sir!" and offers to take 50% off my bill. The engineer shows up with the tech. The tech explains that he turned off the fan, thinking that that would stop the cold air coming in, but agreed that the room was unacceptably cold. He starts going through a set of keys trying to find the one to open the access panel. The chief of engineering -- who positively radiates authority, expertise and professionalism; the man looks like he should be the engineer on the Queen Mary, or maybe the Enterprise -- also tries to solve the problem. He is clearly about to rip the panel open, key or no key, when he figures out it's probably not the right access panel for my room anyway. Eventually they establish that the panel they need to access is inside another occupied room. The manager pronounces the situation ridiculous, and phones the desk (once he gets the phone working again!) to move me to yet another room in another corridor.

Which is an inside cabin (B513) with no porthole at all.

And freezing cold.

The manager fiddles with the thermostat, establishes that nothing is coming through the vents. More frenzied conferencing between all parties. To abbreviate a much longer story, the tech eventually finds a way to turn on the heat to this room. By this time the manager has volunteered not to charge for the night, which is probably only fair since I have been up for most of it. It takes another hour for the room to warm up enough for me to take off my coat and go to bed, so it is now about 8:30AM (9:30 AM my time) so I go have my breakfast before turning in, lest I now oversleep and miss the hours for which my voucher is valid.

Breakfast at the Promenade cafe is excellent. And a real bargain at the $9 Mary paid for the voucher.

Mary phones and I explain why I am about to go to bed, and she worries I might then miss the tours she has pre-booked for me. So I stay up until 10AM when the tour office opens to book a time for my tours. I then go back to bed and get two hours sleep before I have to get up and showered etc for the first tour at 1:15

So...having in one night experienced three different cabins in the Queen Mary, I'd have to say there are a few potential problems to watch out for. But on the whole, I was pretty satisfied with the response from the staff. Admittedly, it took quite a while to get the problems fixed, but everybody was unfailingly polite, appropriately apologetic and more importantly, focused on solving the problem as quickly as possible. I have to say I was really struck by the expertise and professionalism of everyone involved, particularly given that this was largely middle of the night, or very early morning at end of shift, when one is usually not seeing people at their best. I became aware, watching these guys, that trying to run a major hotel to modern standards based on an infrastructure from the 1930s may not be the easiest task. Had the staff not reacted as they did, I would have written scathing reviews on travelocity/expedia etc., because it was not a good night! Given what I saw, however, I am inclined to the opposite view: The Queen Mary has one of the best trained, best organized staffs I have yet encountered. (I've been in lots of 5 star hotels where staff screwed up royally, and my wife's travel column is entitled "It's a Training Issue", so I definitely see good staff as a key to a satisfying stay.)

And it was fascinating to see the different cabins. A161 was definitely the best of the deluxe cabins: spacious, good view, and with more of the original features, though none of those actually worked. For example, the bathtub had three sets of taps: one for hot and cold fresh water, one for hot and cold sea water, and the modern rotary tap bath/shower tap that actually worked. (Salt water mineral baths were apparently considered healthy back in the day.)

Similarly, the original porthole style heating/cooling vents (insert below) were left in the room, though the actual heat (worked fine) came through modern style ceiling vent.

There was also a fixture I mistook for a 1930s floor cabinet radio, but on closer examination turned out to be an electric heater. What looked like a speaker grill was actually the heating element, just the right height to brand any toddler who wandered too close or passing adult surprised by the movement of the ship.

The "original artwork" was great, though I later recognized it to be framed posters of the large pieces around the ship, rather than the original stateroom paintings. The inside cabin B513 was almost the same square footage, but the two beds instead of one meant less of the other furniture, and the lack of window might bother some. I would have probably been fine with it if I hadn't been grieving the loss of A161 and Mary's efforts to get me a great view. B484 was also nice enough, though much smaller. I believe they were all categorized as the same price as upgraded deluxe rooms, but I am unclear if they would have been different rates back in the day? I certainly would have felt ripped if I was in one of the smaller rooms for a two week crossing and had paid the same price as the good one.

Of course, my little two-room (room and bathroom) cabin would not compare with any of the first class suites. Those would have been something to see. The tour guide mentioned suites of up to 14 rooms, including two rooms for luggage. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor apparently traveled with 84 pieces of luggage in their suite, and another 70 in cargo. Those were the days when people knew really knew how to dress for dinner! Imagine trying that on today's airlines!

The other issue that has to be mentioned is the complete lack of soundproofing. I could hear every word the couple next door was saying as if they were standing next to me in my own room. I found it hilarious that said couple went on at length about the antics of the couple on the other side of them, once that couple had departed for the dining room, but appeared completely unreflective about their own conversation and, um, activities. So I'm not sure about bringing the family to stay at the Queen Mary, not only because our kids would likely be annoyingly loud for our neighbours, but also because I'm not sure how I would have explained to my 7 year old why we were not rushing to assist the people in the next cabin when they, uh, cried out for help to the good lord.

I kept wondering what it would have been like back in the day to be trapped on the ship for weeks at a time facing such a complete lack of privacy. Everybody must have known everybody else's story by the end of the voyage.

That all said, I'd still have to pronounce myself well satisfied, and to argue that it is well worth the risk of some inconvenience to stay in a living museum, to feel part of all that history. The Queen Mary is an awe inspiring feat of engineering, the hotel continues to evoke the atmosphere of a more elegant age, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself. Undoubtedly the highlight of my trip.

Queen Mary (2)

Mary had signed me up for two of the available tours: "The Behind the Scenes" tour, and the WWII tour. There is also a self-guided audio tour available, but the staffer at the tour desk assured me that the overlap between the other two tours made the audio component redundant; and that the audio was more about directing people to the relevant locations rather than providing in depth discussion. She handed me a map of the key locations, should I wish to pursue those myself later (your room card is your ticket to the museum areas). (There is also a ghost tour, in which I had no interest -- because I'm writing space opera, here, not fantasy. Ahem.)

The two guides had very different styles. The WWII guide, himself ex-navy, was very respectful, soft-spoken, and a fountain of information. We had a smaller group, so we could ask more questions, and the really interesting bits came out in answer to queries. The guide's underlying passion for the Queen Mary and for her history came through very strongly, particularly in his asides in response to queries about the various changes made to the ship when permanently docked at Long Beach. Although the guide was extremely professional in his remarks, and clearly understood the need for the adaptations, it was clear that a lot of the alterations struck him as acts of near vandalism. For example, I was shocked to realize that each of the windows on the upper decks were framed in these thick bronze plates, because the bronze had been -- painted over with brown paint. What? There's bronze under there? But why wouldn't you leave the bronze, because that would be spectacular! But of course the answer is that, unlike the original Queen Mary, there is no longer a staff of thousands to go around polishing the brass every night. It would simply be unmanageable. So, management did what it had to and painted over all the brass. Similarly, the guide pointed out the hardwood decking we were walking on was a (now extinct) white teak. But lacking the staff to sand down the floors each night to remove scuff marks, they had been stained a deep brown. There is a lot like that. But, as the guide explained, it is absurdly expensive to maintain the Queen Mary, completely out of scale for what any other hotel has to cope with. He cites the example that it cost $40,000 to paint just one of the ships funnels; that to repaint her exterior in the Queen Mary colors next year will cost 1/4 million dollars -- because of course it has to be special rust resistant ship paint, and they have to sand down the surface first, and so on. Madness, from a purely economic perspective.

On the other hand, the guide would lovingly caress the banister of one of the original wood staircases on the deck, commenting on the workmanship, the fine detailing, and the fact that it was still in fabulous shape 75 years later. So then one of the tourist would say, what about that metal staircase over there, and the guide would answer that it was added when the Queen Mary was permanently docked -- because when she was on the ocean, you couldn't have a staircase so close to the edge, because the waves would simply come up and wash you away. Hard to remember how different things were in those days, before modern stabilizers and so on.

At her peak as a WWII troop carrier, QM transported 16,000 troops at a go (moved a total of over 800,000) but carried enough lifeboats for about only 3500 people (the number of passengers and crew of pre-war configuration).(After the Titanic, law said you had to have sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board, so they did -- for prewar numbers. They added stacks of rafts, but even with these, they still only had a total capacity of about 8000.

Bunks were stacked four deep, with only 18 inch clearance; soldiers talked about how you couldn't roll over in bed, but had to get out and back in to turnover.

The soldiers had 45 minutes to line up, get their food, find a spot to sit, eat their food, and get out before the next shift was rotated in. Given the numbers, the result was that many soldiers simply missed meals because they were unable to get through the lines in time.

The best stories were stories the guide had collected from veterans taking his tour. There were a number of these, but my personal favorite is this one:

The guide brought us to one door near the bow of the ship, showed where the gunnery crews were housed, kept separate from the troops being transported. The gunner had felt cooped up for days and couldn't stand it any longer, stepped out the door to take some air. As he stepped out, the entire contingent of troops on deck turned and bowed to him. "Wow," he thought, "they treat me like a god!" This did not entirely strike him as unepxected, because the gunners conducted daily drills, not so much to hone their skills as to keep troop morale up, since they all knew themselves to be ridiculously vulnerable. (See above re lifeboars) As the entire deck of soldiers bows down to him, it occurs to the gunner to wonder why they are all in their life jackets. Looks up to see an enormous wave coming over the bow, smashing into everyone. Of course, they aren't bowing, they're ducking, and he gets completely drenched. He retreats inside, never to venture out again.

(That anecdote goes straight into my novel -- I can so see my hero misunderstanding a similar situation and getting his comeuppance.)

Guide tells us that the soldiers rotated, 6 hours inside, 6 out. Given the story of waves breaking over the soldiers, outside may not always represent the advantage of fresh air over stale that I might otherwise have assumed...

The guide lovingly points out all the different veneers as we pass through the ship. There are 53 different veneers used on the Queen Mary, one for/from each of the British colonies of the time. Somewhat nervous making was the constant refrain, "of course, that wood is extinct now."

Soldiers were told not to touch any of the ship's precious wood, and for the most part they didn't. Anyone caught carving their initials in or similar were brigged and put on bread and water. It was a different age, the guide complains, when people actually listened to orders, and discipline enforced.

As we were going about the ship, an Englishman approaches the tour, mentions that he had gone aboard the Queen Mary when we was nine, to say goodbye to an aunt who was sailing across the Atlantic. "No security in those days," the guide remarked. "Not at all", the man agreed. "You just went on and off as you wished, and nobody questioned you."

Bumps installed on banisters for the expressed purpose of discouraging sliding

In addition to lecturing on the details of Queen Mary as a troop carrier (and subsequent to the war, the ship that carried war brides and their children back to America), the guide also provided other insights as they came up. He pointed to the little bumps placed on the banisters of one of the ornate staircases. "They're to stop children from sliding down them. Didn't work though: they'd take the cushions and pillows from their staterooms, and slide down anyway." He point to a art deco light fixture, mention in passing that it is made of leaded glass. The main fixture in the room weights over 450 lbs. (I try to comprehend the scale of the ship, the cost of fuel, the feat of staying afloat, when each item of the decor weights so much! He draws our attention to a set of metal screens, copied exactly for the Queen Mary II -- only their replica is made out of plastic, not bronze.) On the other hand, he points to the posts holding up the railings, made of Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic. (I'm instantly alert, because this must be when plastic finally came of age -- new materials always ape previous ones, so for a long time Bakelite would pretend to be wood (you still see fake wood veneers in a lot of plastic products to this day), so the fact that the Queen Mary used Bakelite as Bakelite must have marked the turning point where it stopped being a cheap substitute and became instead 'modern' -- because there was nothing cheap about anything on the QM, but 'modern' was very chic.

American-style Bar: note the wide foot rest provided at the bottom of the bar almost matches the counter for width (the bar window is closed in this photo)

Another aside that stuck with me: as we tour the men's smoking room, the guide points to "The American Bar". What made it an American style bar was the footrest. The guide demonstrated how leaning on the bar with your feet on the floor is untenable, and can only be sustained for a couple of minutes; but with the addition of the footrest, your posture changes completely, and you can stand like that, chatting at the bar, for hours. I never knew that.

It was a completely fascinating tour. Highly recommended.

The guide for the behind the scenes tour was James. Whereas the first guide felt constrained by his topic and the frequent sprinkling of veterans among his audience, James felt no such restraints. He was highly animated, and over EE-nun-CI-ATEd each word, partly to project to the rear of his much larger crowd, but mostly to keep everyone's attention RIV-A-TED on him. The tour wasn't really 'behind the scenes', just a tour of the public spaces, so a bit of a misnomer, but entertaining nonetheless.

From James we learned that there were 315 first class cabins, which are now the hotel section of the Queen Mary. The second and third class areas are now either conference rooms or house the museum displays. First class on the Queen Mary was the middle section, top to bottom; second class was the rear of the ship; third class the bow. The sectioning reflected the smoothness of the ride; the bow going up and DOWN and up and DOWN (James repeated this mantra about 30 times on the tour, accompanied by appropriate hand motions) and the middle being smoothest. First class passengers could go anywhere on the ship, but second and third had to stay where they were. Unlike the scene from the Titanic, there were no bars separating classes on the QM, but as the guide pointed out, in an age where the servers took pride in knowing everyone's name, likes and dislikes, it was impossible for someone to be out of place without being spotted at once.

In the main first class ballroom/cinema/theater etc were two huge peach plate mirrors. they looked like ordinary mirrors, but have a slight pinkish tinge to them, so that when I looked in one, I looked quite red. The point, we are told, is that as the North Atlantic tossed you about, and you started to go a bit green, when you looked into these mirrors, it canceled the green out, you looked normal, and therefore (theory was) you felt better.

The ship curves in what the guide referred to as a banana shape, to increase flexibility and strength. At one point in the tour, he opened all the doors on a ship's corridor, and you could actually see the curve ("sheer to deck") over the distance. So, humorous story, when the ship was brought to Long Beach, it had to go around South America (being too large for the Panama Canal) and a number of windows had been destroyed in the storms off the tip of South America. So the guy sent to replace the windows measured a window, placed the order, and when the mountain of glass showed up, only one pane fit -- the one window he had measured -- each other window being slightly different to account for the sheer to deck.

The Queen Mary had an Anglican chapel on one side of what is now shops; a Catholic chapel on the other side; and was the first ship to have a synagogue.

Again, fascinating tour, with lots of art deco and a gracious lifestyle no longer available (not that it was ever actually available to the average citizen -- my cabin cost $1500 in 1934, which the banker next to me said worked out to about $20,000 in today's money.) Again, highly recommended.

Finally, I spent the next morning doing the self-tour (sans audio) by simply finding my way to the bridge (fascinating retro technology); the officer's quarters (roomier than I expected); and poking around some general areas. I watched a crew working on restoring a lifeboat, was surprised to discover they were metal, not wood as I had previously assumed. (The lifeboats on the QM, the guide informed us, were the first to have diesel engines, and if those failed, levers that could be pulled to turn the propeller, rather than oars.)

Restoration work on lifeboat clearly reveals metal plating

The amount of information available is overwhelming; I barely scratched the surface. tucked away in corners are plagues and videos on every aspect of the ship. I didn't make it to the engine room on this trip, though I had had a glance in on our previous cruise out of that port. Fabulous exhibit in every way. I could have happily spent a whole week there and not run out of things to see.

Next door is a Russian submarine, complete with self-guided audio tour. Personally, I think placing a submarine next to the Queen Mary might make the old girl a little nervous, given her WWII service, but I applaud the city of Long Beach for establishing these living museums.

Trains, Planes, Boats and Buses

For this year's writing retreat, Mary booked me onto the Carnival Paradise for a four-night Mexican excursion. We had previously done this exact cruise, tacked on to a trip to Disneyland, so I had no interest in actually getting off the ship.

Thinking that was a bit short for my needs, Mary started adding stuff on. The Carnival line docks at Long Beach, and adjacent to their facility is the Queen Mary hotel. Mary booked me for a two night stay, partly to ensure I didn't have to worry about missing connections (which sometimes be a bit tricky in December from Alberta) partly to gear up for the writing cruise, but mostly because the Queen Mary is way cool. Then, as the trip approached, and the weather deteriorated, Mary started having second thoughts about my making the five hour drive to Missoula on icy roads. The flight from Missoula to Long Beech was a fraction of the cost from Lethbridge or Calgary, and only twice the drive to Calgary, so that's how she'd booked it. Coming back from a Banff conference in late November, however, we encountered ice fog for much of the trip, and after two hours of white knuckle driving, Mary went on line to see what alternatives there were to my driving to Missoula.

Thus, I found myself booked on Amtrak from Shelby to Whitefish, and by bus from Whitefish to Missoula, turning my four day cruise into a ten day round trip.

The drive from Lethbridge to Shelby was only a couple of hours on a good divided highway, so no worse than driving to the Calgary airport. I had the GPS with me, and Mary's detailed directions, but they were hardly necessary, the road going straight from the Lethbridge Canadian Tire to the Shelby Wal-Mart without so much as a single turn.

On the other hand, I am an idiot, so still managed to get bit lost in Shelby on the way to the train station. I must have missed a turn, because I found myself driving along a highway with no sign of the street Mary's directions told me to turn on. So I pulled over at a service station and asked for directions, rather than fiddle with the GPS. "Oh" said the woman, "just turn left at the lights." Not convinced that this was sufficiently detailed, I pressed for more information. She starred at me for a moment, then gently reached over and turned me around so I was facing the other way -- and looking at an immense rail yard, filled with mile after mile of boxcars. "Train station," she said very slowly, "where they keep -- the trains-- has to be somewhere next to the train tracks, right? So if that's the track, all you really need to know is, should you follow to your left, or to your right. I'm telling you, to your left."

Okay, maybe looking for street signs hadn't been the best approach given I must have driven passed four straight miles of freight trains to arrive at the service station. Retracing my steps did make me wonder if I should be allowed out on my own, Mary usually managing the logistics on our family trips; but once I was paying proper attention I found the Amtrak office no problem.

And was amazed. The train station was tiny, just a single room in a wooden structure I'm guessing was first built in 1880s, but my god, do American's get trains. Lethbridge may boast the longest and highest railway bridge of it's kind, but seeing a train actually crossing the bridge is an occasion for pointing out the car window and saying, "Hey kids, look, a train!" Sitting in the waiting room in Shelby, trains were constantly roaring past. And they were huge -- when Mary phoned to check in with me, I told her a couple of times I was having a little trouble hearing her over the passing train, and she said, "what still? We've been talking for like 10 minutes!" Yes, still. I could not get over how much freight passed through in the few hours I was there. Mind boggling.

The (easy to miss) Shelby train station, and 2 story Amtrak train.
The Amtrak was a couple of hours late due to weather further up the tracks, but that's no different than air travel, and like modern air travel, their computer phoned me to keep me posted on the delay. The train, when it arrived, took me aback. I've been on trains in Canada and Europe, but this was a completely new style of car to me: two stories tall, it loomed above us in the dark. Mary had booked me onto the lower level, which I discovered held the washrooms and wheelchair access. I'll opt for upstairs in future. I headed off at once to the dining car where I had a decent enough meal at a reasonable price; something no longer available with air travel. The paper plates looked like railway china, but I take it from the waiter's comments that they normally do still use china in the dining car, and had just run out on this occasion. [There were china plates and real flatware on the return journey.] After supper, I made my way back to my seat, made myself comfortable, took out my book and read. [On the return journey I discovered that all but the seat I happened to take on the trip out had tray tables and electrical outlets suitable for laptop use. If anything, the problem was there was so much leg room, it was hard to reach the tray table, though I assume that was because I was in the handicap section.]

The most amazing thing about the train was the price -- a mere $20, to avoid white knuckle driving over snow covered roads. Considering the same trip by car would have easily cost me $20 in gas, and that I got to read instead of having to drive, it's a pretty sweet!

Arriving at Whitefish, Mary had arranged for a driving service to pick me up and deliver me to my bread and breakfast, the Garden Wall Inn. Considering the train was three hours late, it was after midnight, and the cab fare to the Inn was only $5.50, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality afforded me by both the driver and the B&B manager. The room was charming, though I worried that the creaking floor would drive whomever was below me crazy, as I unpacked and got ready for bed. In the event, I needn't have worried, as I turned out to be the only guest for the evening.

Breakfast the next morning was delightful; freshly squeezed orange juice (a variety unavailable in Lethbridge, apparently -- particularly good!), a fresh fruit bowl, scrambled eggs (with mushrooms and peppers) in a pastry shell, and a huckleberry muffin. Quite wonderful.

The hostess, learning I was on writing retreat, regaled me with stories of her various writer acquaintances and writer guests; the general gist of these stories seemed to be in each case that their overnight success had been achieved as the result of twenty years of previous dues paying. I took my leave in time to have a brief look through town on my way back to the train station, where I was to catch my bus to Missoula. Whitefish is very similar to Banff, the most obvious differences being the presence of several microbreweries, and murals of American flags alternating with murals of bible quotations.

The train station at Whitefish was considerably larger than the one at Shelby, and had an attached museum.

One delightful feature was a self-serve bookrack of $1 books, donated or discarded by passing travelers. I purchased a Roc fantasy, which looked promising but turned out to be appallingly, unreadably, dreadful. (Basil Brokentail by Christopher Rowley) I found the novel highly inspiring, because so much worse in every respect than my own beginner efforts. That such a badly written novel -- the viewpoint character routinely changes every few paragraphs, for example, an astonishing lack of control and/or editing -- could have been published as recently as a decade ago, just goes to show how radically publishing has changed. (On my return trip, I left my copy of Shards of Honour.)

The bus trip to Missoula was uneventful; the cab ride from the bus station to the airport costing as much as the train trip. The Missoula airport was a bit of a revelation: Missoula is roughly the same population as Lethbridge, yet the airport is three times the size and boasts a proper restaurant, large gift shop, and interesting museum display cases. Why is Lethbridge served by dinky little 12 seat propeller planes, and Missoula gets 280 passenger jets?

On the other hand, only in American airports could you see signs reminding you to be sure that your firearms were in you checked luggage.

Writer's Retreat

My wife has for some time been arranging writing retreats for me. It all started a couple of years ago when I was debating taking in the writer's retreat at the Banff center, balancing the $3500 price tag against what I was likely to get out of it. Several writers of my acquaintance had praised the Banff retreats headed by Robert Sawyer, and Sawyer definitely struck me as the kind of writer from whom one could learn a lot. (I've attend his self-marketing seminars for writers, for example, and they are brilliant!) Sawyer is first and foremost a story teller. Working on my first novel, I was primarily preoccupied with the basic elements of plot, pacing, setting and dialog, all of which Sawyer could certainly help with. But the workshop leader for the year I was contemplating was instead a leading Canadian poet. I considered that a poet might not be quite what I needed. My stereotype of poets led me to suspect that he would more into examining manuscripts for symbolism and allusion and, above all, word choice. All fine things to be sure, but not my current interest. I needed to make sure I had a story that worked before worrying too much about the literary value or the quality of the writing. That could come later -- about book four, I figure.

So I was already ambivalent about the retreat when I broached the topic with my wife. Mary was very supportive of the idea of my going away to write, but pointed out that at the price, she could put me on a deluxe cruise far cheaper.

And then it occurred us, well, why not? Mary went into travel agent mode (her chief hobby activity), went online, and immediately found me a 7-day cruise to Alaska for $700. It was perfect!

Now to get an Alaskan cruise for $700 dollars, you have to know how to find the best deals, book early, and take whatever cabin they assign you. So the joke was that Mary had booked me in the worst cabin on the ship. Not only was it an inside cabin (i.e., no window), but the reviews (thanks to the Internet, you can actually find reviews of your specific cabin, believe it or not) had complained about the engine noise and constant vibration. But here's the thing: The novel I happened to be writing was about a group stuck on a starship for a year, and one of the elements I happened to struggling with was getting the atmosphere of shipboard life. So a cabin next to the engine room was exactly what I needed, the various clanks and thumps working their way into the novel for my hero to experience exactly as I was.

The Alaskan cruise gave me the same or slightly more majestic scenery (e.g., the Mendenhall glacier) as the Banff Center, and an equally quiet place to write, but at one-fifth the price and with the advantage of way better food.

I'd write in my cabin for most of the day (or night -- with no window, there was no light to disturb me, so I wrote when inspired, slept when I wasn't) come out for meals (or sent down for room service if it happened to be late) and for exercise. Blocked on some scene, I would walk the promenade deck, or hike through town or forest if we happened to be docked. It was fabulous.

That first trip, Mary also arranged for a 'behind the scenes' tour of the ship -- bridge, kitchens, environmental and so on -- which was just what I needed to flesh out the background details for my starship. As it happened, I was the only one who signed up for the tour that trip, so I was able to ask questions nonstop about the navigation systems, officer training, and so on, all of which triggered analogous details in the novel.

On the whole, the experience was a great success.

So, Mary has booked me into a couple of writing cruises since. It's been great, and I'm just now approaching the total of what that one Banff workshop would have cost.

Mary tried to book me onto a couple of more interesting cruises, notably the 21 day Panama Canal cruise before they widen the canal, but I had to turn those down as too potentially interesting. To work, I need a cruise that won't be too distracting. (The Alaskan cruise is great, but I'd already done it twice previously with family, so didn't feel I was missing anything by not doing the excursions or watching every passing conifer or going to the shipboard entertainments.) I am also not allowed to take the repositioning cruise from LA to Hawaii, as my kids have made it clear they will plot to kill me if I ever try to go to Hawaii without them.

I have therefore been contemplating organizing writing retreats around specific writing projects, and inviting 10 or 12 or more other writers to join me. The advantage for the writers, in addition to the obvious opportunity to go on retreat, is that they could get a tax deductible cruise out of the deal. I am not much interested in having other writers critique my work, or vise versa (see Stephen King quote on workshops here) but I do like the idea of being on a ship with a table load of writers who could intelligently discuss the writing life, etc. at lunch and supper. The two barriers to this project are that most of the writers I see as potential participants are either too broke to participate, or have day-job schedules that conflict with the timing of the cruises. (Not going during high season, is of course, the first principle of achieving affordable cruise-retreats.)