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Happy New Year and Merry Christmas and all that. I had a Christmas and a New Year, too. Out here on the ship I live on.

They both made some degree of sense, which was a nice change of pace for me.

Christmas was semisensical due to the arrival of my family. They were aboard for the Christmas cruise. It was a very nice thing for them to do. First of all, it was expensive. Second, we don’t like cruise ships much. Sort of a byproduct of our core family values type of thing.

My mother had been aboard for my previous cruise ship contract, so she knew more or less what to expect, and she found the cruise environment to be pretty much more of the same, although she was pleasantly surprised by the bizarre phenomenon of muted Christmas commercialism on the ship. She’s right.

You wouldn’t expect Christmas to be slightly more tasteful on a cruise ship than it is in your average American town, but it is. It’s not actually more tasteful, of course, but it seems that way because on a ship Christmas commercialism takes a backseat to just regular old fashioned secular commercialism. Sort of like how a non-Christmas shopping mall is kind of less offensive than a jam-packed Christmastime shopping mall. At least if you care about Christmas in that traditional, personal, Bing Crosby by the fire with the family kind of a way. But then once you think of it, a shopping mall is always pretty depressing.

There are reasons for the suppression of crass Christmas-related exploitation on the high seas. From what I can tell on my side of things, success in management of a cruise ship is wholly gauged by how many complaints you get. The fewer the complaints the better. This is actually how they do things within the company, and it’s a reflection of how travel agents do things in their businesses. Basically, if you send somebody out on a trip that costs them a couple of thousand dollars and they don’t enjoy themselves, you’re going to have a hard time selling them on another trip. Ever. And travel agents need repeat customers. So the cruise ships have their reasons.

Two patterns emerge.

One, people get wise to this after going on a couple of cruises and realize that they can get anything they want if they just complain loudly enough. At a certain point, they’re going to back a poor Brazilian front desk attendant into saying those magical pro-bitchy-consumer words “What can I do to ensure you’re satisfaction.” Then you’ve got them by the nuts. All you have to do is elevate your stress response to running-from-a-tiger-in-the-Serengeti levels over minor inconveniences, and the world, and all the shitty free wine in it, is your oyster. You also have to be completely uncaring about the mental health of a poor Brazilian who’s had the misfortune to land herself in a service position on a cruise ship in order to help finance her father’s kidney operation. She will cry herself to sleep later.

So you’ve got a large group of people on board the ship who’ve earned a sense of entitlement in the most American of ways, through street smarts. And why shouldn’t they? They work damn hard as a paralegal back home and nobody ever pays them any attention, except for the odd mailroom guy who they’re pretty sure wants to have sex with them (a possibility they consider in their most secret fantasies without regard to the fact that they’d probably treat the mailroom guy like dirt if he didn’t flirt with them every once in a while).

I’m not saying all cruise ship passengers are chronic, serial complainers. Just the ones who are “good at it.”

The other pattern that emerges is that the culture on a cruise ship is a sort of self-preservation inspired mediocrity in all things. Whenever something crosses over the abstract line where a complaint is possible, it’s nixed forever. This includes things like spicy entrees on the menu and rap music in the dance club and Christmas music and decorations blossoming forth from every corner of available surface area. The loud carpet designs are there, gloriously hiding wine stains in all their cost-effective grandeur, and the “grand” atrium is decorated to within an inch of its life in order to convey cost-effective majesty, and the beautiful hustling cost-effective commission-based spa workers are luxuriantly extolling the virtues of unnecessary cellulite-reducing aromatherapies, and the apparentness of a hidden oasis available for only a few dollars more is never in question.

What is in question is whether or not Christmas music will or will not offend a Long Island Jew who may or may not be clued into the whole complaints=amenities trick. Best not to risk it. Let’s just put up a few tastefully ignorable wreaths in early December and maybe have a Christmas Mass presided over by an aging priest on sinecure assignment and a Christmas Eve sing-along and have Santa arrive via jetski on the private island so the Christians won’t complain either. That ought to level things off. Then on December 26th everything will be pretty much back to “normal,” and we can go back to squeezing money out of these suckers without the thorny issue of religion intruding.

And in a way, this was a nice change of pace for my Mother. She’s got delicate aesthetic sensibilities about things like Christmas exploitation and motorized noises and postmodern architecture. In the absence of taste, she prefers ignorable tastelessness.

So that’s an element of the family disaffection for cruise ships. They’re not ignorable. Not when you’re on one. They have their moments, but it’s hard to approve of how often those moments are interrupted by bingo announcements.

My father had a gripe about The Laziness that I hadn’t quite considered.

I know about The Laziness. The Laziness is what happens when you spend four months in a situation where your every need is attended to whether you’d like it to be or not. It’s what happens when everything you see and hear and experience is screaming, “Relax, you’re on vacation!” And not abstractly. There are actual signs that say stuff like that. What happens is eventually you just shut down and find yourself completely incapable of completing a task. You can fight it all you want to, but The Laziness is going to get you sooner or later if you spend enough time on a cruise ship. You’ll find yourself thinking of mild chores like shaving or showering as if they were insurmountable obstacles between yourself and the sweet release of sleep you hope to somehow earn that night.

If these sound like symptoms of depression, you’re not wrong. There is just so much lolling about in luxury (and boredom counts as the Great American Luxury) a person can do before their Seratonin levels drop to “just above vegetative.”

Anyway, my Father, ever the inquiring scientific mind, came about The Laziness from a sociological perspective. He says it’s not good for us. Not “it’s not good for you,” rather “it’s not good for us.” As a species. The collective us. He says that the whole idea of striving for the greatest luxury available, of working solely for the attainment of ease, is destroying mankind.

It’s hard to disagree when you see the buffet lines. These people look and act like cows. Like beings who were once wild humans but have now, through generations of training, become domesticated and dependant on their captors, and if you set them free in the wild with no credit rating they’d wander aimlessly back to their insurance company job for a paycheck.

Maybe that’s a little far to go, but I swear it’s not that far. A cruise ship is where out of whack priority systems go to be feted. Where else could it be considered quietly suspicious if you have a strong unspoken aversion to the busboy unfolding a napkin into your lap for you? Uncouth, even. Fuck that. It’s my napkin. It’s seven inches from my lap. I can take it from here. Sorry if that flies in the face of your social ambitions.

And yes, after four months on this ship, I’m still unfolding my own napkin. The Laziness won’t control me completely as long as I’m unfolding my own napkin. But I’ll be damned if I’m shaving today.

My brothers were maybe a little less insightful, but more direct with their opinions. They said, “After reading your blog, I was like ‘dude, it’s a cruise, get over it,’ but now I totally get it.”

So you guys will just have to trust my brothers on this one. They don’t say stuff like that unless they mean it. Usually we just get drunk and call each other gay and then homoerotically try to whack each other in the balls. We’re boys. It’s what we do. But, you know, if the level of discourse gets more elevated than drunken schoolyard taunting and ballwhacking (kind of a paradox as far as I’m concerned), it’s usually to convey some direct message. We’re just not a cagey, repressed type of family.

And of course having a bunch of yahoos who are more or less like me on board was a godsend. Even if it was just for a week. Basically my family came on the ship, looked around, and said, “yup, you’re sane, all this is weird to me too.” What a relief. The ship is like a bad relationship with a crazy person. You’re embarrassed to invite your friends to hang out with the two of you because you know all the compromises you’ve made in order to continue to have hot sex with this crazy person will be glaringly obvious in contrast to the ease of interacting with your buddies. And you know you’ll have to face facts and end things and you’re not quite ready for that, but in the end it’s better to drag these things out into the light. So my family did that, and it was good, because I was really talking myself into this whole “ship” thing.

Not really, but, you know, metaphorically. I was saying, “this is somewhat acceptable on a good day.”

I also had a New Year’s Eve go by, and New Year’s Eve is a good holiday for a ship. Not that I’d recommend it, but it’s nice that there are all these people who are stuck on the one ship, and they’re going to have to go out and try to have fun because it’s New Year’s Eve and it’s all completely arbitrary but that’s what they’re supposed to do so they do it. Perfect. It’s a shocking contrast with business as usual in my life to see cruise passengers taking a little initiative on the fun front instead of just waiting around to be herded into a “Mr. Hairy Chest” competition or a perfunctory Electric Slide.

So now I can just retreat into the privacy of my own room and let the days quietly pass. I’m really battening down the hatches, here. I don’t have much else to do.

I’ve decided to cool it on the drinking front. Mostly for economic reasons. I might be a lush, but my sense of indignity over paying the ship an inordinate percentage of my earnings for the privilege of feeling slightly less like a rat in a cage has overwhelmed my desire to imbibe. It’s having unexpected health effects. Like now I have to exercise if I’m going to have any hope of getting to sleep. So that’s two things. I’m working out now because I’m not drinking. Funny how that works. I’m also, as you might notice, writing. Because it turns out my mind is also understimulated when I don’t routinely commit mass murder on my brain cells. It’s like a vicious cycle, really.

Oh, I also didn’t mention that my TV stopped working for about 12 days. It’s a ridiculous cycle of logistics where my TV broke, and then it took 10 days for the first guy to look at it, and he fixed it somehow, and then it took less than two hours to break again, and then in two days another guy came and looked at it more thoroughly and replaced it and then it was fixed for four days, and then it just broke again just now. I’d be more upset about it if I actually cared at this point. It’s good. I’m like a fit hermit with a razor sharp mind.

You’re probably not going to hear a whole lot of updates from now on.

Maybe. This week we’re going to places in the Caribbean that I’ve been to before. It might inspire some thoughts. Do me a favor and wait with baited breath.
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Oh yeah. This.

So in the “be careful what you wish for” department, I’m in America. It’s great. It’s almost totally great.

My pretend actual birthday was fantastic. I give it an A+. It was exactly the kind of day I would usually have on my birthday, going out alone and taking myself on dates to all my favorite places, and then meeting up with good friends later and going to some unknown bar where weird things are happening.

In this case, the weird thing was an unplanned upon performance by a semi-avant dub reggae band of six white dudes. Perfect. Whatever you might think about this type of thing, you at least have to admit that it’s not the kind of thing you’d ever see on a cruise ship. You just have to take my word for it. The ship is pretty much art free, which means that it’s also strangely pretense free, so even a little artless pretension, like, say, a semi-avant dub reggae band of six white dudes, is refreshing. It was great.

And I have a phone now. If you call me, then I will know that you called me, and I will be able to call you back. Within a maximum of like 4 days. It’s revolutionary. Instead of talking with a 4 second delay and a shoddy connection with the ship phone receiver pressed so hard against my ear it hurts, and instead of feeling like I’ve got to say something important because I just spent 20 bucks on a phone card with less than an hour on it, I can just call you and talk as much or as little as I feel like. It’s amazing. Now I know what Watson felt like.

What else?

Oh, I had a burger. A real burger. A good one. One that wasn’t sitting out under a heat lamp. One that was made from meat that was once meat.

I ate a slice of pizza. Real American thin crust New York style pizza. I folded it up and then I ate it and I thought, “this is my favorite pizza ever.” Because it was. It was really my real deal favorite pizza ever from my favorite pizza place in the world.

I went to a record store and bought music from a guy who spoke English.

I peed in four different Starbucks. Bathrooms. Starbucks bathrooms.

I went to a Thrift Store, where there are perfectly stylish clothes available for less than ten dollars of American money.

I drank a beer in a neighborhood bar at 2:00 in the afternoon and overheard a bunch of worker dudes who weren’t working complain about their union rep and how many commercials there are now on the Don Imus show. They did not pronounce their R’s.

I walked across the Harvard bridge, measured by Smoots, through the M.I.T. campus where my Dad went to school forty years ago, and back across the Longfellow bridge, across which I once stumbled home drunk in a cowboy outfit after a Halloween party.

I drank soda. Cold Dr. Pepper. And I got a free refill which I didn’t technically want, but still I got it because, hey, free refills.

I hung out with friends that I know. Friends that I have known for a while and who know me and we are comfortable hanging out with each other and we laugh like how friends laugh instead of how comedians laugh, like they’re humoring you so they can be funnier that you in a few seconds. It was nice to laugh like that and to be around people who were also laughing like that.

America is great.


But, we’ve now got American passengers on board the ship, and, well, they’re awfully American.

There is a pretty sizeable inner conflict I have that is I think due to conflicting messages that I’ve been instilled with since childhood. On one hand, I’ve always been taught that every person is equal, that there is good in everybody, and that nobody is inherently worth more than any other person. On the other hand, I was always expected to make good grades and excel in school because I was “special.” So on one hand we’ve got the message of “I’m great and special and capable of great things if I insist on excellence,” and on the other we have, “Get over yourself, everybody’s equal. You’re not special. Shut the hell up about ‘excellence’ and take what you can get.”

I’d imagine this is a pretty common inner conflict that people have.

Anyway, this is the type of thing I think about when I’m in a crowded buffet full of big, dumb Americans. When I was in Europe I routinely had the thought “Well, at least I know now that America doesn’t have the market cornered on being lazy and fat and dumb. There are lazy fat and dumb people from all over the whole wide world who go on cruise ships. I find this oddly comforting.”

And now in America I’m thinking, “Man, those Europeans were refined compared to these baboons.” And then I’m also thinking “shame on me” for thinking that.

But yeah, just know that America might not have the market cornered on lazy, fat, and dumb, but we have elevated it to a sort of effortless fine art. It’s like watching a professional athlete glide down the basketball court and jump fifteen feet in the air and reverse dunk a high outlet pass and then run back down the floor with a look of calm confidence that says “I’m unimpressed with what just happened.” Except for being lazy, fat, and dumb instead of playing basketball. It’s kind of astounding. American cruise passengers are the LeBron Jameses of lazy, fat, and dumb. Europeans are merely the Hedo Turkoglus of lazy, fat, and dumb.

And again, here’s where the self-aware part of my brain screams, “Get over yourself, you fucking high and mighty intellectual liberal cityboy. You think you’re so smart. What do you do for the world that’s so great, huh? You do a little comedy show for a bunch of lazy rich slobs who don’t care if you live or die. What a guy. What a fucking indispensable and not at all fraudulent way to make a living.”

It’s tough when a large part of your sense of self involves bullshit detection. You’re not exempt.

The point is, there are Americans all over the place on the ship now, and I’m hiding out in my room because I don’t think I can deal with it. I’m clearly too delicate. And I hate crowds in general. I’m allowed to. That’s ok.

God Bless America.

Also, I just found out that the ship won’t be able to broadcast the Patriots game tomorrow. Judging by the amount of Patriots coats and hats I’m seeing on the ship, I expect there to be a full scale riot. I’ll let you guys know if I survive.
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I haven’t spent a birthday on board a ship before, and I’m not entirely sure I can recommend it.

The makeup of passengers on the Atlantic crossing is a weird one. More than any cruise we’ve been on so far, these people are more “travelers” than “holiday makers,” a distinction I hadn’t yet thought of that was mentioned to me by a guy named Mel with an awesome moustache.

Mel is the ship’s historian and lecturer, which is an interesting profession, since most of the passengers on a cruise ship are thought anemic. So he sort of does a couple of dumbed down historical lectures full of anecdotes about things like girl pirates. And I get the impression they’re not very well attended.

I don’t know. I’ve never been to one. I have my reasons for this. Reason number one is that I’m in survival mode and that means not doing things unless I either feel like doing them or else because I feel like not doing everything else. So the timing hasn’t worked out yet for a “Yes, I want a dumbed down 45 minute lecture about girl pirates. Right now.” I also don’t get the ship’s daily newsletter delivered to my cabin, so I never know what’s going on. Plus I figure I’ve got nothing but endless time if I should ever decide to see one of this guy’s lectures.

So I’m off the hook.

Anyway, I’ve found the “travelers vs. holiday makers” distinction to be prophetically appropriate. Because there are a lot more “travelers” on this crossing than there have been. It’s a bizarre demographic, people who have the money and time to spend on floating across the ocean rather than flying. Some of them have more time than money, which is pretty much my basis of operations. Those guys usually keep to themselves, though. The ones you’ve got to look out for are the people who have too much of both.

This cruise has seen greater, more annoying heights of ship fame than any I have encountered thus far. By far. It’s no contest. I basically have a small cult of dysfunctional individuals, each with more money and time than sense, who want nothing more than to be near me, talking endlessly about themselves. Sometimes it’s been a real drag. Other times it’s been a real drag with a few free drinks attached.

Anyway, I can’t tell if I like this more than I like the “holiday makers,” who are generally less savvy about things but who mind their own fucking business every once in a while. I mean, I guess it’s more interesting to hear a drunk 60 year old drone away about his marital problems and how he went to prep school with the President of Thailand than it is to, say, not ever talk to anybody. But it’s a pretty close contest. Closer than you’d think.

So I’ve been trapped on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean for nine days with a bunch of people whose sense of entitlement includes me. Without my consent being a particular issue for them.

And here I take pause to lament the death of my crew bar privileges. I haven’t spoken much of the crew bar recently. Because I haven’t been there much recently. Because I’m not allowed to. I’m only allowed to go to bars full of passengers who want to tell me where they “summer.” The verb. “To summer.” It’s probably the worst single word in the English language. “I summer in Nantucket.” If you ever see me and think, “I’d really like to make Ben want to hit me in the face with a shovel,” then use “summer” as a verb. Is it that much more difficult to say, “I usually spend the summer in Nantucket?” At least that sounds like you’re not trying to be some sort of fucking bygone era American aristocrat.

I’m sorry for the venom, but it turns my stomach. These people are dropping unasked for verb form summers to the hired help. Isn’t that supposed to be considered tacky among actual rich people? I felt like I should respond with, “Yes, massa, das a fiiine place tuh spend deh summah. Yassuh. Nantucket sho’ is nice.”

It would be nice to be able to go to a bar where there’s no chance of that happening, but I’m not allowed to anymore. I can only go to my own cabin and order booze from room service, which is depressing and antisocial. But then again, if nine out of ten conversations I could hope to have outside of my cabin are going to be with people who are depressing and antisocial, then it’s kind of a good idea.

The point is, my birthday was fun overall, but left a little to be desired in the department of nighttime fun. I had a lovely dinner with my castmates and some of my closest crew buddies, got a “surprise” cake and room decoration that would have been much more surprising had it not happened already five days earlier to our musical director, and I got to perform in Liar’s Club, which I enjoy even though it’s starting to enter the “diminishing returns” zone.

But then instead of celebrating another year of my life more or less successfully navigated, I was cornered in a cheesy cruise ship nightclub by a young aspiring aristocrat who uses summer as a verb. And I wish I could report that I took it well. Instead, I launched into what amounted to a character assassination in the drink-induced hope that cruelty might be kindness. Not my proudest moment. And not entirely good business, either.

The only justification I can think of was that it happened on my birthday, and my own sense of birthday self-entitlement involves doing things I enjoy doing for a day. Since things I enjoy doing are in murderously short supply on a cruise ship, I guess I had to settle for the momentary respite of “telling people off if they’re being a twat and ruining my night.” It’s not enough to hang my hat on, but it at least felt like a normal human reaction to a situation I wasn’t enjoying. It was kind of nice that way.

And that was my birthday. I’m pretty sure I made somebody cry, and upon reflection, I’m more glad than ashamed about it.

Happy Birthday me.

Of course all this means that I’m going to really enjoy getting of the ship and living just one day in reasonably normal fashion tomorrow in Boston. I think it’ll be healthy for me to not have a seething ulcerous toxic hostility destroying my will to live. I’m just guessing.

And I think I’m going to call it my real birthday. This year my birthday’s on the 12th. Officially. Write it down.
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The ship just pulled out of Barcelona for the last time, and I couldn’t be happier. As I wrote last time, this is a sign of progress. Time is moving forward. It’s nice to get a little reminder every once in a while, because most of the time I feel like I’ve fallen through to another dimension where days pass without meaning. I’m serious. Ship life is like an experimental short story that’s all description and no plot. But today I can at least say, “The ship just pulled out of Barcelona for the last time,” and hang my hat on that a little.

On the last ship I was on, leaving the home port was a slightly disturbing occurrence. Not that I loved Miami. Not by any stretch. Miami is the kind of place that you either love or hate. I hate it. But it was the only American soil I ever got to visit while I was on my last ship contract, and my cell phone worked there, and every time we pulled away and I watched the buildings descend into the horizon, my chest seized up with a sense of misplaced dread.

Not with Barcelona. I’ve had it with this town. Which is odd, because I actually really love Barcelona. I’m just out here alone, and I can’t really wrap my head around the whole isolation factor. Even though it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it’s also been difficult to fully enjoy because it’s like everything else on a ship: a tree falling in a forest with nobody around to hear it. That old riddle.

I think I know the answer now. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, then it doesn’t matter whether it makes a sound or not. It doesn’t matter what kind of tree it was. It doesn’t matter how it fell or what specific biological processes it will undergo on the forest floor as it rots. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, then that tree might as well be called “Barcelona.”

I just want to get the fuck out of this forest. It’s been a nice walk, but the sun went down an hour ago and it’s getting cold and I was starting to worry.

Now I’m crossing the Atlantic over the course of the next ten days, and I’m excited about burrowing into my bed and ordering room service and working hard on my book and watching a tom of movies and hopefully avoiding any major storms at sea with 40 foot waves, although I’m sort of excited about the possibility of coming through this process a hardened mariner. I’m excited about emerging from my transatlantic cocoon and being a real deal American again with things to do.

My birthday is coming up in a week, too. It should be fun. If past experience on a ship is any indication of how it’ll go down, I will probably sleep late, watch some crappy movie on the crew movie channel, go grab something to eat, go back to my cabin and write for a while, then maybe read or work on some grand presentational iTunes playlist for an imaginary occasion that’ll never materialize, like say DJing in the crew bar, then get more food and play a game of Settlers of Catan (the nerdy board game I’m addicted to where you have to build houses on an island out of wheat and sheep), and then get rip-roaring drunk in the nightclub that looks like some kind of Atlantian space boudoir and only ever plays “Sexyback” by Justin Timberlake.

That’s been about my status quo day for a while now, and it’s not bad. As far as places to park your entire psyche for a 4 month holding pattern go, it’s quite tolerable. Every once in a great while I also get to perform a show, which is kind of a mixed blessing at this point. I’m not exaggerating about “once in a great while,” either. Since landing in Europe, we’ve done a total of seven shows. That’s including the two times we had two shows in one night. So a total of five nights of shows in nine weeks. James Brown we ain’t.

Plus there has been a smattering of half an hour short form improv shows, which typically include five improv games. One will be a big group game that kicks things off and has high energy but doesn’t involve a ton of creativity. At least one will not include me. One will be scenic. One will be a song. One will be a guessing game that we have to trick the audience into believing is somehow different from charades. And then when that’s done, we all get together and decide whether or not it “went well” and if so, why.

Then there’s a thing called “Liar’s Club,” which is a game show I’ve been a panelist on because the panelists get free booze and also they get to be funny. It’s basically the same as “To Tell The Truth,” except the winner only gets a tote bag, and it’s more about generating bar revenue than anything else. Liar’s Club is my favorite thing to do on the ship, because it’s my only chance to actually be satirical. It’s a game about being truthful, and it takes place on a cruise ship. It is an ideal soapbox for anybody with a sense of irony that’s more evolved than a tree slug’s.

I mention these performances because it’s likely there will be more of them once we get to America. It’s also likely they will be better received due to the fact that I often speak English in them. So I’m looking forward to that, too. Technically, that’s why I’m out here. Not to put myself through a bizarrely trying quest of spiritual self-flagellation, as I was beginning to believe.

I will also get to see old friends soon in Boston and New York, and walk around and know where I’m going and also, hopefully, care. It’s going to be great. So as the lights of Barcelona faded into the distance, I was able to say without irony, “Good riddance, Europe. You’re beautiful, sure, but it’s not like you did me any particular favors.”

I’ve also heard a rumor about the U.S. Is it true that the exchange rate there is one dollar per dollar? That’ll be nice.
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Well I haven’t written in a while.

There are numerous good and bad reasons. A good one is that I’ve been working really hard on this book I’ve been trying to write while I’ve been out here, and I didn’t want to ruin any of my magical book writing motivation by doing this instead.

A bad one is that I’ve been battling the dreaded “GI.” If you’re not familiar with “GI,” it’s a nautical term for “when a grown man poops in his pants.” I feel like the less said about this the better, although if you ever get on a ship, yeah, absolutely, sanitize your hands as often as possible. Also if you find that you’re a grown man and you’ve pooped in your pants, a funny thing to say out loud is “oh no!”

Another reason why I haven’t written much is because I couldn’t figure out how to do it without betraying anybody’s confidence.

But then I thought, well, what the hell, right? It’ll come out in the wash eventually.

So here are the things I’ve been dealing with since being on the ship:

1. My Granddad died, which is sad on its own a little, but the manner in which he went is pretty legendary and more cause for celebration than dramatic crying and “woe is me” proclamations. I guess the complaint there is that I missed the party, which is indeed a bummer.
2. Between agreeing to go out on this ship and actually going on it I met somebody in Chicago that I really really like. A lot. And we figured, “what the hey, let’s go for it here and not worry about things moving too fast” because I’m going on a ship anyway and we’re enjoying this. We left things off on the “let’s take a break while you’re on the ship” tip and then I went on my merry way as planned. But then since I’ve been on the ship that person has had some bad news come her way. If you can put two and two together and you know who it is, please don’t approach her with the oversensitive “I heard you had bad news and I’m here to talk to you about it first to overtly comfort you because I’m so obviously nice and then, later, to spread gossip about the situation” routine. I’m not sure she’d like that. In fact, I hope she doesn’t get pissed at me for writing this. But anyway, I’m out here on this ship with a dead Granddad and a girlfriend who’s entangled in bad news and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be here anymore. But them’s the breaks. The big thing is I’m sort of leery of starting up any sort of companionship with anybody because I don’t want to be the type of dude who fools around on a ship while his girlfriend is in Badnewsville. That ain’t right. So I’m lonely out here, but no biggie. At least I know what I want for once. It’s a step in the right direction.
3. I’m writing this book because I want to accomplish something on this ship that will maybe push me further into the realm of “guy who does creative things for a living that don’t involve cruise ships or toothless comedy for businessguys.”

So that’s in a nutshell what I’m dealing with over here. The first two are varying degrees of bummers with silver linings, and the third one is majorly exciting. I’ve just been plugging away at the book, a collection of how-to essays with a personal spin tentatively titled “The Douchebag’s Guide to Life,” and recently I pulled all of my existing material into one word document and it’s 140 pages already. So that’s good news. It’s not impossible. I’m going to do this.

The other thing on my mind is we’re getting out of Europe soon, which I’m extremely excited about for a number of reasons.

Reason number one is that the fact that we’re leaving Europe means that a certain amount of time has passed. Once you know for a fact that you don’t want to be here anymore, that’s the first thing you root for. It’s like that joke about the Duke football cheer. “Go clock go.”

I’ll also be glad because Europeans, by and large, do not speak English. It makes little things like buying toothpaste and figuring out which train to take and performing a comedy show in English into bigger hassles than they should be.

And also I think I’m about done being impressed by European things. I never was all that much anyway, and really now everything I see when I get off the ship just reminds me of constant thought number two and how much better everything would be if I was with her instead of out here alone. It’s depressing when you hate everything you enjoy.

Also, I’ll be excited about spending some time in Boston and New York, two bastions of old friends of mine. It’ll be nice to go to a city and know where things are and not feel like I’m missing out on the secret fun part of town. I know where the secret fun parts of those towns are.

So I’ve been working hard on the book lately. It’s not much to report, but it’s way better than just saying “went to Casablanca. Didn’t like it.” Because that’s an asshole thing to say to a bunch of people who aren’t in a position to go to Casablanca any time soon and therefore are convinced that maybe they would like it (you wouldn’t, it’s tense, you have to get into a screaming match if you don’t want to pay 30 bucks for a five minute cab ride, plus there are creepy dudes in the park that get into a staring contest with you and you think they might want to kidnap you because you’re being paranoid but also Casablanca is just like that).

I haven’t even been getting off the ship a whole lot recently, which has been strangely liberating. It’s nice to sleep until noon and then decide “you know what, I’m not going to Barcelona today. No thanks, Barcelona. Maybe I’ll go up to the spa for a free facial, but I’m not going to Barcelona.” It’s like a whole new level of guy you can be, when you’re deciding to pass on Barcelona. It’s downright regal. Sometimes a little devil pops up on my shoulder and says “But I haven’t seen the Sagrada Familia,” and I’ve gotten to the point where I can just flick him away and laugh and say “I’ve gone this far without having seen it, why waste a good thing?” And then I write 3,000 words about how threesomes are overrated.

Later when I see my friends and they’re like, “What’d you do today?” I perk up and say proudly, “I slept until 12:45 and then ordered room service and then wrote 3,000 words about threesomes, how about you?” And they say, “we waited in line for two hours and then paid 20 Euros to see an apartment building that Gaudy designed and it was worth it,” and I say, “great,” and silently cackle into my fourth half-price whiskey. It’s kind of great. I feel like a living, breathing middle finger.

So that’s all for now.

I’m sorry it’s been a while, and I’m also sorry in advance that I think it’s probably going to be a while until the next one. What do you want from me? I’m basically living in a cave right now, and for once I’m kind of enjoying it because at least I’m being productive.

Confidential to Mom: No, I don’t have a joystick for my Mac. Yes, “say goodbye to your wife and kids” sounds perfect. I don’t know what else to tell you about gift ideas. I’m in a pain in the ass situation out here where anything of any kind of bulk at all is going to turn into a significant burden come January 26th when I have to haul it all the way home. Cash is pretty easy to carry. So are things that will be delivered to my house in Chicago. Like magazine subscriptions. I don’t get Discover anymore.

Confidential to Bad News in Chicago: Take care of yourself, ok? I’m going to buy you something from Morocco.

Confidential to Everyone Else: Happy Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for you.
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Well of course things are better.

I think. I think things are better. It’s hard to tell.

Everything about being on a ship is completely devoid of context. It’s a separate world where you do things like “hang out at the crew bar” and “complain about blue card status” and then you “go to eat lunch at a place in Casablanca that some lady from Oregon decorated so it looks almost exactly like Rick’s Place from the movie” and then “see the ruins of an ancient Andalucian palace.”

The highs are so high they don’t make sense. The lows are so low they don’t make sense. You’re tired of seeing the same people even if they’re great. You’re trapped inside of your own head for days at a time, and it’s all happening while you’re seeing things and going to places you didn’t even know existed and wouldn’t have considered to be a destination for anybody ever until you find yourself suddenly there.

It’s all so strange.

So the last thing I wrote about was the frantic doldrums, but out here one’s frame of mind is liable to change as quickly as Chicago weather and with even less reason. Please don’t worry about me, everyone. Think of me as on some ill-conceived opulent vision quest into the heart of malaise itself. It’s just something I have to do for some reason.

I have now had two people tell me that I’m not supposed to be in the crew bar. They have a point. I am not supposed to be in the crew bar. These weren’t official complaints, though. These were just a couple of people telling me that I’m not supposed to be in the crew bar. But they were official people, though, each with the power, if not the inclination, to have me removed from the crew bar and to further enforce all of the terrible terrible restrictions inherent in my contract.

And you know what? I’m fine with it. It’s oddly giving me a sense of purpose. I’m going to see how far I can go with this thing until a Nepalese security Gherka does the Vulcan neck pinch on me (they do that, they’re like crazy martial arts warriors who just like regular smiley 5’3” Nepalese dudes) and carries me out of there in the middle of my seventh dollar can of Heineken.

Also fun is now, as a result of these crackdown threats, I have at least one ship nemesis. This is how things work on a ship. You get all wrapped up in the logistics of it, and then so does everybody else because that’s all you have to think about that’s not some weird incommunicable analogy about salad bar and the nature of true freedom sprung from inside your head. So you turn into a gossipy schoolchild and sink down into a level of minutiae you thought you’d be too mature to care about this time around. Like I said, though, it’s kind of great.

Now I have a motive for creating friendships and alliances that has nothing to do with small talk conversations about the geography of Peru with a real live Peruvian blackjack dealer just for the sake of not being trapped in my room for another hour. Now there’s stakes.

By the way, the crew bar is still great. I met a casino guy the other day who was a three time Russian club league rugby champion. He didn’t have a neck. If the shit hits the fan in the crew bar, I plan to get between him and the Gherkas. Their Vulcan neck pinch will be powerless against him.

See? Stakes.

And of course I could grow up and just stop going to the crew bar since I’m not supposed to and it’s also not healthy to always drink all the time, but I’m in too deep now. This is war, and my liver is collateral damage. Sad, yes, but unavoidable.

I get a vague sense as if from another past self that I’m being ridiculous, but I don’t know what to do about it. I live on a ship, and as far as I can see, based on my surroundings, I’m supposed to act this way. There’s nothing I can do. I’m deeply intuitive by nature. And I live on a cruise ship.

Some people have shown interest in having the ship’s address and my schedule and stuff like that.

Well here are some interesting dates:

December 3rd – The ship’s last day in Barcelona before we cross the Atlantic, also known as the cruise full of very very old people where the ship never stops anywhere and everybody goes stir crazy and I have my birthday in the middle of it.

December 12th – The ship arrives in Boston and actually stays at the dock overnight. So I’ll get to have a night of running around in Boston in some of my old haunts.

December 18th – The ship sails from Boston to New York without any guests on it, which is going to be weird, and then I can start to get mail at this address:

Ben Johnson
Guest Entertainer – Second City
M.S. Norwegian Gem
First Class Cargo
104 South Central Avenue #18
Valley Stream, NY 11580
(this is for letters and small mail items)

Or I can get packages at:

Ben Johnson
Guest Entertainer – Second City
M.S. Norwegian Gem
182-25 150th Avenue
Springfield Gardens, NY 11413

December 22nd – My family comes on the ship for the Christmas cruise, which I am looking forward to as if it were a parole hearing.

January 26th – I get off the ship and don’t have to get back on it ever again unless they ask me to and I say yes for some reason.
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Tonight is my official first night of frantic, nerve singeing boredom.

There’s no way of describing how bored I am right now. It’s like the wheel of government that they taught you about in eighth grade social studies, where if you’re an extreme enough leftist you basically have the same political philosophies as a fascist.
Except this is like a wheel of fun where boredom can become so extreme it actually causes a stress reaction similar to that of riding a roller coaster. Except it’s still extreme boredom instead of “technically very akin to fun.”

I don’t like anything right now.

I don’t want to eat any of the food at the buffet because it’s just kind of an off night except for the curried butternut squash soup that I love but I already had three bowls. I don’t want to pay money to eat at one of the restaurants that costs money. I don’t want to sit at a table alone in the big dining hall full of old people who want to talk to me about Second City. And I’m not all that hungry.

I don’t feel like working out. I will probably end up working out sometime in the next two hours, but then I won’t have working out as a thing to look forward to.

I hate all of my DVDs. I’ve already spent ten hours in my room today. I was so bored I watched that Dane Cook movie where he’s trying to be employee of the month at CostCo, and what’s worse I kind of liked it. It’s on the crew TV channel all day on repeat. So now I don’t even have the Dane Cook movie to look forward to. I also watched “Frankie and Johnny” starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeifer. It’s terrible. And yet I oddly enjoyed not doing something else for its entire duration.

I don’t want to see the production company show, “Colorz,” a musical salute to songs with different colors in their titles, because: a. it’s a musical salute to songs with different colors in their titles, and b. I’m not required to go to it.

It is technically too early to start drinking, which wouldn’t ordinarily stop me, but I’m also alone. I can’t find anybody. All of my crew buddies are working, and my castmates are off being healthy with their lives in various ways that I’m incapable of right now.

These are basically all of my options for what to do with myself. This is what it’s like to be on a ship. When you’re feeling bored, you have to choose between eating, working out, going to see a musical tribute to the colors of the rainbow, reclusively staying in your room and watching a movie or listening to podcasts and blowing a ton of money on the ship’s expensive and slow internet trying to trick the porn filter into letting you see porn, and getting drunk. Those are your basic choices. Oh, and if you’re lucky you can drum up a game of Scrabble.

I didn’t get off the ship today. We were in Gibraltar. It’s a big rock. I get it. I’ll get off the ship here one of the other two times we’ll be stopping here. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.

Yesterday I barely got off the ship. Cadiz, Spain is a great town. Beautiful old architecture, nice beaches, good shopping, you name it. Didn’t do anything for me. I was like “ho hum” and got back on the ship.

We did our last show of this cruise two days ago. I don’t have anything work related to do until a week from tomorrow. That’s nine consecutive days off.

It is going to be a fucking meat grinder.

I am desperately, desperately bored right now. Like I want to jump out of my skin and rake it across a razor wire fence just to shake the boredom out of it. That’s how bored I am.

This is exactly what happens when you live on a ship for long enough. You get low points like these. The high points are nice, too. The church bells echoing throughout the Acropolis moments are there. But man, yeah. I am bored right now.

Wait. Scrabble. I would actually kind of enjoy a round of Scrabble right now. Drunk Scrabble. With Jeff.

I am going to make this happen. This is the most excited I’ve been all day.

Everything’s coming up Johnson, everybody.
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Now that I’ve written a somewhat comprehensive treatise on why seeing the world via cruise ship is a total crock of shit, I’ve realized I’m wrong. Or rather not totally wrong, but, I went off at the mouth and left out a couple of very important exceptions to the “crock of ship” rule.

One exception is if you’re traveling to places that are genuinely pretty exotic and not just “things to see before you die” places.

The ship has changed courses from the “famous landmarks of Italy that you have to take a two hour train ride to get to and then wait forever to get into and even then they might be closed” itinerary. Which on paper seems like a medium-level bummer. Like maybe I’d actually prefer another shot of going to Florence on a day when there’s not a museum workers’ strike (What did they want? Chairs?) instead of hanging out in Malaga, Spain.

But guess what? I would WAY prefer hanging out in Malaga, Spain. The only super duper touristy thing to see there is Picasso’s birthplace and official museum. And also there’s a pretty low key castle, but castles are pretty old news at this point (extremely bad pun intended) and are hardly worth mentioning. If you’re a town and you don’t have a castle and you’re anywhere near any coastline in Europe, then you’re pretty much bullshit. They built castles back in the day even if all they had was, like, two sheep.

So Malaga turns out to be an awesome and beautiful town that I’d never even really heard of until I was there admiring it. And best of all nobody there was telling me where to go because it would have been like, “Did you go to the Picasso museum?” “Yes.” “Great. See you around.” And then done. It wasn’t overcrowded with maniacal tourists taking snapshots of random tapas bars. It was just right.

The other exception to “crock of ship way to see the world” is if you’re allowed in the crew areas.

I have been allowed in the crew areas.

Now that I’ve been on for a month and the bad episode of M.A.S.H.ness of the whole setup has settled down somewhat, it turns out I have all the privileges I was worried about not having. I just do my own thing and nobody seems to mind.

So that includes the crew bar, which is a great resource because it has people in it that aren’t from America, aren’t rich, and aren’t old. In other words it’s totally different from the passenger bars. And it’s cheaper.

It was there where I spent about an hour last week listening to a Honduran cocktail waiter tell me about how America is being ruined by immigrants and foreigners who come to the country expecting everything to be easy and then sell drugs and shoot guns. Aside from the grammatical fun of “selling drugs” and “shooting guns” being two separate activities, or two otherwise benign activities which combined make for trouble (as in “I shoot guns, sure, but I would never sell drugs”), this was also a startling source for such a thesis. In other words, I met a foreign xenophobe. An adamant foreign xenophobe. From Honduras.

All kinds of things like that happen when you live on a ship. And that is a good way to see the world. By meeting people who are from all kinds of places all over it and listening to them drunkenly tell you what’s wrong with everything.

Today I got my hair cut by a Phillipino ladyboy, for example. No biggie. Nice person. Great haircut. I got no complaints. And who am I to raise an eyebrow if he comes from a place where there aren’t nearly as many women as men so they sometimes raise pretty boys as if they’re women for their whole lives so that they just are pretty much women except they have boy parts but it’s really no big deal to anybody because they need more women and they are strangely pretty in a way that I find not at all haunting to my very marrow. Get over yourself, me, if you think this is “weird” by American standards. The puritan days are over and it’s time to tip a ladyboy ten bucks in cash for services rendered to your hair. No big deal.

And you know what’s great about this? It’s that if I buy this ladyboy a bottle of Rose at the crew bar, then she (she wears lady clothes in crew areas), will likely end up telling me what can be done to fix the world. And I’m guessing she’ll probably be right about some things I’ve never considered before.

Also great about the crew bar, and just from knowing people, is you get the benefit of combined experience. I know that I already wrote that this combined experience mostly amounts to knowing great places to go eat lunch, but really great places to eat lunch are quite a nice little slice of life. If you let them be.

There’s a guy on the ship who sings showtunes and plays piano and knows everything about everything and he’s best described as being an “old fruit,” but in the best way possible. Like he’s basically a character from a Wes Anderson movie. If Wes Anderson was somehow also John Waters. And he lives in a farm house in Normandy and knows everybody and is generally the most likeable guy you’ll ever meet in your life, even if his general countenance when you speak to him can best be described as “a gentle, distant leer.” I don’t care. I have a friend in my life who’s been known to describe the most recent Times crossword as “a real dilly of a pickle.” And he’s a dude and not my Grandmother Peanut. Do you? I didn’t think so. So, you know, I’m on cloud nine out here.

And then when you go around form place to place, these people who work on the crew tell you about places they’ve been and you sort of all make your way through these places together, and you figure out what’s bullshit and what’s not.


Do you know what they have for sale in Morocco?

Goat’s heads.

If you pay a Moroccan cab driver to take you to the Berber market and show you around he will try to hurry you past the meat market and you will tell him you want to see it and you’ll walk through a watery pool of bloody hose water into an inner courtyard and then it’ll smell not technically bad, just the air will feel kind of dense with slaughter as you breathe it in, and your throat will close up a little bit and your cab driver will tell you that that hanging meat hunk over there is a camel’s leg and he won’t mention the four severed goat’s heads with the hair and ears and eyes and everything still in place and the tongues lolling out of their mouths. You’ll think about The Lord of the Flies and you will feel slightly faint in some remote corner of your brain that you can control by telling yourself “hey, no big deal, that’s for goat’s head soup, yum yum” and you will breathe the strangely blood filled air again and be almost overwhelmed before noticing that five feet to your right there’s a café where people are just hanging out and eating lunch and it would probably be impolite to freak out and vomit, although you don’t know that for certain because this is a place so foreign to you that there are severed goats heads on tables five feet away from a reasonably priced out of the way al fresco place. That’s a major league “grow up, sissy” that you won’t soon forget. Not to mention a genuinely interesting place to eat lunch.

So maybe I can lighten up on the whole “woe is me” routine a little. I am enjoying it out here. It’s super weird. Things have been fine since I started telling myself “oh yeah, it’s super weird, that’s the whole thing with these, remember?”

p.s. Confidential to everybody: I am having a somewhat hard time with email, which is to be expected with ship internet, but I am getting emails. It just mostly fails to send my reply emails along. I will try, but sometimes the best thing to do when it swallows a whole email is to just walk away, lest I go totally crazy from frustration. But please keep sending me messages. They are great. And if they're important and I need to take action on them in some way, I'll figure out a way to do that. The phone is 20 bucks for 43 minutes and the hours are all messed up, but I'll be there in a flash if you need me, no problem.
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So I’m out here. In Europe. Doing things like “riding the train back from Rome” just as casually as you please. I’m going to come back saying things like “when I was riding the train back from Rome” and acting all hoity toity because I can now.

No I’m not.

But I wanted to remind you guys about the whole “I’m in Europe” thing, because the fact that I haven’t blogged much other than to report my Grandfather’s death is I think minorly freaking people out.

I realized later after I posted about Graddad’s passing that I forgot to mention the manner in which he went. He went out like a total gangsta. The guy did everything he felt he needed to do with his life and at the end he looked death in the eye and said, “let’s do this,” and in the process told a whole bunch of doctors to go to hell. So it wasn’t an occasion for hung heads and sore feelings. I’m just kind of pissed I missed the party, but I’ll get over it.

Other than that, I’m good.

I’m in Europe. Remember that part of the story?

And you know what? It’s nice. It’s nice in Europe.

It’s kind of hard to write about, really, because it’s such a minefield of clichés.

One thing I’ve noticed is that nine tenths of the big European “things you should see before you die” are totally underwhelming and anticlimactic. There are only three reasons why anybody should ever tell you that you have to see the Cistine Chapel before you die:

1. They’re just the kind of assholes who love to say things like that.

2. They are assholes who got suckered into waiting for two hours in line for a chance to see the Cistine Chapel for like 8 minutes before deciding that they’re hungry and they need to go to the bathroom, so they feel compelled to tell you to see it because that’s how things work when people willfully do something that makes them miserable (see also: married people, people who have children).

3. They’ve never actually been to the Cistine Chapel themselves and they’re playing a hilarious joke on you that’s basically a two and a half hour long wedgie for your brain.

And guess what? I beat the odds. I didn’t go to see the Cistine Chapel. But. But I saw the outside of the Coliseum, the Pantheon, Trevi fountain, The Forum, and The Relic of St. Valentine (and pointedly not the Mouth of Truth) in Rome today. This was sort of the “cool guys way of seeing things in Rome that are not cool” tour because I didn’t have to wait in line for any of them.
Guess what? With the exception of the Forum, which is just really pretty in a way that a postcard couldn’t possibly communicate, they’re all boring.

You might have one of three reactions to this:

1. You believe me. Or you don’t really believe me, but it’s not like you’re going to go all the way to Rome just to prove me wrong. You get it. It’s just a blog.

2. You know for a fact that I’m right but you want to yell at me because you spent all kinds of time and money going to Rome and seeing things and you want to pretend that you found all of it “amazing” so you don’t feel bad, plus you feel like you have to tell everybody how “amazing” everything was so you can rub it in people’s faces that you’ve actually been to Rome because you have low self-esteem, or else you can’t wait to point out my mistakes and say “well, duh, you never want to go in the afternoon on a weekday during this time of year, that’s the stupidest thing you could possibly do” for reasons previously mentioned and also because you’re just the kind of asshole who loves to say things like that.

3. You will just quietly consider me ignorant because you’re like a real deal Hannibal Lechter kind of dude who really cares deep down about this type of thing and your favorite thing in the world is to listen to Wagner at full volume and wear latex gloves while eating frozen Lean Cuisines with an immaculately polished silver knife and fork because you’re totally batshit crazy.

Now I don’t mean to call anybody an asshole, here, and I think it’s pretty clear that if you’re in category two or three you’ll consider me an asshole for not understanding the finer points of why it’s amazing to see an old building full of the most intensely concentrated crowd of digital-camera toting sightseers I’ve ever seen in my life. Maybe I was just tired and cranky for some reason. Maybe my aversion to crowds is getting the better of me. I don’t know. All I know is when I see a big crazy fountain of Zeus on a rock and there’s all kinds of other dudes on rocks and there’s Latin writing everywhere and it’s huge and beautiful and surrounded on all sides by a thirty person deep throng of aggressive maniacs who act just like junkies, but for seeing a thing, then I think “nothing in the world is beautiful enough to justify my staying here.”

And I feel pretty confident that I’m right. I happen to believe that beauty is most often found in certain distinct, quiet moments that take you outside of yourself without you expecting it. Those moments do not exist at Trevi fountain. At least not the way it was this afternoon.

Another thing that’s weird is there’s this constant straining for some unattainable degree of authenticity in every action. Like you’re only going to be in Rome for just this one day, so you feel an abstract pressure to get it “right.” This is absurd because when you’re in Rome everything you could possibly do there would technically be authentically Roman. Like you could have a Big Mac at McDonalds in Rome and it would be more Rome-ish than anything you could possibly do in America. Because you’re in Rome. You don’t have to try harder than that. But it doesn’t feel that way.

I’m not immune to it. I’d like to think I am, to the point of blogging for pages and pages about how the Pantheon is a crock of shit, but I can’t beat it. I’m blogging for pages and pages about the Pantheon being a crock of shit because I couldn’t help but feel like when I was in the Pantheon there were other more authentic Roman things I should have been doing. I’m really no better than the crock of shit tourists I’m making fun of who run around taking pictures of everything so they can go back home and brag about their authentic Roman Holiday where they waited in line behind a million Japanese families who are so loaded down with technology it’s like they’re wearing a scarf made of cameras to put their hands in the Mouth of Truth. I’m the same. Maybe worse because I’m being pretentious about it. I know it.

But still, it’s hard to shake. Every part of every town I’ve been to so far feels like the type of touristy business district that hipsters from that town would brag about not having been to for months. Like how you only ever go to the museums in your town when you have out of town guests. I can’t help but think the real town, like where the real people are, is a little bit further away and the only way to get there in by a secret bus that only comes for Italians.

I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out on all these pretend versions of places that I made up in my own mind for the purpose of torturing myself. I don’t know. Like Rome. I pictured Rome being this bustling dirty place with basement jazz clubs and bookshops full of old dusty newsprint and empty beautiful parks next to modern art museums and everybody’s drinking espresso and wearing scarves on a scooter and saying “Ciao.”

I was pretty much right except for the Jazz clubs. Couldn’t find a Jazz club in a basement anywhere. And the modern art museum never presented itself to me during my stumbling through the “Things you’ve got to see before you die” district. Plus none of the parks were empty except the scary ones that had junkies in them. So I just felt like I was doing the whole thing wrong. And of course I wasn’t. I still saw plenty of scarves and scooters and espresso and ciao.

What’s my deal?

This brings me to the part where I attempt justify whining and complaining about being in Europe on somebody else’s dime.

A cruise ship is no way to see the world. I’ve met people who have worked on ships for decades and have been everywhere you can possibly go that’s anywhere near an ocean. These are smart, educated people. People who speak nine languages and read every book that’s ever been written (in the original Greek, or whatever), but all their actual doing-things-in-a-place worldliness is ship-based. So all of their vast, vast knowledge basically amounts to knowing a pretty good place to go for lunch. Anywhere. It’s like they’re the ultimate 4 hour layover travelers.

That’s the best you can possibly do when every place you’ve visited, you’ve experienced only by poking around between the hours of 9:00am and 5:00pm on several occasions. Don’t get me wrong, those are fine hours. Those are hours of pleasant shopping trips and tea and a crossword puzzle and listening to your iPod on the train and looking out the window and seeing the sun poking out from behind the clouds in the distance past the skyline. Fantastic hours. But they’re pretty much the same here in Autumnal Italy as they are back home.

To sum up: Europe to me has been so far just a place. Not some magical fairyland full of things that have taken me aback. It’s got pretty stuff, old stuff, new stuff, old pretty stuff, new pretty stuff, ugly stuff, old ugly stuff, new ugly stuff, restaurants with both good and bad food, stylish clothing boutiques full of things I can’t afford but want to, rinkydink places full of Chinese knockoff Ronaldinho jerseys and ripoff international calling cards, etc. Pretty much the same variety you’d find in any major town back home.

It’s all pretty much the same. At least form 9 to 5. After that it could turn into some sort of weird Candyland where houses are made of cookies and fake-titted strippers emerge from every alleyway to give you money for no reason and the mayor is a cartoon tiger. For all I know. I don’t think so, but maybe. The point is, I’m pretty sure it’s very similar.

I’m not trying to say “oh man, I’ve got it rough.” It might sound like that. I’m trying to say, “oh man, everybody has it great.” You’ve got it great. Just look around. You basically live in Europe from nine to five every day. Except you have the added bonus of English and things being open between 1pm and whenever the hell the Italians wake up from their midday naps that have the self-fulfilling effect of making everybody sleepy because nothing’s open so it seems like it’s 5 in the morning. Other than that and a few other things, you live in Europe right now. Just pretend that every 90th building is a castle and instead of mini-malls there are big empty squares with fountains in them where Zeus perpetually pees into a giant clam. You’re there.

Lucky you!
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My Granddad was a wonderful man. Whenever I think of him, my heart fills with gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had to be alive. He was born in 1927, and had my father, his first child of five, at the age of 23. He then spent his life working and raising his children and making a better life for them than he ever had. The Johnsons basically clawed their way into the American middle class during his lifetime, and in the process became a joyful, boisterous, passionate, sometimes contentious but nonetheless loving clan of maniacs that I’m nothing but happy to be a part of. Granddad did everything you could possibly think of doing in order to consider yourself a man, a father, and a grandfather, and he did it with a stern, quiet elegance that I found protective, intimidating, and awe-inspiring in its depth and austerity.

He died on Thursday, mid-morning, and services happen today, Saturday. I imagine it will be a low-key but well-attended affair full of friends and relations. I imagine there will be many kind words spoken through teary eyes in an open forum setting, and that this will be followed by an increasingly raucous reception in which the bourbon will flow freely and hearts will be open wide.

I wish to God I could be there, but that was not the man’s style, to make me feel obligated to drop everything on this trip I’m on all on his account. He would be glad I’m out here doing well for myself, and he’d want me to know that he’ll be silently looking down on me from wherever I need him to be, just the way it was when he was alive.

Thank you Granddad.

And now here’s something I wrote before I knew he’d gone:

The child asks if his Granddad has ever been bitten by a snake and if so how much it hurt. The man delivers his answer (either yes or no) calmly after a deliberate but carefree negotiation of long memory. This in the face of dire circumstances, when just the thought of a snake is enough to make the child’s heart pound uncontrollably. The child thinks, “Here is a man who is bigger than snake bites,” and feels soothed abstractly as if by watching a single peaceful ripple gliding across an enormous black pond full of snapping turtles who won’t let go until they hear the sound of thunder.

The Grandfather doesn’t lie. There are snakes. And they bite. But his bemused demeanor wordlessly indicates to the child that this is not all. “Yes, there are snake bites, but none right now,” comes the subtext, sliding secretively from out of the creases of the old man’s sun squinted eyes. The answer is cool and helpful and incomplete because the question is insufficient for the task.

The child senses this and upon further reflection attempts a new tactic. “Granddad,” he pauses, “How many places have you been?”

Granddad answers with a smile that is cautiously not laughter. “I don’t know,” he says plainly, “more than I can remember. How about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” Granddad punctuates this last with an affectionate pat and walks on. The silence begins again and deepens and becomes its own answer.

The Grandfather in this way teaches about silence. By walking slowly, perhaps gingerly, over pine roots and loose dirt, saying nothing unless provoked to by a question or the discovery of a common wild animal that can be shared with the child.

Grandfather has a separate silence. It is not the urgent, purposeful silence of mothers or fathers who must concentrate on the task at hand or else an unknown peril will somehow take over, some secret adult danger at parking lots and restaurants, sometimes with a name like “money” or “the tall man in the hat” but still having the same unknowable effect of good somehow becoming bad, of cookies unbought and scorned when, inexplicably, in other times praise may have rung. Strained voices whispering “be quiet” as if the whole world depends on it, which surely it couldn’t. None of that with Grandfather.

This distinct silence is the first silence the child can live in, even enjoy, without it being his own, without feeling overwhelmed by the towering fact of lost cookies and poisonous snakes. He will go to it often in times of need and silently thank his Grandfather for it each time.
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