Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Party and Panama

I know I promised a blog on cruising and this will get there, but I wanted to write about the retirement party I gave Joe. (He had a party with colleagues from the San Francisco office at a restaurant in Orange County and a party at his office in San Diego on his last day.) For someone who seemed to be resisting retirement, he sure enjoyed getting into “party mode”.

I had been thinking about his party for over three years. Not that it was going to be a formal party that needed three years’ preparation; Joe just kept changing his mind. Each November starting in 2004 (the year I retired), we would have a conversation that went something like this:
     Me: “Joe, I’m getting ready to write the annual Christmas letter. Is next year the year you’re going to retire?
     Joe: “You bet it is. I can’t wait to retire."

Then, somewhere around the end of March I’d see him sitting at his desk with a calendar and a calculator. Then we would have the following exchange:
     Joe: “If I keep working one more year, I’ll have enough days to sell back to get a new truck.”
     Me: “So you’re not going to retire in 2005. Does that mean you’ll retire for sure in 2006?”
     Joe: “You bet! I can’t wait to retire.”

You get the picture. That scene repeated itself over and over until finally on April 30, 2008 he actually did it. I planned a backyard barbeque and decided that I would have the food catered instead of doing it all myself. Here is where I give a major plug to Famous Dave’s Barbeque. If you don’t have one near you, you’re missing a treat. If you do and you haven’t tried it yet, you should.

I spent a long time trying to find the perfect retirement gift. He had given me my laptop computer to use when I went to college. It was the best gift ever and I didn’t know how to match it. One day while I was walking down the hallway in the Administration Building at MiraCosta College, I saw some beautiful watercolors. One was of the local commuter train, “The Coaster”, leaving the Carlsbad Village train station. Instantly I thought of commissioning a copy since it symbolized Joe’s daily commute to and from the office.

The artist, Benita Gleason, was a part-time counselor and professor at the college and someone I had known and admired when I was working full-time. I called and asked her if she could do a watercolor painting from a photograph I had taken of Joe with grandson Jackson and granddaughter Ava (Audrey wasn’t walking yet) when we rode the train to go to San Diego. Here is the result of her effort. I call it “Commuting Just for Fun”.

As the RSVP’s came in, I was pleased that many of Joe’s friends from Navy days, co-workers from years past, current co-workers, neighbors, church friends, and family were going to be with us. Best surprise of all was my sister, Jean, who came to represent my English family on this special occasion. She made the long trip just for the weekend, arriving Thursday and returning on Monday. It was a wonderful day (also coincidentally our 39th anniversary) and marked the beginning of a year full of amazing sights and sounds and people.

So now I will get to our incredible year of cruising. If anyone had told me that day in May of 2008 that I would take not one, not two, but four cruises over the next year and a half, I wouldn’t have believed it. Joe hinted at wanting to cruise when he decided not to rent a tuxedo for our daughter’s wedding in 2006. He said he would buy one instead so he’d have it for when we took cruises. I think I said, “That’s nice.” I pictured a 7-day Baja or maybe a short Caribbean cruise.

Joe started looking online at the industry travel website that Michelle told him about. One afternoon he said, “How would you like to cruise through the Panama Canal?” I was flabbergasted. The Panama Canal was a dream-come-true. The Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas embarked from San Diego and sailed through the Panama Canal with stops in Mexico and Central America before docking in Fort Lauderdale. As soon as we booked our cabin, I started planning what to pack.

When it comes to packing, I am a list-maker. In fact, I'm a list-maker about everything; I’ve even been known to write a list after I’ve accomplished a task just so I can cross the items off...it’s like having the pleasure of completion twice. I started my packing list a month before the cruise. That’s probably why I packed 13 pounds more than what I wore. (I weighed all the clothes I didn’t wear when we got back.) If you’ve never cruised, you can pack lightly for during the day. Jogging pants or shorts and a t-shirt and a bathing suit will see you through all of the onboard activities and most shore excursions (think "wrinkle-free" and lightweight).

I was pleasantly surprised that Joe really enjoyed getting dressed up for formal nights onboard. (If I made the rules, though, I’d ask the guy in jeans and a t-shirt to go up to the buffet instead of insisting on staying in the dining room even though he chose NOT to get dressed up.) There’s something about getting dressed up that brings out the best in people. Everyone smiles and takes pictures and compliments their table-mates. It also makes you reminisce about the times in your life when you’ve dressed up: your first prom; graduation parties; your wedding; your childrens' baptisms, first communion, and confirmation; your children’s weddings…all the days that make you smile when you think of them.

“At sea days” are like summer camp for grownups. The cruise line brochures tell you about all the ports of call and try to encourage you to take their shore excursions, but there is also a life onboard that you discover every night when you return to your room. Your room steward places a four-page daily program for the following day in your cabin while you’re at dinner. The myriad of choices include: cooking demonstrations, bingo games, Wii games, “Name That Tune” at the piano bar; slot tournaments; Veterans Meetings; yoga; water aerobics; and Team Trivia to name a few. Team Trivia deserves a paragraph of its own.

Team Trivia players give a whole new meaning to the word “competition”. On the first “at sea” day, players form groups of six and they choose a name and compete at trivia every “at sea” day with the same people for the remainder of the cruise. To the diehard trivia player, the team trivia time determines what else they will do for the rest of the day. I love trivia so I got to the lounge early and sat next to one other woman and we waited to see who would come along. Soon a couple joined us and then a man who was looking for a group. A young woman came by and we asked her if she’d like to join us. Her reply: “Are you smart? I had a group last time that wasn’t smart.” Since I was shocked by her lack of tact, I didn’t think before I spoke and said, “No. You probably want a smarter group.” She left. Twenty questions are asked and answered and on each day one group gets a pen, or a keychain, or maybe a coffee mug! (With the way people argue about answers being right or wrong, you’d think there was money involved.) At the end of the cruise, the group with the highest running total gets a bag advertising the cruise line that they’ll probably stick on a closet shelf (yes, I did). The "Are you smart?" girl glared.

The Wii competition brought out the little kids in us. We particularly enjoyed the boxing. On one afternoon, the staff member decided it would be a “battle of the sexes” and he had husbands and wives pair off. (I “decked” Joe a couple of times…he was a good sport about it even when I did my imitation of “Rocky” complete with theme song.) One other couple wasn’t quite so congenial. As the husband raised his Wii remote and gave an uppercut to his wife’s character on screen knocking her out cold, he shouted, “There! That one’s for your mother!!” There is no suitable word to describe the kind of silence that followed. The last we saw them, she was twenty paces ahead of him and he was trying to catch up. It probably cost him a trip to the ship’s jewelry store.

I don’t intend this to be a travelogue of all the places we visited over the next year, but as Joe kept getting emails about offers that were “too good to pass up”, we sailed again in January of 2009 from Santiago, Chile to Los Angeles (I became a shellback….I will talk about that in the future); in April we sailed from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic across the Atlantic to England (and visited my family); and then in October we sailed from Rome through the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, eventually flying back from Greece. I'm having cruise withdrawal...we haven't boarded a ship since November. We hope to combine a Canada/New England cruise with our trip East for Joe's 50th high school reunion in September.

On that first cruise on Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas we had an outside cabin and were very glad we did because of the wonders of going through the locks. We got to see how very tight a fit our ship was as this picture shows. After that we had two cruises that we booked inside cabins. I know there are people who can’t imagine cruising without a veranda but my rule for this blog is: “I’d rather have two cruises without a window than just one with.”

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