Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hell is other people on my cruise ship.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play once called "No Exit". In it, he included the iconic line, "Hell is other people."

He apparently spent much of his life on large cruise ships, cruising.

When you first get on a cruise ship, what you notice in all directions is that it must be very much like heaven.

Food just appears, food from all nations, endless food, food whenever you want it. Appetizers, entrees, salads, desserts oh my stars the desserts. You can get your food at the buffet line, one on each side of our ship (one side has, among many many other things, Eggs Benedict of all possible variations for breakfast; the other side has, among many many other things, Belgian waffles in even richer variety), you can dine finely in the formal dining room, you can pay extra and dine even finer in smaller, intimate restaurants, you can get pizza or a burger and fries by the pool, you can have any variation of the offerings, mixing and matching, you can have Asian or Italian or Asian and Italian, and the Asian varies from day to day as the menu roams around, well, Asia - Korea, Japan, Thailand, China. There is lobster thermidor and chocolate mousse and Gruyere cheese bites and endless scoops of ice cream with toppings galore, and it's all or mostly free free free as long as you have paid for the cruise, as of course you have. At the fancy schmancy sit-down 4-course formal dinner, you can have four courses or five or eight or sixteen. You can have all the appetizers and all the soups and salads and all the entrees, if you've a mind to, and then you can finish with all the desserts. You can have prime rib and sushi and lamb shanks and New York strip steak and you can have hamburgers and fries and pizza and Mexican food all day long and tubs of guacamole and fresh pineapple and fresh squeezed orange juice and duck and jumbo prawns and crab cakes, and then you can have it all again.

And when you are finished, or just when you are finished with the present plate of food, you just leave it and it will be ferried off by a cheerful endlessly cheerful member of the waitstaff who will be from Indonesia or Malaysia or the Philippines, and then you can start all over again. You just abandon your dirty dishes and leftovers, and they vanish. You don't have to clean up, wash up, pick up. You don't even have to notice. After awhile, you don't.

It is the same with everything. You're room is magically cleaned every day, and as magically prepared for slumber every evening, with chocolate on the pillows and clever critters made from towels of sea or jungle life - lobsters and crabs and monkeys and penguins, the whole biosphere represented in a towel or two with happy little paper eyes stuck on to complete the anthropomorphism that will make you smile and calm you enough to sleep. 

Your wet towels and washrags can be dropped to the floor, from which they will be plucked and cleaned and replaced by smiling Indonesians and Malaysians and Philippinos.  Your clothing will evaporate in the morning and reconstitute in the evening, clean and folded. Any bits of dropped food, vacuumed up. Any bits of dropped paper, swept up. The ship is clean, always clean, always being cleaned and polished and painted and rubbed and varnished so that it is always perfect. It even has stabilizers to reduce the rocking and rolling back and forth in the ocean, lest we become sea-sick, so that we are insulated from even the near reality that surrounds. us.

There is nothing for you to do but eat it, wear it, and toss it away. The world around you exists to eliminate labor of any type from your life. You are the center of the universe, and it is unfailingly happy to clean up your mess and keep you well fed, well entertained, well rested. There are shows to see (free!) and lectures to attend (free!) and bingo and trivia contests and a library full of best sellers and comfortable nooks and crannies to sit in and the latest movies to watch and there's not a damn thing that you ever ever ever have to do but get up, do it all, go to bed, rinse and repeat.

You are the center of the universe. It's all for you and you alone.


Not quite.

There are…

…other people.

And they get in the damn way.

And as time goes on and the cruise continues and you become more and more accustomed to the idea that it really is all for you, there are these … others … who increasingly get in the way.

At the buffet line. Oh sweet lordy, they get in the way. They dare to act as though they think they are the center of the universe. While you are getting Italian, they dare to cut around you in line for the Asian, as though they did not know that you wanted both Italian and Asian. They dare to reserve a lounge chair by the pool for some sad and pointless spouse when you are in dire and immediate need of that lounge chair. They swim in your pool. They sit in your hot tub. They crowd into your elevators and mob onto your staircases. They clearly have checked out the books you wanted to read. They reserve and take away your spot on the tour to the ruins of whatever that you have on your Bucket List to see, and you are old and cranky and time is short and THIS MIGHT BE YOUR LAST CHANCE.

So as time goes on and the cruise continues, some on the cruise get crankier and crankier about everyone else on the cruise, and what starts out as heaven begins to feel like hell, because hell is other people, and there is no way off the cruise because you paid for the damn thing and there is no exit.

If I were in charge of heaven and hell, that's the way I'd do it.

So we're on a cruise. There is a fragile happiness with an entitled anger that lurks like Smaug just beneath the surface of many faces. Nobody smiles except for the crew, whose smiles amazingly persist and seem genuine, despite the constant threat that Smaug will leave his lair and strike at any moment. The passengers stalk about, their entitlement ready to strike. It's my cruise. I paid for it. Get out of my way or I'll hurt you.

Sitting next to a lovely couple of older ladies at a meal, a table for six, two empty seats between us and them which they are saving for their husbands. Another couple sees the empty seats, asks if they can sit there. One of the older ladies strikes like a cobra, snarling at them that the seats are taken, sneering, after they slunk away, bloodied, that "They must be Germans. The Germans are all like that." It was an unnecessary anger that exploded instantly, instinctively, predetorally.

Sitting next to the pool (which is heated to body temperature, a pool-sized bathtub, so that we will not suffer any discomfort getting in the water), a woman tells us that we just missed a fight that nearly became physical between two older people (nearly everyone is older, retired, white), a woman and startlingly enough, a man. He asked her if she was saving the lounge chair, she said yes, and he viciously attacked her verbally. She responded in kind. It escalated in tone and volume to involve the entire pool area. He finally just threw her stuff out of the chair and took it for his own. 

I'm guest-lecturing on this cruise. After the first of 8 or 9 sessions, a number of people crowded around to ask questions. An Indian man made a move to ask a question, and a very old man on a walker lashed out at him - he had jumped ahead in some imaginary queue in some imaginary way that offended walker guy.

There is no happiness here in heaven. There is, above all else, entitlement. I'm entitled to all of the good things that cruising life has to offer because I have paid for them, and God help anyone who gets in the way. There is no grace, no mercy, no forgiveness. Heaven is the place where nobody gets in my way. Hell might be the place where people get in my way.

Most intriguingly, on a cruise, you never ever run into anyone who has needs. There are no hungry, poor, or homeless people. There are no unemployed people. No beggars.

So you never ever have to think about giving up a tiny bit of your own comfort to help someone else. Never ever.


When you happen to take a "shore excursion", you will run into hungry, poor, homeless, unemployed beggars and street people trying to sell little trinkets. You might even buy a little trinket - you'll bargain for it, of course, and talk later about the great deal you got.

But all of those poor natives are just part of the tour. Local color. They make for great photos. Exotic backgrounds to pics of you and the spousal person.

It's always good to get back on the boat. Excursions make me hungry.

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