Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Cult of Disney


My friends, Linda and Robert, are bona fide, Kool-Aid drinking members of the Cult of Disney. They have good reasons to be, and I, for one, am glad they are because I got to go on a cruise to Alaska with them. I am not in the cult, also for good reasons, and I observed some things from the outside looking in.

Cult members speak Disney. They discuss vacation points, exchange statuses (gold or silver), and rattle off the names of Disney cruise ships and their respective destinations like it’s their own personal fleet. They know the names of restaurants, rides, and shows both on the cruise line and in the theme parks. They know the names of the most obscure Disney characters.

During the pirate night extravaganza, a long-eared alien creature ran out to challenge Captain Hook and company.

“Who is that?”

Hannah looked at me like I had a second nose growing out of my forehead. “That’s Stitch!”

Oh, of course. How silly of me. How could I forget that classic Disney character, Stitch?

WTF?

Of course, Hannah is the same girl who won the trivia contest with young Aiden. Hannah knows her Disney so well, they didn't just win, they annihilated the competition. 



I’m so out of the Disney cult loop that I didn’t even recognize all of the Disney princesses. Oh sure, I could identify Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, and Ariel, but the pretty black girl in the green dress was new to me. I’m thrilled to see a non-white girl get Disney princess treatment, but I didn’t know who she was. (Yeah, yeah…Pocahontas and Mulan aren’t white girls, but seriously, are they ever included with the rest of the princesses?)

Speaking of Disney characters, cult members go to every show on the cruise. Our evening ritual was drinks in The Outlook CafĂ© or Diversions (yeah, that’s Disney-speak right there), show at 6:15, and dinner at 8:30. I’m not complaining. Nobody puts on a show like Disney, and honestly, who among us doesn’t feel something when the music swells and a powerful voice belts out “The Circle of Life?” Add a couple of glasses of wine and you have a freaking deep moment.

We went to Opening Night, The Golden Mickeys, Toy Story, and Disney Dreams. The productions rivaled anything I’ve seen on screen or stage. Amazing costumes and special effects, brilliant singers and dancers, and over-the-top acting all combined to delight the audience. Even our group’s 16 year-old contingent left the boys and the teen club to catch the show each night.

I’m not gonna lie. I laughed. I cried. I sang at the top of my lungs. 

Disney, man... 

They’re good at this cult thing. They built the tension toward the end of almost every show in anticipation of the arrival of the great one himself, and when Mickey finally entered the stage, I found myself cheering just as loud as the kids.

Nick and I tried to wear our non-cult membership like a badge of honor, this pic to the contrary.


In Nick’s defense, he has a child who was delighted by his participation in the madness.


At one point, though, during the parade of nations at the end of our Animator’s Palette dinner (OMG! I think I speak Disney now!) after the black and white room became a Technicolor dream and Mickey appeared in his Fantasia wizard’s garb, I leaned over and said, “They’re sucking me in, Nick!”

He clasped my hand and said, “Be strong, Kathy!” I tried, but it was hard!

Every Disney employee or “cast member” is Walt’s personal emissary. They are so friendly it makes your teeth hurt, and I’m no jaded, abrupt Northeasterner. I’m from the South for heaven’s sake. We had the same servers every night at dinner, Yansen and Recon, and they knew our names before the first meal was over. One evening, I asked for ketchup, and instead of handing me the bottle, Recon set a small plate down and painstakingly poured the ketchup in the shape of mouse ears. I must have worn an expression that said, “Seriously?” because she laughed, but she didn’t stop until I had perfect tomato-y Mickey ears for my fries.

While we were at dinner, the magic Cinderella mice entered our staterooms to turn down the bed and leave swans (or maybe a cobra?)…


Dinosaurs…


And monkeys…


Linda was so taken with the towel animals that she dragged Hannah, Kaitlyn, and me to a towel-folding class.



I took pictures and repeated instructions as Linda spent most of the time talking over the nice lady trying to teach her.



Even the Disney sub-contractors who ran the excursions were enthusiastic and friendly. This became apparent during my only non-Disney contracted excursion. Victor and I wanted to whale-watch while Linda and her crew were shopping, so we bought tickets after we disembarked. At every port, there were all kinds of folks trying to sell you something. The actual excursion was great, and we did, in fact, see the whales we paid to see…



…but holy cannoli, the tour operator was not in the Cult of Disney. He was everything Disney is not. You might even say he was the Anti-Mouse. This is John.



He was transplanted from Yonkers, but he was fond of slipping into a fake Russian accent. Why? I have no idea. Southeast Alaska is quite far from Russia, and John’s dueling accents were jarring.

This was our opening conversation. (I made the mistake of smiling when I greeted him):

“Well, hello Miss Nebraska with your pearly whites.”

“I’m not from Nebraska.”

“Yeah? Well you have that Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm look.”

Victor had only known me four days at this point, and still, he almost spit his coffee all over the pavement. Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm indeed.

Where our Davidson Glacier guides regaled us with tales of bears and wolves and the road kill club, John had this to say about life in Alaska. “This place was built on gold and greed and lives in its past glory. Everyone here is depressed. We drink ourselves to death or commit suicide. Oh yeah, there’s an eagle estuary on your right. But anyway, Juneau has the highest per capita rate of suicide in the nation.”

John never stopped talking in his Yonkers/Russian accent, and Victor and I were crying by the time we got to the marina. We didn’t realize we had paid for whale watching AND a comedy show. The Anti-Mouse piece de resistance was when we were exiting the shuttle, and John said, “See ya, Salsa!” to the gentleman from Phoenix. An audible gasp escaped the two young Disney cast members who had the morning off and had bought tickets to see the whales.

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Disney anymore.”

So John was the counterbalance to the Stepford friendliness of Disney’s employees. When I ran in the morning, the same maintenance guy was always on deck sweeping water, straightening furniture, whatever, and every time I passed him, he stopped working and said hello. And I mean every time…every single lap. After the fourth or fifth lap, it became funny, and I couldn’t say good morning without laughing. He was from Indonesia, so I’m not sure if he understood why I was in hysterics at his greeting, and that brings me to another point…

Every Disney cast member on the cruise was from some foreign country. The only American employees were Jimmy, the cruise director, and a few ship’s officers who were introduced on opening night. Most of the workers were from Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. They had interesting stories and were willing to share them with us when we asked. Many of them were saving up to start a business of some sort back in their home country. Several were married to other cast members.

One night toward the end of the cruise, the night of the epic waves I think, we were sitting in Diversions, watching the light fixtures swing back and forth when Nick decided to ask our server a personal question.

“Not to be nosy, but how much do you make?”

“$13.50.”

“An hour?”

A chuckle. “No. For the week.”

We all sat a moment in stunned silence trying to process that, and then I think we all said the same thing at the same time in the same incredulous tone. “You make $13.50 for the WHOLE week?”

“Plus tips.”

Nick, “Could you tell me who I can punch in the face for you?”

The guy laughed and went on about his business while we tried to sort it out. The ship is registered out of Nassau, Bahamas, so minimum wage laws don’t apply. Room and board was included for employees and Disney is aggressive in encouraging guests to tip well. A 15% gratuity was added to every drink we bought, and envelopes were left in our staterooms with instructions for tipping the housekeeping and wait staff. But still…

Hannah, a devout Disney cult member, said earlier in the trip that she would like to work for Disney someday. I think she was rethinking that after our conversation with the waiter. However, she still wants to get married at Disney World, so it didn’t disillusion her too much.

Shady employment practices aside, it’s hard not to at least sip the Kool-Aid. I skipped the character breakfast, but I did wear the pirate bandanna.



I didn’t recognize Stitch and the pretty black princess, but I know every word to “Can you Feel the Love Tonight.” I didn’t learn how to make towel animals…



…but I did learn how to make a Cadillac margarita.



I’ll never achieve gold status, but I’d go on another Disney cruise in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Road Kill Club


Alaskans are interesting folk, at least the ones I met. Take Jonah, for instance.



Cute, isn’t he? These girls certainly thought so.



Jonah was the captain of the boat (or as he called it, the Ferrari of the fjord) that took us across the fjord to our canoeing expedition. Normally, it’s a 30 minute trip down one fjord, around Haines point, and up another fjord to the drop off point. We did it a little differently because of turbulent seas at Haines point. Jonah piloted us to Haines where we disembarked, crossed the peninsula by bus, and then boarded another boat to the drop off point. The benefit to this more complicated route was that we got to see Haines, which was beautiful…




…and we got to spend more time listening to Jonah tell stories during the bus ride. It was during this bus ride that we learned about the road kill club.



In Alaska, you can sign up with the state police to be in the road kill club. Now, I don’t know if this includes all of Alaska or just the region I visited, but one of Jonah’s good friends was a member. The state police keep a list of names and phone numbers of people who so choose, and then when wild game is hit by cars, but is not too mangled, the police call the next person on the list who then has two hours to get to the scene and remove the carcass. This is not the sort of game you would expect to find dead on a Kentucky road, or really most of the lower forty-eight, like rabbit, opossum, the ever-present skunk, or even deer. I’m talking BIG game, like moose.

My car was almost totaled and sustained damage that took six weeks to fix last summer when it tangled with a deer, so I shudder to think what would happen if it had hit a moose. According to Jonah, unless a semi or other large truck hits the moose, most of the damage is sustained by the vehicle and not the moose. I believe him.

Alaskans as a whole are more tuned into Mother Nature than most. As Danny told us when giving us canoeing gear, Alaska will bite you in the ass if you turn your back on her. The extremes of Alaska make it what it is, and most Alaskans wouldn’t want it any other way, but you have to respect it. Part of that respect is an unwillingness to let a whole moose and all that meat go to waste if it gets hit by a vehicle.

So Jonah’s friend was on the list. He told us that one night, he and his friend and a few others were at a local watering hole. It was winter, and from what I gathered, the local watering holes are particularly popular in winter. His friend was more than a couple of glasses in when THE CALL came. He was in no condition to drive, and was smart enough to realize that, but he only had two hours to get the carcass or the police would call the next person on the list. Jonah had us all in stitches as he recounted his friend’s frantic scramble to find a sober driver, get to the moose on icy back roads, and load it, still drunk (the friend, not the departed moose), onto the truck under police scrutiny.

For Jonah, the moral of the story was that they all ate LARGE that winter…moose steaks, moose jerky, moose stew, etc. For me, the message was Alaskans are all a little bit crazy. Jonah’s story was hilarious and a little frightening at the same time. Alaska is a place where people will risk life and limb to get to a moose carcass to fill their freezer for the winter. The police have to manage the program because otherwise, according to Jonah, people would resort to stupidity and violence to get something as valuable as a dead moose.

Jonah keeps his own personal crab pots in the fjord. He pointed in this general direction when he told us about them.



He was anxious to drop us off at the end of the day and check them. The weather had been bad for several days, and the pots had gone unattended. This is a common enough practice that crab pot protocol exists among the locals. If you know someone can’t get to his pot for various and sundry reasons, it is considered acceptable to check it and take the catch as long as you rebait it and set it back where it was.



Alaska not only breeds people who are connected to the land and the sea, it attracts them. Jonah’s copilot, Jen, drives to Alaska every summer from Austin, Texas. Yes, drives to Skagway from Austin, no easy task in a state where many places are only accessible by boat or plane.

Our guides who led us to the Davidson Glacier by canoe live in primitive cabins close to the lake. There is no heat, and trust me, it was cold out there, and they use compost outhouses. They live this way all summer by choice. You might be tempted to think these guys were not the sharpest tools in the shed, except I’m pretty sure they were.

That's Danny checking the girls' life vests.



I had an extensive discussion about Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild with him, prompted by this bus in the middle of nowhere.



Although he understands that Krakauer identified with Chris McCandless’ spiritual quest, Danny thought McCandless was a just another dumbass who didn’t properly respect Alaska and got “bitten in the ass.” I tend to agree. Danny was also the one who gave me the Mark Twain quote I used in Blue Ice. Turns out Danny is only a glacier guide in the summer. In the winter, he works as a teacher in Haines.

This is Justin.



Justin was a wealth of knowledge about the lake, the forest, the glacier, and even the birds we saw. In the winter, he moves to New Zealand and actually leads hikers across one of the glaciers there. He told us about a “perfect day” he recently experienced. He wasn't working that day, so he decided to hike up the edge of the ice on the Davidson. On his way back down, he sensed movement, and stopped just in time to see a brown bear (aka a grizzly) come out of the brush. He sat quietly and watched until it wandered off. He was just thinking how cool that was when a wolf made an appearance. Davidson Lake is off the beaten path for most wolves in the area, so seeing one there was a very rare thing. If that wasn’t enough, later that afternoon, Justin went kayaking in the fjord with some of the other guides, and what do you think they saw? Yep, a humpback whale. It came right up next to them on their kayak.

These kids have chosen to live extraordinary lives, lives where you sign up to be in the road kill club, observe proper crab pot protocol, and drive five straight days from Texas to Alaska for the privilege of living in primitive conditions for five months. A life where a “perfect day” means seeing a bear, a wolf, and a whale within a six hour period.



Now…there is another breed of folk in Alaska as well. One who is less, shall we say, positive and optimistic about life. I met one of those as well, but I’ll save him for another day.

As we hiked back to our pick-up point on the beach, Danny called it the denouement of our journey. Oh, how I love a man who drops literary terms into his everyday conversation! Danny was wrong though. That excursion was the climax of mine.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Blue Ice


Thanks to Doug Jones for graciously allowing me to link to his personal photography site. I cite him often as my source, but this is a piece based on my experiences and observations, not a research paper. Any factual errors are my own.

“A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.” Mark Twain (A Tramp Abroad)



Mr. Twain, as always, hit the nail on the head. There are moments in our lives when we are confronted with just how small we really are, how our existence is an infinitesimal blip in both space and time. And this is a good thing. We who are glued to our phones, our computers, our televisions need reminding that most of it doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things.

See this iceberg?



It existed as a hundred million snowflakes before Europeans set foot in North America. Chris Columbus has come and gone along with every American ancestor you have, and this chunk of ice is still here. Now that it’s broken off from the mother ship, otherwise known as calving from the glacier, you’ll outlive it, but it when it finally disappears, it will have existed over 500 years.

Before my cruise to Alaska, glaciers existed only in textbooks and documentaries. Thanks to Al Gore, I was vaguely aware that they were melting kinda fast, and that I should probably be alarmed, but since they existed only in textbooks and documentaries, I was only vaguely alarmed.

The best learning happens not in a classroom, but out in the world. Are you familiar with Plato’s “Image of the Line?” I’ve moved from the first level of knowledge, knowing only shadows and reflections, to the second level where you see the thing itself. I’ve seen a glacier dwarf a ten-story cruise ship, felt the air blowing over it to bite at my face, heard the thunder when a piece breaks off and falls into the ocean, and I’ve seen the bare canyon walls where it has receded. Glaciers are real now.

This is the Sawyer Glacier.




This is the Davidson Glacier.




These pics are more shadows and reflections. They don’t begin to do justice to the thing itself.

One of the smart moves Disney made on their Alaskan cruise was to hire a naturalist to sail with us. Doug Jones is a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. His most recent post was at the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest outside of Juneau. He knows Alaska, and he made himself accessible throughout the cruise. After I skipped the Disney character breakfast to go listen to Doug, Victor took to calling him my Boo.

I mean, seriously? Why would I skip this…



…in favor of this?



Oh, I dunno? Maybe because I’m a big ol’ nerd who hasn’t drunk deeply from the Disney Kool-Aid jug? But that’s another blog post.

Doug gave four lectures during our cruise, including one on glaciers. And yes, I attended every one of them. He is wicked smart and brimming over with enthusiasm for his home state. He wants everyone to love and appreciate Alaska the way he does. He is also an amateur photographer, and his pictures are stunning. This link takes you to his photography site. It’s worth the click.

Doug narrated our cruise up Tracy Arm, the fjord which ends at the Sawyer Glacier. The vistas were absolutely spectacular.







I wish the pics could give you some sense of scale. These cliffs rise up over 2000 feet.



The water below the ship is another 2000 feet deep in places. The entire fjord was carved out by glaciers.



As we worked our way up Tracy Arm, icebergs became more prevalent.




Then we began to see these cute boogers on top of them.



We arrived at just the right time to see mama harbor seals and the babies they had just birthed.

Yes. Those smears of red on the ice are from that little guy’s very recent entrance into the world.



The closer we got to the glacier, the more seals we saw. Mostly, they ignored the ship. I guess these mamas felt we were sailing a little too close.

video


Orcas, or Killer Whales, eat harbor seals, but they won’t swim in close to the glacier where the ice is thick, so the seals get very close to the glacier to give birth. All of those little brown dots are seals.



Eagles like to hang out on the ice as well.



The Sawyer Glacier is a tidewater glacier. That means it flows all the way to the ocean. These glaciers are the ones we most often see in all those documentaries because when they calve, it makes for some cool video. The Sawyer Glacier originates in the Juneau Icefield. An icefield is a massive deposit of glacial ice at the top of a mountain range. Doug compared an icefield to a bowl of ice cream. If you keep adding ice cream, eventually it’s going to overflow and run down the sides. An icefield’s overflow is a glacier.

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, glacial ice absorbs all the colors in the spectrum except blue. Don’t hold me to this, but I think it has something to do with the compacting of all those snowflakes. Regardless, the blue undertones are incredibly beautiful.



You can tell if an iceberg has recently melted enough that it has rolled over. Once the glacial ice makes contact with the air, it begins to turn white. The blue is always underneath, and so, gives the ice a luminescent quality.




Most of Southeast Alaska’s glaciers are in retreat. Note the bare walls around the Sawyer Glacier. The ice has receded so recently that vegetation hasn’t had a chance to reclaim the land.



I can’t remember the exact statistic Doug gave us, but during the 1980’s the glacier was retreating about 20 feet per year. Last year, it retreated close to a mile.

This lake, on which we are making like Hiawatha, didn’t exist 50 years ago. It was part of the Davidson Glacier.



Our Davidson Glacier guide, Justin (the guy on the back of the canoe), told us there aren’t even fish in it yet. It takes 60 years or so for the fish to naturally make their way into a newly created waterway. The lake feeds a river that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Crazy, right?



Global warming has become a highly politicized issue. Doug stuck to the science. He told us about ice core samples that have been gathered from around the world. Scientists can “see” back in time almost a million years through some of the samples.

“It’s extremely complex, but what the natural record tells us is that we are advancing the rate of melt more than 100 times where it has ever been during this part of the cycle. We can see 10 ice ages thru the 880,000 year old ice core sample. It’s never been this accelerated.”

We can argue until the cows come home about why it’s happening, but one trip to Alaska is all it takes to show you that it is happening. My favorite excursion was the canoeing adventure to the Davidson Glacier, and it blows my mind that my grandmother could not have made the same trip when she was my age because THE LAKE WAS STILL A GLACIER!

I wonder what will be left of the Davidson when my grandchildren are my age. I hope they have a chance to see this.




Glaciers are definitely real to me now, and I find myself moving to Plato’s third level of knowledge, the level in which you move from away from the visible to the intelligible. The “what” and “how” questions become “why” questions. Why do we need glaciers? Why are they retreating so fast? Are we responsible?

And then the fourth level…what does the nature of glaciers tell us about the nature of man?



Thanks for hanging in there if you read this far. My last couple of entries have waxed philosophical. Alaska will do that to you for real. I’m gonna switch gears next time and write “The Road Kill Club.”