Friday, September 21, 2018
Travel

Cruises are so uncool they're actually cool

It’s the final day of this seven-night cruise and I am sitting in my moderately messy balcony stateroom aboard the Celebrity Summit finishing the last bites of a room service cheeseburger, bags as yet unpacked for tomorrow morning’s disembarkation, the vast undulating North Atlantic just over my starboard shoulder.

I am trying to summon up my arguments in support of the mass-market luxury cruise, and against the snarky subgenre of travel writing about mass-market luxury cruises, a snarkiness best exemplified by David Foster Wallace’s classic 1997 essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again," a piece that is hilarious and insightful and brilliant. And also wrong.

It’s wrong because he tills every square inch of the surreal journalistic soil available to him during his own seven-day Caribbean cruise aboard the now decommissioned Celebrity Zenith (which he redubs the Nadir), but after 98 exhaustive pages of skeet shooting, conga dancing, fruit eating and existential despair falling, he fails to unearth what I believe is the flowering root of the widespread appeal of cruises: their unapologetic, gleaming banality.

Onboard, all music is easy listening. All food is easy eating. The decor is easy and soft hued in the style of a recently renovated Ramada. The nightly entertainment, too, is easy and bright and mindless. Everything about the weeklong Caribbean cruise is meant to buff life’s unpleasant edges into sea glass. If it sounds like I am making fun, I am not. I love it. I love all of it.

• • •

This is my fifth Caribbean cruise, sometimes with my family, sometimes without. My first was when the rock band Train invited me to be the comedian on their annual fan cruise. Their invitation came via email from my agent with an accompanying message: "You don’t want to do this, do you?"

I thought about it for a moment, and replied, "I think I do."

The other three were similar: performing as part of a themed cruise. I always had a great time, but thought I would never take an off-the-rack cruise like this one, believing them to be too hokey for a cool guy like me to enjoy. I was wrong. As it happens, I had it exactly backward: All the stuff I thought would be hokey, the simple sincerity of the experience, was what I enjoyed the most.

But cruising’s simple sincerity never sat well with Wallace and the generation of cruise writers who followed on his sea legs. Dan Saltzstein, an editor at the New York Times Travel section, wrote in a recent article about taking a Disney cruise with his wife and daughter. "I’ve been a travel editor for nearly a decade," he said, "and yet this was my first cruise." The reason he hadn’t yet participated in America’s most popular vacation choice? "It hadn’t seemed like my bag." Your "bag"? My dude, it’s a Disney cruise, not Burning Man.

Over the years, across countless articles and essays, writers have deployed battalions of irony to mock a tradition immune to mockery. They are using fire to fight applesauce.

• • •

A megaship, by its nature, fosters a kind of cultural detente among the various tribes within its hull. There is no other way to enjoyably commingle in tight quarters with so many people. And when you do that, when you suspend all judgment, when you ease into the easy, a cruise can be the best vacation deal going.

For the cost of a good hotel room (on a per-person, per-night basis), you get a mostly-all-inclusive break from our whirling hyper-culture. It unspools you to the sea. You are still attached to the world, yes, but barely so. The arms-length ironic detachment with which so many of us (okay, me) lead our day-to-day land lives simply doesn’t work when surrounded by a thousand fleshy strangers in swimsuits. Accommodation to imperfections, those of others and ourselves, must be made.

Nothing is cool on the Summit. How could it be? Cool feels phony while self-assembling tacos under the "Mexican Corner" sign at the Oceanview Cafe. Cool requires a certain snootiness, which may be appropriate when weighing whether to watch The Big Bang Theory or Atlanta, but doesn’t do much good when deciding between playing bingo or Baggo (a beanbag-tossing game). Both are equally uncool. In fact, every activity in the ship’s daily circular reads like the itinerary of a well-meaning but dorky youth minister. "11:00am Scrapbooking Session with the Cruise Director Staff"? The 2:15 "Port vs. Starboard Pool Volleyball" match? "Foyer Jams with Chris Hawks" running until 8:45? All decidedly uncool-sounding. But I went to two of these events, foyer jams and volleyball (as a spectator, not a participant), and they were fun. Not supposedly so. Just fun.

• • •

In his essay, Wallace complained about (among other things) feeling infantilized aboard the Nadir, about being "pampered," which he compared to "a certain other consumer product" (actual Pampers, that is). He’s right in his description, but wrong in his conclusion. Yes, the cruise is set up as a deeply maternal experience, a place of nurturing, even coddling. It dispenses care with the gentleness of a mom tending to a kid with a sore throat. Ice cream, for example, is available, in multiple locations. But where Wallace felt infantilized, I feel gratitude. A lot of us need care. Not just the many wobbly older passengers, but the younger ones, too. The harried parents, the cop from North Carolina, the New Jersey couple explaining to some first-timers why they cruise: "You’re forced to do nothin’."

My cruise was filled with couples of every age, race and gender configuration, some with kids, most without. A lot of couples seemed to be cruising with friends. A bunch of triple-generation families were traveling together, and there was one large Filipino family reunion of about 15 or 16: I know because they wore matching (decidedly uncool) teal T-shirts.

Until I met another solo traveler while waiting to clear customs after the cruise, I thought I was the only person on the whole ship traveling alone. Turns out the other solo passenger is an accomplished Washington-based legislative aide and occasional guided history tour operator who gives "talks to drunk guys about John Adams." I asked if she was able to avoid work while onboard. No, she said, with a sigh. Calls still needed returning, emails needed responses. But she preferred to do it from a deck chair, alone.

Wallace was alone, too, which probably enhanced his despair. Cruising is an activity of togetherness. One goes to be with people. You can certainly spend plenty of time alone on a cruise liner, as I did, napping (daily) in my stateroom, or sitting by myself staring out the Rendezvous’ windows toward the horizon in what I hoped was a sexy, forlorn way. But aloneness on a cruise ship is something one has to make efforts to achieve; it is not the natural state.

All week long, people leaned in to each other, touched each other and talked. Most of the conversations I overheard (that is, blatantly eavesdropped on) involved the food: a conversation about the exact viscosity of an egg yolk; an older woman with swollen legs and Velcro-strapped black sneakers emitting actual, full-throated moans of joy to her husband upon sampling her dinner, sound gurgling out of her like bubbles in a mud spring. "Uuaaggghhh! My God, it’s delicious," she said. "This pork loin is delicious. Uuaaggghhhh."

But sometimes the talk turned a bit more introspective. As I ate my morning cereal midway through the cruise, I listened to two women in their 60s seated together, huddled over their breakfast plates, reminiscing about past marriages:

"You didn’t want kids?"

"I did. He didn’t."

"But that was unfair to you."

She shrugged. "I wouldn’t have gotten involved, but I was 35 …"

• • •

Close quarters among guests and crew demand constant interaction, which results in one of the best qualities of a leisure cruise: civility. For a week, I never heard a single argument. I never even heard a raised voice. People treated each other well, and I can’t count the number of times I heard guests asking crew members questions about their lives: their time at sea, their families, their adventures ashore. Everybody seemed to care.

Those who object to cruises often do so for reasons that extend beyond their lack of street cred. The cruise industry gets knocked around for the long hours and often hectic conditions of the people in its employ. I can’t speak to that other than to say I spent some time patrolling message boards for Celebrity employees. Reviews seem about as mixed as you would find at any high-stress place of employment. Honestly, I was expecting worse.

As for the cruise industry’s woeful environmental record, I ignored that for the duration of my cruise because I am a monster, but for the record, Celebrity received an overall grade of D+ from the Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy organization, in 2016. Not good. The green-nosers at Disney got the highest grade, an A-.

All this onboard civility is probably not an accident. Perhaps it is even a low-key necessity. No matter how much you dress up a boat it is still, in the end, a boat, and as we all know, boats are vulnerable vessels. At our mandatory precruise evacuation drill, a chipper fire marshal reminds us that even a megaship is only one misplaced cigarette butt from disaster. As such, each of the five cruises I’ve been on over the years shared a pervasive spirit of cooperation. People are perhaps a little kinder to one another when they know their vacation could end in a cramped lifeboat fighting over pelican scraps.

• • •

If I had one objection to life aboard the Summit it’s the endless upselling. The weeklong cruise cost $1,915.50 (plus airfare to San Juan, Puerto Rico); at every turn, somebody was offering the opportunity to spend more. During each meal, for example, servers would swing by to ask if I wanted to purchase the "beverage package." When I declined, they would tip over my table’s large, prominent drink menu, as if they were knocking over my king after a game of chess.

Also available for purchase: spa treatments, acupuncture, Raymond Weil watches with faces "celebrating the iconic The Beatles," lots and lots of tanzanite jewelry, on-demand movies, dockside photos, studio photographic portraits, all manner of sundries, terrible "art gallery" art, specialty dining options and, oddly, Apple computers.

The worst deal on the ship, though, is the Wi-Fi package, which runs $259 for the week. What kind of sucker spends that kind of money to browse Twitter? Me, apparently.

Did I mention ports of call? I did not. The destinations along the way are not the point. At least, not for me. But if you must know, we stopped in St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Bermuda. I barely got off the boat. I don’t like the beach, and had no desire to Jet Ski or wander tourist stalls, but I did spend a mesmeric half-hour on my balcony in St. Maarten watching cranes stack and unstack shipping containers on the pier. Guilt compelled me to do some shopping in Bermuda for my wife and kids, who were unable to cruise with me due to school or whatever it is they do when I am relaxing at sea.

• • •

Our vacation lives are often a frenetic extension of our work lives. So many of us have come to view our scant downtime as a call to action, an opportunity for challenge and growth instead of a moment of rest. A recent article in Travel + Leisure offered the 50 best options for people looking for "heart-stopping adventure, a close-up look at history, or the perfect meal." All three of those options stress me out. Between my son’s SAT prep and my daughter’s hectic field hockey schedule, I have enough adventure.

And I don’t want the "perfect" meal. I want a cheeseburger. Simple, banal, uncool. Cheeseburgers are delicious. I think a lot of people just want a cheeseburger.

Michael Ian Black is an actor and the author, most recently, of the children’s book "I’m Sad," and the memoir "Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine."

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