Monday, July 21, 2008

The Narcotic Effect of Cruising on an Unlikely Deluxe Verandah Suite Passenger

For the first few hours out of Seattle, the ship barely moved. I thought, “oh, this will be cake.” I dutifully popped capsules of powdered ginger (per Susan and the internet’s advice) and kept my belly at least slightly full (per my own experience with motion sickness) and let my attention be swept into noticing the many hilarious, kitschy, beautiful, and incongruous aspects of Holland America’s Westerdam ship.

For instance: there is an inordinate amount of gold-tone chrome on this ship. The lighting sconces all remind me various decorative trends—deco, southwest, retro-modern—but none of them “blends in.” The carpets are bright! Orange and pink! Blue and purple! And they often do not “match” the drapery. It’s as if the team responsible for setting ambiance on the ship has had to replace parts of the décor piecemeal, without remembering what was already in that room... my first impression was that I’d entered Las Vegas, 1968. I love this, actually. It appeals to my aesthetic, which is more about collage than about consistency. It does, however, call into questions certain notions I had about what luxury looks like. No earth tones here. Everything is fascinatingly odd, un-thematic, and occasionally truly tacky. It’s wonderful!

Susan had warned me about something she called “The Narcotic Effect” and I had no idea how that might manifest for me. Her description of herself last year, swaddled in blankets on a deck chair, staring out at the ocean for hours, didn’t jive with the spritely walk we took on the Promenade deck after dinner on the first day. However, I woke up this morning feeling decidedly sluggish. More ginger! Breakfast! A quick jaunt on the treadmill in the overcrowded fitness center, steadying myself with the handrails for the first time ever! I stared at the water and pretended that the force of my running was keeping us moving forward. I started feeling woozy back in the stateroom, and sat down in the shower.

Let’s recall, if we must, that my intention for this cruise, and certainly for our first full day at sea, was to write for many hours. I understood that we would have times of great sightseeing, especially once there were whales around, but while Susan is in her workshop, I am free to sink into my novel, and after a month away from it at camp, nothing felt more pressing. It is now nearly 4pm. I spent the day, with small breaks for snacks, lying down. I watched the water. I slept. I kept the weight of blankets over me and tried to surrender to the movement of the ship. I’m not nauseated, but I feel drugged. The answer came shortly after my shower: I will have to do less, and do it slowly, until I am acclimated.

At first I was disappointed, since I expected, I suppose, not to be affected by the fact that I’m not on land. But the benefit of feeling so fragile and susceptible is that I’m in that state of Receiving during which I am able to notice many details, which I will hope to use either on this blog or in other writing. Some of these are the details of the surroundings—how many crannies our room has, the constant white-noise of our ceiling vent, which teas make my limbs less heavy (black teas, unsurprisingly), conversations between other passengers in the special Neptune Lounge (where people in fancy suites get to go for free snacks all the time).

I’m noticing my discomfort with the crassly obvious class distinctions on the ship. On one of my few trips out of the stateroom today Susan and ventured in “Smart Casual” outfits to the Pinnacle Grill for a complimentary luncheon, because we are in a suite. We’ve received many glasses of free champagne. We have a balcony on which six people could sit and look out at the sea. Of course I’m enjoying it! And the socialist in me cringes when flyers for special classes on how to buy diamonds or fine art show up in our little gold mailbox. But like I said to Susan today, from my pile of pillows, I expect that in my career as a writer I will experience many situations to which I will carry complex responses: in this case, I have a good deal of both delight and judgment. Thankfully, I’m not experiencing any guilt. I feel gratitude and a responsibility to be deeply affected and attentive. So, I ate the caviar at the luncheon. I ate it with bits of yolk, onion, egg white, and parsley, exactly as I was instructed. It was salty. I’d eat $100 worth of good sushi before I’d eat $100 caviar, but it’s very satisfying to know this about myself.

We signed up for a zipline excursion in Juneau, which terrifies me. We will be careening through the air above the rain forest canopy on TEN lines and crossing two suspension bridges. I’m excited because it’s a brand new phase of my life, to truly, on principle, and deep within my gut, care more about discovery than fear.

Tomorrow we will float through Glacier Bay. It feels silly to try and describe some of the awe I’m already experiencing with how expansive the ocean is, how dark and black the water. I can’t even imagine the ice of the glaciers. I’m looking forward to having my mind blown, for the eightieth time this summer. I’m looking forward to being able to walk and talk for more than fifteen minutes before I feel compelled to lie down again. Or maybe this soporific lifestyle is the reason people like cruises? It’s deceptive then, how many activities are scheduled during the day. As someone who never got tired in three weeks of walking all day through Italy and France, who directed a summer camp for a month with a walkie-talkie strapped perpetually to my shoulder, I’m determined to caffinate my way out of this haze and re-enter the world of ecstatic action, once we’re in a port, and once I’m certain coffee won’t make me puke. For now I’m at a 45-degree angle in the ship’s library, watching craggy cliffs five-miles off slide effortlessly by. I think I’ll stop by the Neptune Lounge for more tea and take a rest on our verandah before dinner. Then I’ll ponder the implications of that opportunity some more.

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