Smile Politely

Meta-Cruising With David Foster Wallace

In January I took a solo cruise and took lots of notes, an adventure I found out later that I shared with the late David Foster Wallace.  Here is the first installment of my three-part series on the experience.


“So how was your cruise?”

I knew the question was coming.  I spent the entire trip home, as I hopped from ship to bus to airport to airplane, trying to come up with a good answer for it.  I couldn’t in good conscience give the pat “It was fun!” answer, in part because I refused to succumb to Carnival’s constant propaganda to put the word FUN! on my brain.  More importantly, there was simply no one word to describe the experience. It was a collection of conflicting adjectives: warm, cold, calm, windy, huge, tiny, lonely, crowded, cheesy, grand, gluttonous, eventful, drunken, sobering, relaxing, exhausting, boring, and, yes: fun.    

Because I traveled alone and didn’t have anyone to tell my witty and insightful observations to,  I took what I thought were copious notes on my five-day Western Caribbean cruise in January.  I filled up 30 sheets of my Applebutter Inn notepad (a souvenir from an earlier vacation to Vermont.)

Once I got back and told people about my notepad bursting with insights, three people pointed me to David Foster Wallace’s essay about his own cruise experience, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”  For that essay, which is 97 pages long, Wallace filled up almost three entire Mead notebooks with his observations.

Okay, so I’m no David Foster Wallace.  He was a tortured genius, and I’m just an uncomfortable creative type.    

I’m not as profound or eloquent or loquacious as David Foster Wallace.  For example, all the death and despair themes from his essay?  I didn’t pick up on that.  But Wallace and I were both curmudgeonly curious Midwestern outsiders who traveled solo and viewed the whole thing with a critical eye.  We shared a liberal guilt over the decadence and class distinctions of the experience. 

I’ve enjoyed comparing and contrasting our two experiences.  And just like the food and the parties and the blue seas and the weather and the rocking boat and the tourism and the Mayan ruins, DFW’s essay has now become part of my own cruise experience.     


Perhaps the biggest difference between my cruise and DFW’s was the purpose.  I took this solo tropical vacation because I had three weeks off over the winter holidays (I work in academia and don’t work when classes are out of session), I was newly single, and I needed a distraction from the soul-sucking Midwestern winter.

I was, however, ambivalent about it.  The week before I had met with an adviser about getting involved in socially responsible investing.  I didn’t quite have enough of a nest egg to start investing, so what do I do instead?  I take a socially irresponsible vacation aboard a floating luxury hotel designed for decadent pleasure.  Some liberal I am.   

DFW, on the other hand, took a cruise because a magazine paid him to. 

When Wallace overhears other cruisers in the waiting area talk about why they’re going on a cruise, no one says they’re going on a cruise just to go on one.  “Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure.”  He says this is evidence of the “subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence.”

I guess I’m not that different from other people after all.


I boarded the ship, the Carnival Triumph, around noon on a Monday.  The first mistake I made was not to have surrendered my luggage at the Ellis Island-like check-in process.  Once on the boat, we were not able to enter our cabins for a few hours, so I had to carry my heavy bags around everywhere. 

David Foster Wallace did not have to deal with this problem, as his bags were taken from him at the airport as he boarded the cruise line bus.  “A… crowd-control lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List.”  It’s a great image, but here again I have to defer to DFW’s tortured genius, as I did not think of the Holocaust once during my own cruise. 

We had a great view of the New Orleans skyline as we departed.  The mighty Mississippi awaited, with storms in the distance.

One of the first things I tried to do once we set sail (Can I say “set sail” if there are no sails?) was to stand in front of the ship and get a “I’m King of the World!” picture.  (An homage to both Titanic and The Office.)  But it turns out there are no places for the unwashed masses to stand in the front of the boat.  The best I could do was stand off the frontish side and get a “I’m Going To Tell This Story!” picture.

One afternoon I was bored so I rode the glass elevator in the atrium from the second floor up to the 11th floor. It’s difficult to reconcile those words: glass elevator, atrium, 11th floor, with the fact that I was on a boat.  The thing was huge. A floating hotel.  I wondered how it compared to an aircraft carrier, oil tanker, or battleship. It’s an incredible feat of nautical engineering, the culmination of thousands of years of seafaring, war, fishing, and exploration-all for the sole purpose of pleasure. Or more accurately, making money.

It’s a strange feeling to be floating in the middle of nowhere, with no land in site.  Especially on a ship of this size and with so many people.  It’s like a small city disconnected from the world.  A strange mix of crowded isolation. 

Sitting at the back of the boat watching the water churn behind us was very calming.   

Some people got nauseous or seasick, but I enjoyed the rocking of the boat. The last two days of the cruise the boat was very rocky.  It was like being on a low-impact roller coaster all the time.  The water in the pool sloshed from side to side.  When I visited the dance club late that night, I reflected how I’d never been in a disco that was swaying before.

The weather in New Orleans was not very tropical, so when I woke up Tuesday morning and came up on deck, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the warm Gulf weather.  This is what I wrote on my notes: “Sun!! Warmth!!! Hot girls in bikinis!  This is why I’m here.”

Before I left on my cruise, the standard refrain I got from everyone was, “Don’t forget your sunscreen!”  I heard it as often as a performer hears “Break a leg!”  This advice seeped into my brain to such an extent that I bought four different tubes of sunscreen.  The downside of all of this skin care paranoia was that, although the weather was sunny and beautiful for much of my cruise, I was so vigilant about skin care that I hardly gained any color at all.  DFW had a similar experience, although he was one of those nerds who slathered that white zinc oxide stuff on his nose.   

Under the hot sun, I contemplated life boats.  Each ship had dozens of them hanging along the side like a row of beads.  But these were not little dingy rowboats.  They were highly sophisticated machines with motors and a steerage cab.  In thinking about all the resources that are used up during a cruise, it’s amazing to think of all the engineering, manufacturing, and materials used to create an army of objects that, in all likelihood, would never even be used.  

Read Pt. 2 here.


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