Last week I watched the Super Bowl on a cruise ship. Given that I observed at least one passenger on the boat listening to Kid Rock's "Amen" on an iPod during the relevant fourish hours in question, and also given that the ship's aft "Lido" deck buffet does in fact serve apple pie, this is hands down the most American thing I have ever done.
I have yet to encounter a single American crew member.
In what can only be described as a Shyamalanian flash of revelation, I realized earlier this morning that this disconnect did not bother me.
By this point (c. February 2011) there is a certain canon of American cruise ship literature with which one needs to be familiar if one is attempting to write something meaningful about the experience of several hundred adults being coddled like toddlers for a week and calling it 'vacation'. All of it seems to acknowledge the following tenets:
a) The operative variable of cruise-shipping, the glue that ties it all together, the thing that makes it work, is the omnipresent and vaguely surreal feeling of total need fulfillment. I use the word 'need' and not 'want' because it's the conflation of the two that renders the whole experience so effective. In a manner not dissimilar to a certain variety of carnival ride--Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" or Universal Studios' "Jurassic Park" are great examples of this--the 'audience' is carted from sensation to sensation inside an alternate, but plausible, reality;
b) It is totally normal for the average self-aware passenger to feel kind of weird about that, and
c) They either are or are not correct in their feeling of that weirdness.
I have no idea, ultimately, whether this pervasive pampering is relievingly refreshing or solipsisticly despair-inducing. People have argued it both ways. But I am going to present to you a test that helps answer this question in a manner that is at least coherent.
There's a famous scenario involving Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, and a Lexus automobile that I was first exposed to in Chuck Klosterman's essay "Oh, the Guilt" and am shamelessly reiterating now. Basically, after the success of Nevermind, Cobain flipped out over Love's having bought a Lexus to replace the crappy ancient Volvo the couple had started driving around back when the band's anti-corporate anti-success punk ethos was actually still believable. The idea was that even though he had the money to buy a Lexus--and, if he wanted, to coat that Lexus in liquid platinum and imbue it with the perfumated essence of a hundred distilled unicorn rainbow-farts--he didn't want to be the kind of person who bought a Lexus. So he made her take it back.
This seems sort of cool and humble and legit until you think about it. Because what's more ridiculous: having enough wealth to embrace un-ironic and self-indulgent luxury, or having the exact same amount of wealth and pretending like you don't, anyway? As Klosterman points out, it's not like anybody who pulled up next to Kurt Cobain at a red light wouldn't immediately realize that Cobain had no reason to be driving that obscene Volvo except to look like the kind of person who cares that you'd recognize he's driving that obscene Volvo. Which now makes him look like an asshole. Especially when you think about the fact that Lexus is a thriving luxury automobile brand because real people, when they can afford to buy Lexuses, actually go out and buy Lexuses.
As a journalist friend tells Klosterman in the essay, "A rich person who self-identifies as being poor is certainly more hypocritical than a rich person whose wife drives a Lexus."
This brings me to 'the test':
"Given the possibility of excess X, if the act of not indulging in that excess is more ridiculous than the act of indulging in that excess, then there is no absurdity or guilt in the indulgence of that excess."
Getting back to the boat, then. I am ostensibly on the ship in a professional capacity: I am supposed to participate in a panel discussion on the art of game design to a group of paying customers, which at least in theory might lend me a certain degree of objectivity that your average un-ironic consumer of 'cruise culture' might not possess. But I am also on the ship to sip umbrellaed tropical drinks, lounge in hot-tubs, embark upon pre-fab 'outings' to destinations whose entire economies revolve around the massive floating castles nestled in their ports--and, yes, watch the Super Bowl. I therefore highly doubt that any such 'objectivity' actually exists. And there is a certain amount of colonial weirdness in the act of being served drinks by a perfectly efficient squadron of Filipinos, Thais, and Indonesians as we all sit in front of a projector screen enraptured by the one sport in the world each member of the staff could probably care the least about.
I am reminded, though, of a moment I spent in Kuching, Sarawak, with my friend Christine, a lecturer at Swinburne University. We are walking along the pier when I notice that the river in front of us is spotted by clouds of ferry-boats, each helmed by a single guy in a massive reed hat. The image, to my ignorant mind, is straight off a postcard or some sort of ancient Borneo woodcarving -- except the roof of each boat glows a radiant yellow, because every single one of those ferries sports (upon further examination) a giant advertisement for DiGi cellular service. The incongruity is stunning, and so I make some remark about how tragic is that omnipresent advertising has permeated even this idyllic image.
"What are you talking about?" she says.
Christine then informs me that, a couple of years ago, countless numbers of these ferries couldn't stay in business--that, due to a number of factors, generations of boatmen suddenly found themselves without work. This was a massive problem because it wasn't as though new jobs were sprouting up by magic to accommodate their particular skillset. Advertising, she tells me, kept almost every one of these men in business.
"Oh," I said.
What is more ridiculous: enjoying the ability to sit back and watch your favorite sport as you sip delicious drinks, eat delicious food, and watch at least one of the Cheesehead guys in your group pound his chest and announce, "Green Bay Special Teams, Baby!" after another 'inspiring' thirty-something-yard punt -- or pretending that you don't enjoy it?
One of the servers on the boat is a guy named Taufik. He is kind of awesome. I met him early yesterday because he was kind enough to indulge the kindergarten-level Bahasa Indonesia I was trying to practice with the staff given how much my linguistic faculties have atrophied in the year and a half since I last lived in Asia. Sometime during the second half he stopped by for a second to ask me if I liked the drink he had concocted for me earlier.
"It's delicious," I clumsily retorted in Bahasa, smiling.
"Good," he said, and turned around to go--except one of the guys I was sitting with had left his drink lying beneath his seat, and the glass had fallen over, and it spilled a little, and the seepage from the spill crept amoeba-like along the pontoons of the sun-chair and coated the deck's surface in a creepy Kool-Aid-looking goo. Taufik went to wipe the stain up and retrieve the glass.
"Does it anger you when people...don't clean?" I tried. My construction was probably off. And I realize there is absolutely no reason for him to have answered me honestly, no genuine rapport that could have been formed between a plainly-ignorant American and a staff-member who was paid to serve him. I realize the inherent inequality in both the relationship and the nature of our interaction. I realize further the evident hypocrisy in the retelling of this story at all, the anecdotal tone-change and the implicit assumption that something revealing has therefore emerged from it. That is all good and nice, and I get it. But I also remember what he said, and I heard what he said, and I am going to say what I heard him say.
"It pays me," he said.