WXR17: Water, Water Everywhere

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Narodovolets D-2 submarine in St. Petersburg

There’s a group of us in of a WWII submarine museum in St Petersburg, Russia. Across one wall is a glass cabinet full of miniature models of submarines from the first ones built in the city straight through the modern day submarines that are still in use. “Russia recently announced the largest submarine in the world,” our tour guide translates from the museum docent’s lecture. “It displaces 24,000 tons.”

“For reference, our cruise ship weighs 138,000 tons,” says Howard. “Much bigger, but doesn’t have nearly as much firepower.”

“This submarine has twenty ballistic missile launches, each of which can hold ten nuclear warheads.” A pause. “We hope we never have to use them.”

Howard: “We hope so too.”

Everyone in the room shares a dark laugh. If Russia ever does have to use those nukes, we all know who they’re going to use them on.

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The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen

Our tour guide in Copenhagen is used to giving tours in German, and is a little rusty with her English. Many of her anecdotes about Copenhagen history end with “And I…forget the word.” I don’t think there’s anything lost in translation, though, when she tells us that the Little Mermaid statue, having been moved further out into the water for its own protection, is easier to take photos of now that it isn’t “covered in Japanese.” Later, while our bus takes a sharp turn in the middle of the city, we crunch into a post and have to sit, parked diagonally across the entire intersection, blocking all lanes of traffic, while the driver gets out to inspect the damage.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn Old Town

Dea is our tour guide in Estonia, and she speaks with a dry humor and an accent that turns her words up at the end.

“To the right we have the war memorial,” she says as we approach a bare concrete structure with a sharp tower sticking straight up into the sky. “We call it ‘the grave of Pinocchio.'”

Later, going through the city, she points out the Hotel Viru, where foreign visitors to Tallinn were required to stay during the Soviet occupation. “While it was being built, the KGB would sometimes dismiss all the builders for the day and bring in their own builders. There was a whole secret floor inside the hotel. We would say that it was made of new ‘microconcrete’—fifty percent microphones and fifty percent concrete.”

On our way to the old city, we pass a different tour bus just starting the same route despite leaving the ship at the same time and she is quietly proud of our efficiency. “We’re making great time,” she says.

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Changing of the guard at the royal palace in Stockholm

The guide in Stockholm gives the tour in perfect English and German, switching smoothly from one to the other, since our group is half and half. He walks us around cobblestone streets, taking us down the narrowest road in Europe and showing us Stockholm’s tiniest statue. At the palace, he tells us that the changing of the guard happens at noon, but we won’t want to see it because it’s too crowded and hard to see. Instead, he shows us where we can stand to get front row access as the guards come in on horseback, led by a band. When they come through, they’re so close that the horses nearly step on our feet.

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Icebar, Stockholm

The Icebar in Stockholm is a small, refrigerated room in a hotel. We’re each given heavy ponchos with attached mittens, and we have to wait in line for the previous group to come out before we can shuffle into the airlock. Everything in the bar is made of ice, from the walls to the furniture to the glasses. All of it comes form the Torne River up north. The bartender serves vodka and lingonberry juice, and when we’re done with our glass, we can slide it down an ice chute into a warm water bath.

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Øresund Bridge

On the way to and from Copenhagen, we pass under Øresund Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe. It’s eight miles long and connects Sweden and Denmark. Our ship barely fits under its highest point. On the night we’re meant to pass back under it, I head up to the highest point of the ship we can reach without being in first class. When the bridge skims by overhead, just six feet over our smokestack, everyone cheers.

 

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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg

They tell us not to smile when we go through passport control in St. Petersburg. Smiling makes us look suspicious. Putin just threw all the American ambassadors out of Russia a couple days before we arrived, and we want to be as inoffensive as possible to make sure we make it out of the country. I make it through fine by looking as bored as possible, but many of the men in the group are asked if they are American soldiers. In the city, though, they’re not nearly as strict about making us stay with our guides as the ship had made it seem. Our guide, Konstantin, takes us through the Metro and the subway train nearly leaves without half of our group.

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Several days on the ship, the doors leading to the outside deck have chains across them and signs warning about high winds. This isn’t really an issue until the final night of the cruise, when I’m trying to find my way to the farewell cocktail party. It’s set in the Liquid Disco, which is on the 16th floor of the ship and which is only accessible by one elevator. I choose the wrong elevator and come out on the fifteenth floor into an incredible wind. I’m wearing high heels, which doesn’t help as the wind nearly slides me down the deck. Luckily the ship has glass walls at strategic places along the deck that block the wind and allow you to open doors without them being ripped from your hands.

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On the ship, the head waiter keeps track of my milk allergy. Every night, I order my meal for the next evening. They don’t actually tell me which meals can be made without milk, so I choose the things that look easily modifiable. One night the head waiter calls me on it and says I can choose whatever I want. I don’t have to choose stuff I don’t want just because it’s easy. Just tell him what I want and they’ll do it. I tell him I want the tortellini. He hesitates. “We can’t make that,” he says finally.

The first few days, they give me some fruit for dessert, since obviously all the other desserts have milk in them. Then one night the head waiter shows up with three packages of Italian desserts, the kind you might buy in a gas station. They’re dairy and gluten free and they’re pretty terrible–basically made of pressed powder that falls apart when you touch it. After that they get a little more experimental, giving me meringue or jello or even some apple pie without the ice cream. On the final night they give me a fancy tart with meringue. Someone has written “lactose free” on the plate in raspberry syrup. This is actually very concerning, since lactose isn’t the problem, but hey, at least they tried.

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We stay another day in Kiel, Germany when we get off the boat. The day is warm and gorgeous, but I end up napping through most of it. In the evening we head up to Deck 8, the hotel’s rooftop bar, and we’re just in time to see our ship pull out of the Kiele Fjord for another cruise.

Writing Excuses – the video feed

Out of Excuses from Bennett North on Vimeo.

I put together a lot of the footage I took on last year’s Writing Excuses Cruise and Retreat into a short (perhaps too short) film just so I would feel like I’d done something with the two hours of video I’d taken. During the process I discovered that a) I REALLY like time-lapse videos and b) I hadn’t recorded myself in any of it. So enjoy a lightning fast visit to the western Caribbean, only nine months late.

Oh, and as for that clip after the credits—I stuck it in there because I found it amusing, but in retrospect, I don’t think it’s clear what it really is. When we landed in the Bahamas, it was an idyllic setting with clear blue skies and turquoise waters and seagulls crying and palm trees swaying. Then I realized that all those seagull noises were actually being piped in over the speaker, either to add atmosphere or to scare away real birds or both.

I also was unable to include a couple clips of the Creepy Baby Room across the hall from my cabin. It was a door marked Employees Only, behind which came the constant, distant sound of babies screaming. On the last night, when I brought my camera to record the sound, there were no babies, but only the faintest noise of a music box lullaby. I like to imagine that those noises were also artificially piped in, perhaps to scare away real babies.

Learning Paralysis

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At the end of the Writing Excuses cruise, while we all mingled in Dazzles, drinking bellinis and rum punch and quietly envying the top ten attendees who had each written over ten thousand—and in some cases twenty thousand—words during the week, Mary Robinette Kowal got up on stage to talk to us about what was going to happen after the cruise. Don’t be surprised if you don’t write for quite some time after you leave, she said. The majority of people who leave this retreat don’t put hands to keyboard for weeks or months afterward. Writing is suddenly very hard.

The idea behind that was that now that you’ve been introduced to a whole bunch of new techniques and methods of writing and outlining, you’re paralyzed by trying to keep everything in your head at once. It’s like trying to drive for the first time after driver’s ed: your brain is so flooded with trying to remember to adjust the rear-view mirror and the driver’s seat and release the parking brake and put the car in drive and check both side mirrors and on and on that you sit there for a bit, unsure if you’ve remembered everything you need to remember before you can start to drive.

I didn’t think that was going to apply to me because I’m not exactly new to writing. Although the retreat was really helpful and I highly recommend it, I don’t think I heard anything *new* during any of the panels. Yet it’s been a couple weeks since I got back and I haven’t written a single word since the flight home.

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My rockin’ bridesmaid dress from Rent the Runway.

Okay, part of that is because what with my brother’s wedding immediately after the cruise, and then the flood upending my life and forcing me to live out of a suitcase while everything else I own is packed away in trash bags in the garage, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities. But since things have started to settle down, I haven’t been able to write a word. Even the story I started to write on the cruise has come to an abrupt standstill. Nothing feels right to me; every idea seems unoriginal. Every time I try to make myself sit down, my brain rebels against it. In related news, I’ve clocked over 140 hours in Fallout 4, 60 of those in the last couple weeks.

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The rehearsal dinner contained a surprise skeleton.

Am I using this convenient explanation as an excuse for my own laziness? Well, probably. I want to write. I just am having a lot of difficulty putting butt in chair (or whatever the equivalent expression is for a standing desk).

Nanowrimo starts in 12 days. This is going to be my fourteenth year doing it, so I can’t not do it. I need to get my act together in the next two weeks. The first step is probably going to be to take the batteries out of my Xbox controller and hide them, but after that, we’ll see.

Cruise vlog teaser trailer and bonus post-vacation disaster

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The loudest birds in the Caribbean

My dad picked me up at the airport last night, after my flight home from Ft. Lauderdale and the Writing Excuses Retreat cruise to the eastern Caribbean. “I think a mouse died in the wall while you were gone,” he said offhandedly. “There’s a smell.”

Yes, there was a smell. If you’ve ever had a mouse die in your wall before, or if you’ve ever stumbled across a corpse of any kind, you know what that smell is like. When I stepped into my bedroom, the stench went from disgusting to truly horrific. If it was a dead animal, it was a lot bigger than a mouse. I decided I would sleep elsewhere, so I held my breath and ducked into the room to grab my pajamas. Two steps into the room, my foot squished in the rug.

Oh crap, the cat peed on the rug, I thought to myself. Squish. Wow, the cat peed a lot. Squish. …This isn’t cat pee.

At some point while I was away, the hot

water heater sprung a leak. I don’t know how many gallons of hot water drained through the wall and into my bedroom, but it was enough to completely saturate the rug, the bed, the wall, a pile of old comics, some photo albums, a bottom drawer full of clothes, and god knows what else. I’m not sure yet how much is salvageable, but the wall-to-wall carpet definitely has to go. You do not understand how bad it smells in there. That’s what happens when you add hot water to a hundred square feet of carpeting and then let it sit several days.

Now there’s going to be a mess of insurance adjusters, water heater mechanics and flood recovery people swarming the house in the next three days before I have to race out to western Massachusetts for my brother’s wedding this weekend. Yay for post-vacation surprises!

So: my WXR16 cruise post is going to take a bit longer than expected. I have a lot to talk about and many pictures to show you, but until then all you get is this stupid vlog trailer I made on the plane. Oh god, I laugh so hard every time I watch this. iMovie has the best trailer templates. I was tempted by the Bollywood and Teen Movie themes, but in the end I had to go with Horror.

Embedding isn’t working, so click it to go straight to the Instagram page.

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Enjoy, and I’ll talk to you once things settle down.

Decreasing distractions

I just registered for World Con/MidAmeriCon II! The hotel blocks were released Monday, so I registered and got my flight. I’ll be flying out to my friend Aimee Ogden‘s place, then road tripping it the seven hours to Kansas City, MO. We’re going to be driving through a LOT of farm land. I hope we can stop and see the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel or the Gas Station Jesus or something along the way. Aimee is really going to regret letting me road trip with her when she sees my list of kitschy roadside attractions that I want to visit.

 

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Seven straight hours of this

 

This week’s Writing Excuses was about getting in the frame of mind to write. That’s something I’ve been thinking of a lot recently because I have the attention span of a squirrel, and the siren song of my Xbox is strong. Mary said she’s started meditating, which actually sounds like it might work for me. Howard pointed out that it’s easy to keep writing regularly if you write regularly, and very easy to skip writing if you’ve already skipped writing once. Dan suggested ending each day’s writing session in the middle of a chapter so that you can pick it up easily again the next day. I’ve tried that, and it works, but my problem right now is focusing my brain for more than a sentence at a time. Every time I open up a document, I start thinking of all the other things I could be doing. Or I notice that my chair is uncomfortable and I decide to move to a better location. Or I realize that I really want some music right now, so I have to find some headphones. Or maybe I could use a coffee. Is it lunch time yet? What about snack time? Hey, has anyone said anything interesting on Twitter in the last five minutes?

 

Typically what I do when I need to get some writing done is use the app Self Control (It’s Mac only but there are others that do similar things). It turns off my access to the internet, or it blocks specific sites, depending on whether I set a whitelist or a blacklist. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it until the timer runs out. This is fabulous for me, except that every time I turn it on, I start to think about all the laundry I need to do, or that closet organizing project I abandoned a month or two ago. Plus there’s that Xbox again, over which Self Control has no power.

 

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Then there’s the return trip

I’m getting a new computer soon, since my buggy old laptop has started crashing just about daily now. I’m considering setting up two accounts on the new computer, one for writing and being productive, the other for gaming and slacking off. Perhaps switching between two accounts will help me keep my brain organized. At the very least, it’ll put another road block in the way of me jumping on Tumblr the first time my mind starts to wander.

Anyone have any suggestions?