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Old August 10th, 2010, 12:19 PM
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Default The most classic essay on cruising ever written

David Foster Wallace - a well-known writer of the 1990s wrote this piece for Harper's Bazaar:
Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise (January 1996)
http://harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf



If you are a cruise enthusiast or especially an aspiring cruise writer. here is how a top-notch essayist covers the topic. The great thing is that this is his fiorst cruise and he had no idea what to expect. His combination of love/hate for the experience sums up what many cruisers go through.



He was commissioned by Harper’s Magazine to take a seven-day Caribbean cruise (for which the magazine paid the fare) and write an essay on the experience. The resulting piece, 24 pages long in tiny type, takes at least an hour to read, but it is worth it.



Entitled, “A supposedly fun thing I will never do again,” the essay describes Wallace’s cruise on the Celebrity Zenith, while the company was still owned by John Chandris, back when most cruise ship staterooms only had portholes and all dining was done in the main dining room at pre-assigned dining times and tables, or buffet.



The article describes in excruciating detail what it is like for a single person to take a cruise alone, especially back in the day when cruisers were generally older and there was no open seating or alternative dining. Wallace experienced solo cruise life with no preconceived notions or practical knowledge on what to expect.



Wallace was a very intelligent and gifted writer, but unfortunately prone to deep depression, he committed suicide in 1998 while in the process of changing medication. Like many depressed but intelligent people he could express his feelings with hilariously self-deprecating humor.



In the beginning Wallace is mesmerized by the ship, and cannot believe how well the experience lives up to the promises of the advertising. This is towards the beginning… Towards the end of the cruise he realizes that is level of expectations has completely shifted. While free, unlimited room service once seemed like a near miracle, by the fifth day he is criticizing the size of the portions and the time it took to be delivered. This change does not go unoticed by the author.



And that is the key - the essay is about how the cruise transforms the author, not just how the cruise itself played out.


This is an essay worth reading for all cruise enthusiasts. The one thing about it is that David Foster Wallace did not seem to realize he was feeling deep loneliness because he was on a cruise alone. This is was a person prone to depression and even suicide. He describes perfectly how he eventually became isolated on the ship and by the end of day five he no longer even wanted to leave his cabin.
But there are sone hilarious parts in the piece as well. Like when he describes his stab at trap shooting.
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Old August 10th, 2010, 03:19 PM
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I remember reading this before my first cruise in 2000. I laughed and took in what he had written but after a few pages his depressive attitude kicked and I started reading with a more critical eye.

The more I read I believed that he was a depressed or a somewhat misanthropic personality that truly liked no one. Not even himself. He was temporarily infatuated or entertained by people but did not really take any initiative to understand them or his own feelings toward them or himself.

I remembered his references and compared them to my first cruise. I still laugh when he or many other people are as disturbed by the loud flushing of the toilet and the fear that their entrails will be sucked out if, by chance, they should flush while still sitting.

It's a good read but one that, while trying to be deep and insightful, comes off as petty and superficial. When you finish you feel like you've just spent an hour listening in on someone's therapy session.

Take care,
Mike
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Old August 10th, 2010, 07:34 PM
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Mike...

Have you ever taken a cruise alone? I really think this is the crux of this entire essay. He was a depressed personality and he was on this cruise alone. He did commit suicide in 1998.

I have mentioned my first cruise alone many times, and I have to say I find MANY similarities. I completely understand the frustration of your contact with other people being limited to organized cruise staff activities - and dinner. And I also understand the idea of what seems to be great fun at first turning into something like a personal jail sentence as the end of the cruise nears. It is like a long car ride - no matter how beautiful the terrain, you just can't wait for it to end.

I especially like the way he is amazed at the high levels of food and service, his crush on his Ukranian room stewardess, and his praise for the quality of the food and especially free room service. And how by day five he is thinking critical thoughts about the way she made the bed, or how room service is late or they didnt leave enough potato chips.

The point is changing expectations as one gets used to the cruise (which we all do, it is normal) but in him it is magnified by his isolation and time to think about what he is experiencing internally.

It explains why I recommend that depressed people should not cruise. The isolation will get to you. And why I always say cruising is a couple's experience or for people who are comfortable spending time alone.

I agree with the way he sees the fake smiles of certain staff people (believe me, it is true for many of them, but not all), and how he comes to believe certain people he meets onboard are shallow or just have quirks that he doesn't like, and the frustration of being stuck at the same table with them night after night (I certainly lived that one on my cruise). Fortunately, that is no longer a common thing on cruises.

My point is that he sums up the fallacy that cruise ships are places for single people to go and meet new friends. Except for Norwegian Epic, I don't think they are. They can be very isolating and he sums up why.

Anyway - if you are a cruise writer, as I find I am, it is a great essay to summarize the experience in ways average people can understand, to help me remember what it was like to be a novice cruiser again.
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Old August 10th, 2010, 07:46 PM
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You make some good points, Paul.

Based on my own solo travels, I believe it takes a certain amount of mental fitness to enjoy the journey. It helps if one doesn't get bored or lonely easily. A cruise could be a difficult thing to manage otherwise.
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Old August 10th, 2010, 08:10 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul Motter View Post

My point is that he sums up the fallacy that cruise ships are places for single people to go and meet new friends. Except for Norwegian Epic, I don't think they are. They can be very isolating and he sums up why.
I don't think it's a fallacy at all. It's purely up to the individual.
Most of my best friends I met aboard ship, many of them single and travelling solo as was I, some of them couples. If your personality is isolationist and loner, sure, don't do it. If you go wanting to make friends, you will. If you don't want to or don't like to, you won't.
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Old August 10th, 2010, 09:38 PM
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I've done three solo cruises in the past 2 years and I agree with what has been said. The isolation is hard to manage. I am lucky in that I spent many years in military service as well as working graveyard shifts in industry for many years. That experience has forever steeled my psyche when it comes to being alone. However those years where I endured long periods of solitude have also affected my comfort level in social situations and I sometimes struggle to appear polite or interested in what others might be saying to me. It isn't that I am rude, it's simply a comfort issue. I can say that having my wife and son with me on a cruise changes my persona immensely, and I will normally be gregarious when with them.

I can handle the solo cruise, but it nevertheless is still a mental strain where one looks forward to the talkative bartender or the chatty passenger seated next to you at the bar. In other words, a lot of solo cruising involves the bar scene and that can lead to problems too.

If I'm cruising solo for the purpose of being a journalist it isn't bad because I have my reporting to focus on. Thus I am a travel writer and not a passenger. It helps to look at it that way, at least for me.
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Old August 10th, 2010, 09:39 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Paul Motter View Post
Mike...

Have you ever taken a cruise alone? I really think this is the crux of this entire essay. He was a depressed personality and he was on this cruise alone. He did commit suicide in 1998.
Paul,

Yes: Last May I took a semi-solo cruise on the Century. I did have friend who was on the cruise but was so sick I saw him about three days out of seven.

It was a different experience cruising without my wife but it was far from depressing. I did see the dynamic and issues that a solo male faces. I could tell that people who would have immediately accepted me if my wife was with automatically became a bit "wary" when they found out I was alone. A few people thought it was very "strange" that I was cruising without my wife.

I can see that if you are depressed and are forced into this type of isolation it would greatly change your perspective and make you gradually more and more depressed. Yes: I understand how you can feel very alone and isolated on a cruise ship.

It was a very good essay and it was interesting to read again.

BTW: I think there is an old thread somewhere in the bowels of the database about this article. I remember discussing it ten years ago. I tried to search for it but no luck.

Take care,
Mike
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Old August 11th, 2010, 11:09 AM
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One funny thing is that he mentions the Fielding's Cruise Guides of 1993 - which were written by Anne Campbell
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