Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cruising and Reading Redux

We are inveterate boaters so perhaps it was only natural that we would become seasoned cruisers as well.  Life on the sea is incomparable to other forms of leisure activity, not that other activity is of lesser value.  We do what we like to do.  Some people would find life on the high seas confining, even unbearable.   Traveling on our own boats became a natural transition to ocean cruising, although our very first ocean crossing on the QE2 in 1977 predates when we actually began boating.  So we have seen the development of the cruise industry over decades. 

The QE2 was built for transportation – a fast crossing of the ocean, less than five days at almost 30 knots.  She was not built for the leisurely port intensive cruising of today and she was a holdover from earlier transatlantic ships where there was a clearly-defined class system, each with their own separate dining rooms.  One dressed the part, as one would have dressed to board an airliner in earlier days, suit and tie, or if in first class aboard the QE2, formal wear every night for dinner.

Fast forward to today’s ships, bigger, beamier, many more passengers, with, now, some of the larger ships boasting bumper cars, rock climbing, water sliding, grass and tree-filled parks, and I could go on and on about the changes.  The cruise industry has definitely singled out “everyman” as its marketing target.  One might as well go to a mall where they have multiple restaurants and lots of shopping, with an amusement park next door.  And dress in a state of undress if you want!

Ann and I still like the older, smaller ships, and some are still made that way by liners such as Oceania.  Nonetheless, there are some larger ships that we’ve been on (never more than 3,000 passengers though) and I suppose Celebrity’s Solstice class is among the best of those, trying to maintain some of the more traditional values, fine food, less honky-tonk, and accommodating their manifest with some elbow room (if you avoid the main pool area).  We’ve taken many Caribbean cruises, perhaps because it’s so simple from where we live, no flights or hotels involved, drive to Port Everglades and park.  When there isn’t a school holiday, such cruises are relatively inexpensive and tranquil.
We made an exception this year – going on a cruise over the Christmas holidays as that was the only time we could be joined by our son, Jonathan, and his lovely girlfriend, Anna.  It was fun being with them, sharing nearly every meal. Port time was limited to St. Maarten and St. Kitts on this particular cruise as the M/S Silhouette has had propulsion problems and had to eliminate San Juan PR from its itinerary (fine with me, been there, done that).  Instead we enjoyed a 2,300 nautical mile trip to just one little cluster of islands, only 45 miles from each other.

But even these new mid-size ships have to make compromises for “modern life” so there are some 12 specialty restaurants (not worth the additional expense), high volume, sometimes bombastic shows (although their concluding “circus” night was enjoyable), the frivolous casino, the needless shops, the omnipresent “music” in hallways.  But we went about our business, some swimming in the spa pool (tranquil, no children allowed), going to the main dining room (really impressed by the quality of the food), and then, in the afternoon, we’d split up, Ann, Jon, and Anna going to play competitive Mah Jongg, and my retiring to some out of the way spot (usually on our balcony) to read, one of my favorite things to do on sea days. 

This particular cruise had very tranquil seas so sitting on the balcony while everyone was otherwise engaged in the ship’s activities was the ideal place, listening to slight undulations lapping against the moving ship.

While Jon and Anna went snorkeling in St. Maarten, Ann and I tried to go to the famous pristine Orient Bay Beach, but alas, winds had brought the Sargasso Sea to the shores of the beach and although there is no harm swimming in this form of seaweed, we understood the shores and shallow water was covered with it.  So we hightailed it back to the ship which we had practically to ourselves and alternated between the hot tub and reading. 

Ironically, Jon and Anna’s snorkeling adventure was off of a catamaran named ‘Swept Away’ the same name as we’ve christened our last five boats, including the one we currently live on in the summer, albeit ours have always been power boats.

St. Kitts is a depressing port to me.  Right outside the docks are those “elegant” “ship approved” stores, just like a mall, Diamonds International, etc. So, that’s bad enough.  At the further reaches are a few stalls that are rented by natives, selling merchandise but mostly made in China.  

Once you go into town, you are in a rundown area, but this is where the people live and I find it more interesting than the other “approved” venues.  It was Christmas Day when we were there and we briefly attended a church service and heard Christmas carols with a native flair.

Back to the ship then and our “regular routine.”  And, as I said, for me it was reading, and I managed to read “nearly” three books on the cruise (finishing the last one when we returned), all compulsively readable, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, and W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose. So I went from a very serious work of literature, to a serious one, to sort of a parable, but serious in its own way.  If I were to discuss all three in this blog entry, along with the trip, it probably would be too long for one entry, so I will cover the last two in another entry.

I had raved about Stegner’s Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, written earlier in his career. I had hoped to read more by him, but which one of his many works?  I was led to this one by Julie Schumacher’s article in the Wall Street Journal “On Writing about Writers.”

It was strange to segue from what I recently read, Stoner, to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, the first one a very dark view of academic life and the other an uplifting one although academic politics and anxiety still lurk in the novel, but it was a minor theme.  .   Crossing to Safety is Stegner’s last novel, the work of a mature writer, with its philosophical underpinnings and its beautiful effortless flow. 

To me, perhaps this should have been his prize-winning novel, but perhaps I am biased as he wrote this when he wasn’t much older than I am now, and I closely identify with many of the themes

The story over four decades unfolds mostly between Madison, Wisconsin and Battell Pond, a small Vermont town “out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque.”  Two couples meet at the University in Madison, Sid Lang and his wife Charity, and Larry Morgan and his wife Sally.  The two men are instructors hoping to move up the ladder to tenured professorship.  Sid and Charity are wealthy and “well-bred” while Larry and Sally are church mice, struggling to stay financially afloat.  Sid is a poet and although a competent teacher, Larry is the writer, the one with talent, but one who realizes that teaching might be the only way for he and his wife Sally to survive.  Writing would have to be delegated to part time. One would think the two men are being set up by Stegner as competitive gladiators early in the story, but it is quite the opposite.  The two couples fall head over heels in Platonic love with each other and each couple “serve a purpose” to the other, Sid and Charity sharing their compound at Battell Pond each summer with them (so Larry can write), and their benefactors having (in return) the close companionship of the author and his wife.

The story, naturally, is told by Larry, covering the gamut of the Zeniths and the Nadirs of their relationship but the latter is rare and it is a friendship unlike most friendships today.  The characters are finely drawn by Stegner (aka Larry), and in particular Charity.  If I were filming this book decades ago, Katherine Hepburn would have been my choice to play Charity.

But as Julie Schumacher said, this book has writing as one of its central themes.  It’s always fascinating when great authors actually write about the craft as it is so revealing.  To be a meaningful writer, one must have a philosophical premise, and in the first few pages Stegner reveals his:

In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.

In fact there is a heavy dose of Thomas Hardy in Stegner’s novel, along with the role of chance and fatalism.  Larry even brings up Hardy and then launches into his own interpretation:
Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

That last sentence merits reading over and over again.  But in the Hardy universe a “slug” can become a writer, by the same fluke of chance:
Talent lies around in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky.  Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations too many. 

At one point Larry thinks about writing a novel about the two couples (ironically, Stegner, aka Larry, is doing that very thing):
Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Chekhov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories that we are most tempted to lie. I know what he means, and I agree. But we are sometimes tempted to lie elsewhere, too. I could probably be tempted to lie just here. This is a crucial place for the dropping of hints and the planting of clues, the crucial moment for hiding behind the piano or in the bookcase the revelations that later, to the reader's gratified satisfaction, I will triumphantly discover, If I am after drama.  Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a way that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability.  And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about a friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned.  Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome.

Writing about Sid and Charity not only might have to “break up our cozy foursome” but there is also the problem of the nature of their lives.  Contemporary literature is littered with sex and violence, and the charred remains of unsatisfied lives.  So how does Larry take that into account if he “were” to write a novel about this unique relationship?
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?  Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?  Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it.

Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable.  In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by much as a punctuation mark.

Friendship is the bond of this novel.  But what is friendship, especially such a unique one? 
It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking.  It is therefore rare. To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a rough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once.

But friendship is a two way street.  If Larry and Sally were “rescued” by their friendship with Sid and Charity, what do the benefactors get out of it?  Larry wants to “repay” Sid and Charity, but Charity sees it another way:

As for repaying," she said to me in rebuke, "friends don't have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is. Here are Sid and I just licking our chops. We got everything out of you that we wanted." So they did. They also got, though that they would never have permitted to figure in our relations, our lifelong gratitude. There is a revisionist theory, one of those depth-psychology distortions or half-truths that crop up like toadstools whenever the emotions get infected by the mind, that says we hate worst those who have done the most for us. According to this belittling and demeaning theory, gratitude is a festering sore. Maybe it is, if it's insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish, so how could we dislike them for it?

Another theme driving the novel is ambition.  Sid is a poet (and sometimes chided by Charity for not working harder to write academic treatises instead, the old “publish or perish” route to academic success).  But his ambition is not the high test blend that fuels Larry, who comes from nothing and knows that unless he works and works some more, he and Sally would not make it. In some ways it reminds me of my own salad days, having come from parents who survived the depression and doing nothing more than the barely-expected parental things for me as I grew up, with little encouragement, or expectations to pursue any kind of academic life. 

I nonetheless left their house for college and never looked back, expecting nothing from them (and in the end getting nothing as well).  It was all on my back and I took my responsibility seriously, perhaps too seriously, my work ethic knowing no bounds (post high school; before that I was under my parent’s emotional baggage and rebelled).  I loved my work (publishing) and Ann and I raised our family while I was totally immersed in my work, perhaps too much so, with too much anxiety about the future.  But I am who I am, an overachiever, who tried to make do with what talent I did have. As Larry so aptly puts it, “ambition is a path, not a destination…”

I was your basic overachiever, a workaholic, a pathological beaver of a boy who chewed continually because his teeth kept growing. Nobody could have sustained my schedule for long without a breakdown, and I learned my limitations eventually.  Yet when I hear the contemporary disparagement of ambition and the work ethic, I bristle. I can't help it.

I overdid, I punished us both. But I was anxious about the coming baby and uncertain about my job. I had learned something about deprivation, and I wanted to guarantee the future as much as effort could guarantee it. And I had been given … intimations that I had a gift. Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn't expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else - pathway to the stars, maybe.

I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun

Indeed, I hope I didn’t turn my ambition into a vice, but I did have fun working hard, and it was indeed “without drugs or orgies.”

There were several deaths that touched Stegner’s life at about the time he wrote the novel, all from cancer.  These impacted the novel as well. As I mentioned, he was a few years older than I am now when he wrote Crossing, and indeed in your 70’s one thinks more about “purpose” in life, especially given the inexplicable transitory nature of it all.  As was voiced in Ionesco's Exit the King, "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  No, our heaven or hell is right here, right now.  And how does one die, accepting it, experiencing it?   Heavy questions, voiced by Charity:
"There's no decent literature on how to die. There ought to be, but there isn't. Only a lot of religious gobbledygook about being gathered in to God, and a lot of biological talk about returning your elements to the earth. The biological talk is all right, I believe it, but it doesn't say anything about what religion is talking about, the essential you, the conscious part of you, and it doesn't teach you anything about how to make the transition from being to not-being. They say there's a moment, when death is certain and close, when we lose our fear of it. I've read that every death, at the end, is peaceful. Even an antelope that's been caught by a lion or cheetah seems not to struggle at the end. I guess there's a big shot of some sedative chemical, the way there's a big shot of adrenaline to help it leap away when it's scared. Well, a shot will do for quick deaths. The problem is to get that same resignation to last through the weeks or months of a slow one, when everything is just as certain but can't be taken care of with some natural hypo. I’ve talked to my oncologist about it a lot.  He has to deal with death every day…But he can’t tell me how to do it, or give me any reference in medical literature that will help….So I’m having to find out my own way.“

The novel’s title, Crossing to Safety, comes from a Robert Frost poem, “I Could Give All to Time.”  Not surprising, as Stegner and Frost were friends, with Frost becoming his mentor to a degree.  They had met at a writer’s conference in Vermont, not far from the setting of much of this story.  Sense of place is strong in both of their writings, as well as love of nature.  The final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem became Stegner’s prologue to the novel:

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held.  But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Robert Frost