Personal Journeys: Cruises Are So Uncool They Are Cool

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A megaship, by its nature, fosters a kind of cultural détente 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. It’s a kind of magical-thinking aquamarine summer suburbia, a dreamy distillation of middle-class Americana, minus the drudgery of lawn mowing and dish washing. It is the pleasure of the familiar with just enough variety to feel, in the vaguest possible sense, adventurous.

The arms-length ironic detachment with which so many of us (O.K., 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. Out there in the balmy breezes, where the average age is far north of Madison Avenue’s desirable demographics, coolness falls away, as unnecessary and cumbersome as a poolside leather jacket.

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. Also on board was a group of veterans of Vietnam and other foreign wars, and it was touching to watch these older guys sitting beside comrades in arms, baseball caps naming their service branches and their wars.

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