Monday, August 25, 2014

Ship of Fools

We enjoy cruising, which is why we recently spent seven days on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas to celebrate our upcoming twentieth anniversary.

We enjoy having our room cleaned daily (sometimes several times a day). We enjoy being offered a variety of activities from which to choose. We enjoy sitting by the pool napping, secure in the knowledge we couldn't be doing anything productive even if we wanted to. And we enjoy eating food we didn't have to prepare, multiple times a day, without regard for cholesterol levels or blood sugar because, after all, we're on vacation, dammit.

I do expect, however, should we choose to cruise again in the next few years, we might elect to sail on a slightly smaller vessel. There's a critical mass of passengers a ship can take on before service begins to slip from specialized to generic, leaving one to come away feeling more like a sheep in a herd instead of a pearl in an oyster.

The Freedom of the Seas carries 4,300 passengers and 1,200 staff at maximum capacity. That's a population greater than that of 10 of the 12 incorporated towns in the county we call home, and roughly one-third of the population of our town.

A sane man wouldn't willingly spend a week locked in a confined area with one-third of his town's folk -- sleeping in cramped conditions under one roof, eating the same food, sharing the same limited selection of public toilets. But you put that confined space out at sea, fill up a few pools, light up a few cabaret shows, keep the alcohol and consumme flowing, and it suddenly changes from a potential nightmarish post-hurricane shelter at the New Orleans Superdome to a tropical luxury vacation.

Our biggest issue with the size of the ship, however, wasn't necessarily the service. Sure, the pizza in the promenade was low-grade cardboard topped with plastic cheese. It's true, some of the passengers weren't held to any kind of dress code in the formal dining room. Yes, Royal Caribbean's different onboard services are so siloed that we personally had to track down the manager of one of the onboard restaruants in order to have a bill corrected, and there were only enough 3D glasses for a quarter of the seats in the ship's theater.

All of that aside, the real problem with being cooped up with so many people for such a long period of time is the people themselves. Taken individually, human beings are tolerable, at best. Gather together a crowd of us and instill in us a bloated sense of entitlement and our true colors come blazing through with unfiltered glory.

Like the time, during our honeymoon cruise, when we took the galley tour. As we stood there waiting for the line to move, a father and his young child were separated by marauding band of senior citizens who, apparently, felt they were above the need to stand in line with the rest of us rabble. As they worked their way along ahead of the rest of us, but not quite out of earshot, I commented to My Lovely Wife:

"It's okay. They just want to make sure they see the kitchen before they die."

This time around the dinner table proved the most interesting place to meet unique people. And, yes, by unique I mean irritating.

We had know-it-alls who commandeered dinner conversation by telling (and sometimes retelling several times during the same evening) pointless stories that frequently disproved the very points they were trying to make. We had die-hard cruise loyalists who mistook detailing the difference in quality of free alcohol on the various cruise lines for interesting conversations. And, finally, we had borderline alcoholics who didn't realize their incessant discussion about the quantity of free alcohol on our particular cruise had me wondering if we would need to stage an intervention before formal night. Let's just say dinner conversation was strained, at best.

We did meet several pairs of people at random locations around the ship with whom we managed to have quite pleasant conversation, which was a relief because it meant we might not be the social misfits at our dinner table.

In the end, we will cruise again some time in the future, but next time we'll be sure to bring the kids, or go with friends, or maybe just hire some friendly looking people to sit at dinner with us.

2014 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I Ate a Banana

That’s all I did.

Of course, I did have my normal breakfast not long before that -- a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats with milk, along with a bowl of strawberries and blueberries.

I eat the cereal because I like it. I eat the strawberries and blueberries because I believe they can offset the damage done by decades of Dorito binging. While I wouldn’t say I was the least healthy eater in the world, a steady intake of chicken wings, pizza, Quarter Pounders with Cheese, fries and potato chips doesn’t necessarily qualify as a healthy diet. I’m fairly certain the blueberries are compensating for all of that now.

Oh, I also drank water and took the usual vitamins, if you want a complete breakfast inventory from the morning of the great banana incident.

In fairness to the banana, my skin already was slightly itchy when I woke up that morning, but it was after eating the banana sometime around 10:00AM that my immune system shifted into overdrive. Red bumps formed in my armpits within minutes of discarding the peel and, soon after, that familiar tightness in the throat joined the party.

Trust me when I tell you nothing gets your attention faster than a restricted airway. It doesn’t hurt, but it is most definitively unnerving. One minute you’re fine, and the next you find yourself gagging on your own uvula and wheezing like a ninety-year-old chain-smoking coal miner with a collapsed lung.

Fortunately, I’ve had only one reaction so severe that I seriously considered calling 911 and it was a long time ago. My troubles in recent years have been comparatively mild, resulting in only slight restriction of the trachea and a few hives that hang around just long enough to remind me how uncomfortable hives can be.

I wish I could identify my triggers, which would enable me to avoid those things that set off an allergic reaction. Whenever I’ve broken out, there’s never been an obvious culprit, except for that one time I ate gumbo chock full of crabs and clams. They might not have caused my lips to swell, but they’re nasty and that’s enough reason for me to blame them. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely certain I have identifiable triggers. It is an understood fact that there are times when the immune system, just for poops and giggles, decides to respond to an allergen that isn’t there, flooding the body with mast cells itching for a fight with a foe they can’t find. And that’s the most annoying part of it – not knowing what to avoid, or whether avoiding anything will make any difference anyway.

So, maybe it was the banana.

Maybe it was the combined effect of the banana and the strawberries.

Maybe it was the lethal combination of the 5:45AM cycle class, the healthy cereal and the fruit, with the banana serving as the final nail in the coffin.

Perhaps all that healthiness is the root cause. I’m starting to think I might need to return to the dietary patterns of my unenlightened, halcyon youth. After all, I can’t recall the last time Doritos made my throat close up.

© 2014 Mark Feggeler