Monday, March 28, 2011

Cruising, Part Two

Since my cruise essay is so damn big, I'm breaking it up into parts. Here's the second part of the first draft. You can read the introductory section ("Forward") here.



I boarded the ship, the Carnival Triumph, around noon on a Monday. The first mistake I made was not to have surrendered my luggage at the Ellis Island-like check-in process. Once on the boat, we were not able to enter our cabins for a few hours, so I had to carry my heavy bags around everywhere.

David Foster Wallace did not have to deal with this problem, as his bags were taken from him at the airport as he boarded the cruise line bus. “A... crowd-control lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List.” It’s a great image, but here again I have to defer to DFW’s tortured genius, as I did not think of the Holocaust once during my own cruise.

We had a great view of the New Orleans skyline as we departed. The mighty Mississippi awaited, with storms in the distance.

One of the first things I tried to do once we set sail (Can I say “set sail” if there are no sails?) was to stand in front of the ship and get a “I’m King of the World!” picture. (An homage to both Titanic and The Office.) But it turns out there are no places for the unwashed masses to stand in the front of the boat. The best I could do was stand off the frontish side and get a “I’m Going To Tell This Story!” picture.

One afternoon I was bored so I rode the glass elevator in the atrium from the second floor all the way up to the 11th floor. It’s difficult to reconcile those words: glass elevator, atrium, 11th floor, with the fact that I was on a boat. The thing was huge. A floating hotel. I wondered how it compared to an aircraft carrier, oil tanker, or battleship.

It’s an incredible feat of nautical engineering, the culmination of thousands of years of seafaring, war, fishing, and exploration—all for the sole purpose of pleasure. Or more accurately, making money.

It’s a strange feeling to be floating in the middle of nowhere, with no land in site. Especially on a ship of this size, and with so many people. It’s like a small city disconnected from the world. A strange mix of crowded isolation. Sitting at the back of the boat watching the water churn behind us was very calming.

Some people got nauseous or sea sick, but I enjoyed the rocking of the boat. The last two days of the cruise the boat was very rocky. It was like being on a low-impact roller coaster all the time. The water in the pool sloshed from side to side.

When I visited the dance club late that night, I reflected how I’d never been in a disco that was swaying before.

The weather in New Orleans had not be very tropical, so when I woke up Tuesday morning and came up on deck, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the warm Gulf weather. This is what I wrote on my notes: “Sun!! Warmth!!! Hot girls in bikinis! This is why I’m here.”

Before I left on my cruise, the standard refrain I got from everyone was, “Don’t forget your sunscreen!” I heard it as often as a performer hears “Break a leg!” This advice seeped into my brain to such an extent that I bought four different tubes of sunscreen. The downside of all of this skin care paranoia was that, although the weather was sunny and beautiful for much of my cruise, I was so vigilant about skin care that I hardly gained any color at all. DFW had a similar experience, although he was one of those uber-nerds who slathered that white zinc oxide stuff on his nose.

Under the hot sun, I contemplated life boats. Each ship had dozens of them hanging along the side like a row of beads. But these were not little dingie rowboats. They were highly sophisticated machines with motors and a steerage cab. In thinking about all the resources that are used up during a cruise, it’s amazing to think of all the engineering, manufacturing, and materials used to create an army of objects that, in all likelihood, would never even be used.


On the itinerary for my cruise were two dates designated a “FUN DAY AT SEA.” These were days when we would be traversing the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore all fun would be had onboard. In other words, no stops in port.

When I first saw that on the itinerary, I was excited. FUN was the port, the destination, the only agenda for the entire day. How could I not enjoy that? That was before I realized the role that single word played in the Carnival propaganda machine.

I first noticed the insidiousness of the word during the Welcome Aboard Show the first night of the cruise. This was my introduction to cruise ship live entertainment. I’ve never seen any stage shows in places like Vegas, Branson, or Gatlinburg , so I don’t know how they compare, but do people really enjoy this kind of thing? It was a cheesy song and dance medley all about FUN!!! Men and women in sequins pranced about singing various songs with the word "fun" in it. (Fun fun fun til our daddy takes the t-bird away, Girls just wanna have fun, etc.) They went through dozens of costume and scenery changes, the only constant being three huge props: the letters F, U, and N.

It felt like they were trying way too hard to put the word “fun” in our brains. So that when we came home from our cruise and people asked us how it was, we would automatically answer, “It was so fun!” It was less entertainment than indoctrination. “You are having fun... you are having fun... you are having fun...”

DFW touches on this as well. He mentions how the word “pamper” is strategically placed throughout the cruise’s promotional material, and that it’s no accident that the word also conjures up an infantile helplessness, since the cruise essentially takes all decisions and responsibility for fun away from the cruisers. “You WILL have fun,” the brochure commands.

The word FUN was everywhere, often in all caps. Every afternoon, a fresh copy of the ship’s bulletin, FUNTIMES, would arrive on my cabin bed, along with an towel-animal and a small foil-wrapped chocolate.

The guide to port excursions was called FUN ASHORE. The Carvinal credit card they were hocking would let you earn “FunPoints.” With that you could buy watches and apparel at “The Fun Shops.” The order form for taking home bathrobes and beach towels (aka “cruise comforts”) was labeled “Fun Stuff.” Even my luggage tags said, “Enjoy Your ‘Fun Ship’ Cruise.”

After I got home, the survey Carnival sent me asked me to rate my “Fun Ship experience.” Even in their feedback, they want to put fun on my brain.

There were indeed times when I had “fun.” Perhaps the highlight of the week was karaoke-ing Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” on Wednedsay night. Aside from Karaoke, I went to the dance club on the ship every single night. I’ve never been “clubbing” four nights in a row. I don’t know if “fun” was the right word, but it certainly was exhilarating to consider the fact that at 1:40 am on a weekday I was in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico in a loud thumping rocking dance club. It was not my usual Monday night.

I also had a particularly good time on the last afternoon and evening of the trip. Around 4:00 pm I was bored and melancholy, so I decided to throw caution to the rough seas and ordered a mixed drink. I drank the rest of the day and ran into lots of new friends, who bought me more drinks. I experienced drunk cruising, drunk dining, and drunk packing for the first time in my life. The lesson I took away from this was that good things happened when I drink.

But the FUN was not constant, and only one of dozens of words I would use to describe the week.


The thing I most looked forward to before my cruise was the food. Everyone who has ever told me about their cruise raved about the food: how good it was, how many choices there were, a bottomless supply available everywhere and at all times. Before I left I told people, “I plan to eat my weight in shellfish!” (The similarity between the words “shellfish” and “selfish” was not lost on me—my subconscious liberal guilt was already at work.)

In truth, I was mostly disappointed with the food. The meals on my cruise ranged from crappy to a little above average. There was nothing that completly rocked my taste buds, and several things that were just plain horrible. The dining menu tried to dress up dishes, but like the FUN propaganda, it felt too forced. The first night I ordered something with an elaborate “sun-dried tomato” name. From the description it wasn’t clear exactly what it was-- it turned out to be unremarkable tomato soup. “Corn-fed chicken” was on the menu, as if that’s a rare and special type of poultry.

The breakfast I had the first morning was crappy: bacon, eggs, cajun sausage, and the worst toast I’ve ever met. I happened to be wearing my Moosewood Restaurant t-shirt that day, and reflected on the irony of eating such a meat-heavy breakfast while wearing it. Moosewood is a famous vegetarian restaurant known for its vegetarian cookbooks. I usually take it for granted that where ever I am that there are vegetarians there, but from the demographics of my cruise I’m not sure that was the case.

I should probably point out that, according to one of DFW’s many footnotes, the cruise line I was on, Carnival, has a certain reputation in the cruise industry. He describes it as the Walmart of cruise lines. So that may explain the demographics and substandard food on the cruise. For example, Wallace luxuriates in the fruit baskets left in his cabin every day. He never ate so much fruit in his life. Really, he goes on and on about the fruit. I’ve never seen anyone get so excited about fruit before. In contrast, there was no fruit left in my cabin.

Like almost every cruiser you talk to, Wallace focuses a lot on the food. I only had two meals that were worth, well, writing home about. After my horrible breakfast Tuesday morning, I had a crappy lunch experience as well. It’s too involved and boring to explain in detail, but it ends with me getting a crappy burger and fries and eating it on the back of the boat, watching the water churn out behind us. About two hours later I was walking past the lunch buffet and saw shrimp quesadillas under the sneeze guard. Shrimp quesadillas! And I wasted my lunch on a sub-par burger and fries?

But then I realized—I’m on a cruise. The food is free (or pre-paid) and I have nothing else to do. Why not indulge in a mid-afternoon meal? That’s why I’m here, right? To break out of my usual routine and eat my weight in shellfish?

So I had a second lunch. If not the best tasting, it was the meal that made the biggest impression on me. I got cilantro pesto with “Home Made Chips,”, tortilla crusted chicken, and of course, shrimp quesadillas. The food was good, but it was the thrill of having a spontaneous second lunch that really stuck with me.

I woke up the following morning feeling a little bloated, so I went to breakfast determined to have a light breakfast. FAIL. I ended up getting grits, cantaloupe, salty potato slices, french toast, and “panko crusted eggs,” a deep-fried hardboiled egg, which was the star of breakfast, mostly for its novelty.

Perhaps the most novel thing about eating on a cruise ship is the scheduled dinner every evening. It’s in a nice restaurant with servers and bus-people fretting over you. Only, there are no prices on the menu because it’s unlimited and already been paid for. At the end of your dining experience, there is no bill to pay or tip to figure out. You just get up and leave.


Tune in for the exciting conclusion-- or really just the last two sections (Foreign Lands and Friends)-- at some indeterminate time in the future.

UPDATE: That some indeterminate time is now. Here's the last installment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I'm "published" for the first time in over 15 years.

I wrote an article for a local volunteer online magazine, and they put it on their site. In terms of prestige, I don't know where that stands between a college newspaper column, stories for my family and friends, and blogging. They do have editors, so there's some kind of filter. I suspect there may be less readership for this article than for some of my blogs, though.

Anyhoo, here's the article:

It's about online dating. And deception.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

House Possessed

A string of weird goings-on in my house lately has made me wonder if I'm being stalked, going crazy, or my house is possessed.

My favorite button-down shirt and my light spring jacket are missing. Neither can be found hanging up in my closet, which is the only place I keep such things. How do you lose a jacket? I'm not one of those people who's constantly misplacing things. In my house, everything has a place, and since I live alone, it stays there. So it's always weird when I can't find something.

My house has been making weird noises lately. Yeah, I know, all houses make weird noises. But this is a new weird noise, and it seems to happen around the same time in the evenings. It's like a loud bang. A friend of mine was over the other night and it happened when he was here, and even he asked what it was.

I googled "house noises" and got this. It doesn't really apply to my text, but it was too good not to post.

My roommate, TiVo, has been acting very strangely lately. TiVo lies to me. It tells me that it can't record a program that I told it to record because "the tuner was not available." Bullshit. It recorded shows on the same channel before and after that program, and it wasn't recording anything on another channel at the same time. Why do you lie to me, TiVo?

Lately the lies have taken a sinister turn. Last week TiVo told me it couldn't record something because "Someone in your household would not allow the tuner to change the channel." WTF? This was in the middle of the night when I was asleep, so I know it wasn't me. It also deleted something I hadn't watched, blaming it (again) on "someone in [your] house."

Is this an update on the old urban legend: "The phone calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!"? The person messing with my TiVo is coming from inside my own house!

The weirdest thing happened with the portal to my attic. It's in the ceiling in my garage. The last time I was up there was some time last year. Whenever I go up there, I make sure that the trap door is shut securely.

So I was a little freaked out the other day when I looked up and saw this:

The door had been moved and was no longer flush in the groove. WTF? Has someone been up in my attic? How? Why? The door is too heavy to be the result of the wind or a critter or something like that. And I know I wouldn't have left it like that, because I'm anal about these kinds of things.

I remembered one day last fall when I came home from work and found my (automatic) garage door completely open. I entered the house cautiously, but nothing appeared to be missing. I assumed I just spaced out and forgot to shut it in the morning when I left. But now I worry that someone could be messing with me.


Combine these incidents with some email paranoia I've been having lately: Four or five people have not responded to messages. In addition, on an online dating site I've had six consecutive women simply ignore or disappear from conversations. Aside from making me think that maybe I have the online dating equivalent of a booger hanging off my nose, it makes me wonder if someone's hacking into my online shit and deleting things.

I came to this theory after watching a story on the Colbert Report about Anonymous, an organization of hackers associated with Wikileaks who can apparently get into any private accounts and wreak havoc.

That report scared the shit out of me, because it made me realize that none of us is really safe when people are determined to take you down.


There are lots of possible conspiracy theories as to what's going on:
  • My house is possessed.
  • Someone is harassing me.
  • Some Anonymous-level hacker has taken an interest in me for some reason.
  • I'm into some split personality psychosis like the dude in Fight Club.
However, there's a principle in science that states the simplest explanation is usually the most likely.

All of these things could have a simple explanation. Maybe I left my shirt/coat somewhere when I was traveling. TiVo is probably having software problems. (It's been acting weird since I had to get a cable box last fall.) And most likely, people are not responding to my messages because they are busy or not interested.

It's just the cumulative effect of them all happening at once that's putting conspiracy theories in my head.

And the attic door... well, I don't know what the fuck's going on there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing Logjam

It's been over two months since I returned from my cruise, and I'm still trying to finish an essay about it. The problem with this writing project is that it's keeping me from getting to lots of other projects I plan to do. It's creating a logjam in my creative process.

Sometimes this happens with reading projects, too. I'll be in the middle of a book, and although it's not very engaging, I'll be determined to finish it before I start something else. So I slowly slog through it. Once I finish it, I can turn my attention to the logjam of other reading material that has piled up in the meantime.

You see, when I went on my solo cruise, I took notes. Way too many notes. I filled up 30 pages of a hotel notepad with them. And now I'm struggling with what to do with all my witty, insightful, navel-gazing, personal, and boring thoughts (with pictures!) I guess this is the right venue for that kind of thing, but I'm also trying to write an article for a local online magazine. And that's the logjam. Writing out random thoughts on a blog is one thing, but publishing something for a wider audience requires more focus and better writing.

I'm suffering from that old writer's tension between wanting to include all my brilliant insights and having a coherent theme throughout. It's already way too long, and it's only half written. I wish I could just finish it already so that I could get on to other writing projects.

Besides that, real life keeps getting in the way: work, chores and errands, and trying to have a social life.

So, I figured I would put the first draft of the first part here, just to show that I have been doing something the past two months. Maybe breaking it up into a series of blog posts will make it more manageable.


Meta-Cruising With David Foster Wallace


“So how was your cruise?”

I knew the question was coming. I spent the entire trip home, as I hopped from ship to bus to airport to airplane, trying to come up with a good answer for it. I couldn’t in good conscience give the pat “It was fun!” answer, in part because I refused to succumb to Carnival’s constant propaganda to put the word FUN! on my brain. More importantly, there was simply no one word to describe the experience. It was collection of conflicting adjectives: warm, cold, calm, windy, huge, tiny, lonely, crowded, cheesy, grand, gluttonous, eventful, drunken, sobering, relaxing, exhausting, boring, and, yes: fun.

Because I traveled alone and didn’t have anyone to tell my witty and insightful observations to, I took what I thought were copious notes on my five-day Western Caribbean cruise in January. I filled up 30 sheets of my Applebutter Inn notepad (a souvenir from an earlier vacation to Vermont.)

Once I got back and told people about my notepad bursting with insights, three people pointed me to David Foster Wallace’s essay about his own cruise experience, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” For that essay, which is 97 pages long, Wallace filled up almost three entire Mead notebooks with his observations.

Okay, so I’m no David Foster Wallace. He was a tortured genius, and I’m just an uncomfortable creative type.

I’m not as profound or eloquent or loquacious as David Foster Wallace. For example, all the death and despair themes from his essay? I didn’t pick up on that. But Wallace and I were both curmudgeonly curious Midwestern outsiders who traveled solo and viewed the whole thing with a critical eye. We shared a liberal guilt over the decadence and class distinctions of the experience.

I’ve enjoyed comparing and contrasting our two experiences. And just like the food and the parties and the blue seas and the weather and the rocking boat and the tourism and the Mayan ruins, DFW’s essay has now become part of my own cruise experience.

Perhaps the biggest difference between my cruise and DFW’s was the purpose. I took this solo tropical vacation because I had three weeks off over the winter holidays (I work in academia and don’t work when classes are out of session), I was newly single, and I needed a distraction from the soul-sucking Midwestern winter.

I was, however, ambivalent about it. The week before I had met with an adviser about getting involved in socially responsible investing. I didn’t quite have enough of a nest egg to start investing, so what do I do instead? I take a socially irresponsible vacation aboard a floating luxury hotel designed for decadent pleasure. Some liberal I am.

DFW, on the other hand, took a cruise because a magazine paid him to.

When Wallace overhears other cruisers in the waiting area talk about why they’re going on a cruise, no one says they’re going on a cruise just to go on one. “Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure.” He says this is evidence of the “subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence.”

I guess I’m not that different from other people after all.


Read Part Two of this essay here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Singles Tennis

When I left the tennis center with the cheap plastic trophy for winning the tournament, I swore to myself that I was NOT going to make a Big Deal out of this. Because, in the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal.

As a single person, no one wants to hear about my tennis matches. It's kind of like telling someone about a dream you had. As I read in a book today (Nicholson Baker, The Fermata), "...lovers are the only people who will put up with hearing your dreams." *

This resolution-- to be low-key about my tennis success-- lasted about three minutes. I was still in the car on the way home when I got out my cell and tried to call my brother. Since then I think I've told most people I've come into contact with. I even broke down and posted it on Facebook. And now I'm blogging about it.

So much for not making a Big Deal out of this.

The thing is, winning the tournament truly wasn't a huge accomplishment. Full Disclosure: there were only three people in my draw, the Men's 35 Singles (ages 35-44.) I did have to beat a pretty tough rival in the finals, outlasting him 6-2, 1-6, 1-0 (10-7). In the third set super-tiebreak, he was up 6-3, but I won six straight points to take an insurmountable 9-6 lead.

What was interesting about that "championship" match is that it featured probably the only two single men over 35 who play tennis at our center. All the married guys have lives and other commitments and so can't devote the time to a tournament like this. The only other guy in our draw was a married dude whose wife had signed him up because he daughter was competing in the girl's division. Even he was committed to a family event-- it just happened to be the tournament. It truly was a "singles" final.

This is the kind of thing you get when you google "ball and chain tennis"


Still, this was the first tennis tournament I've ever won.

Even more impressive than winning the tournament, however, was that in the same week I clinched the Silver League championship. It's the second time I've won the Silver, but this time I ran the table, going 7-0. (The last time I blogged about tennis, I was struggling in the Silver league, having only won 2 of my first 17 matches. So I guess I've made some progress!) So between that and the tournament I've won nine straight matches. My last singles loss was on December 22nd.

This is the fourth time I've won a tennis league, but I've never received any hardware for that. When you win a league, you get to move up to the next level and they give you $10 off the registration fee for the next league. But a $10 discount is a difficult thing to show off in my living room.


And that cheesy cheap plastic trophy looks pretty good on my fireplace mantle.


* Ironically, the day after I read that Nicholson Baker quote about sharing dreams, I had a really interesting one about finding a cute blind twin, who I met simultaneously online on a dating site at the same time I showed up at her house. There were people speaking German, hippies smoking pot, and circus animals-- horses and tigers-- in the house that she shared with her married twin sister, who was also blind. I swear, I hardly ever have/remember interesting dreams like this to tell people about.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Music Musings

Someone told me recently that I look like Ben Folds. I know he's a musician, but other than that I know nothing about him. So I googled him.

Separated at birth?

I think he looks both more nerdy and cooler than me. And better looking. But I'll leave that to the blogosphere to decide.


Since I've been on a quest to find new music lately, I figured being told I look like Ben Folds was as good a reason as any to pick up one of his CD's from the library.

The music's not bad, and the more I hear it the more it grows on me. It got me thinking about the nature of music celebrity. What is it that makes someone like Ben Folds famous? He's no rock superstar, but he seems to have a niche following-- enough to make a living of it, anyway. I'm sure for every Ben Folds, there are hundreds, even thousands, of others who are just as talented but haven't broken through.

I used to think that there were certain musicians whose music was okay, but I couldn't imagine anyone thinking, "Wow, he's my favorite!" I thought they were famous merely by being pretty good. But that's not really possible, is it? I mean, you don't get to be famous without someone, somewhere, thinking you are totally awesome.

The other issue is, I don't know if I'm supposed to like Ben Folds' music. I mean, is it cool to like him? What's the demographic of his fans? I don't know enough about music in general to tell if he's a really talented jazzy nerd or just some pop poser. Is he closer to Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, or Michael Bolton?


When I first saw this video on a friend's blog, I didn't care whether it was cool to like it or not:

I fell instantly in love with Ingrid Michaelson. I love the simple beauty of this song. I love her voice, her look, her expressions, her gestures. She's totally my type. Everything about this song and video makes me feel giddy.

Isn't she adorable?

So, after watching a few other versions of this song and a few other videos of hers on Youtube, I went out and bought two CD's of hers.

What a disappointment.

The CD with "The Way I Am" on it, called Girls and Boys, is just awful. That one song is the only thing on it that's worth listening to. Ironically, there's a secret bonus track at the end that's in the same style as "The Way I Am" and is also really good. But the rest of it is just totally uninspiring.

I really don't understand how someone can make a song that is so incredibly good, and then surround it with such fluff. "The Way I Am" is the shortest song on there, at only two minutes and 12 seconds long. All the other, crappy songs are like four and five minutes long.

I'm not a musician or trained musicologist, so I don't have enough technical knowledge to explain what's wrong with this album. But it feels to me like all the other songs are overproduced. Too many instruments are drowning out the sound of her beautiful voice. Like she's trying too hard. They don't have the catchy tune and artful simplicity of the song that attracted me in the first place. I feel like I've been duped. (Although, to be fair, the price of that CD was worth just that one song.)

The other CD of hers that I bought, Everybody, was on the whole better than Girls and Boys, but it suffers from the same problem. There's maybe four songs there that are any good, and the rest are just completely not interesting (to me.) I don't understand how one musician can be so uneven, so varied. (Although maybe my blog posts have a similar level of eclecticism.)

Still, isn't she adorable?

How about here?


Adding to my discovery of Ben Folds and Ingrid Michaelson is a German a capella band called The Wise Guys. I discovered them through a Facebook friend.

Their songs are in German, but English speakers might understand much of this one by the end. It's a lamentation of how English words are infiltrating the German language:

The best line?
Lord, please...
...make it so that "Microsoft"
will soon be called "small soft" again.

The best thing about all these recent musical discoveries is that they have no old associations for me. They come with no baggage.

Here's to new music.