A serious problem. First world, yet serious.

For the last several weeks — probably close to two months, to be honest — I noticed something was hinky with the glass panel on the front of our oven. It wasn’t sitting quite right, and I said, “Is it just me or is something weird about the oven door?”
Then one evening I noticed that the glass panel was slipping at one side, definitely something was wrong with it, and I thought, “crap.”

My husband denied seeing anything wrong until one day when there was, seriously, like a 30-degree-angle gap at the top right corner of the glass panel, when he finally said, “yeah, I guess something’s wrong. Piece of shit oven, huh? Why don’t you start shopping for a new one.” I said, “No, it’s actually a fairly good oven, but clearly this part of it was not installed in a good way.” Unlike my husband, I was aware that replacing this oven with a comparable appliance would cost more than a thousand dollars. I am extremely, extremely reluctant, to just say “piece of shit oven!” and order a new machine.

So I began to use duct tape to keep the glass panel in place, or at least keep it from slipping out entirely and shattering on the floor. This was not ideal, because every time I used the oven, the heat from the oven’s interior would basically melt the adhesive on the duct tape, and I’d have to start over. I officially began to keep a roll of white duct tape over the ruler I keep in one of my utensil jars to the side of the stovetop. You could find me sitting on the floor a couple times a day, putting fresh duct tape on the oven door.

I did endless Googling. I watched YouTube videos. I read complaints to GE Customer Service posted to Facebook. I gleaned that this slipping-glass-panel thing was a problem for others with ranges from this manufacturer (GE). Pretty shitty of you, GE, to make ovens this way, but I’ll try to let that go. Basically, instead of having the glass panel be screwed in place, with maybe some little easily replaced rubber washers to allow for the glass to expand and contract as the appliance gets used, GE cheaped out unbelievably, and put a long adhesive strip at the bottom of the glass panel and just shoved onto the front of the oven door. There’s this little bitty L-shaped ridge at the bottom of the door that ostensibly catches the panel, but because there’s no upward-tilted lip at the end of the L-shape, the fact is, once the adhesive dies, there’s really not much holding the panel in place. The adhesive, as long as it holds, bonds the glass to the actual interior metal oven door, and the ridge keeps the panel squared, and I suppose in theory this is fine, except, as any idiot knows, such adhesives don’t last forever, and without a lip to hold the glass panel, it’s obvious the thing’s gonna slip, eventually. If I can think this through, someone at GE is capable of it too.

In the case of our particular oven, I think the adhesive lasted seven or eight years. We didn’t buy this oven; it came with our apartment. But we’ve been living here for seven years and I think the oven was new when we moved in — at least, it sure looked unused — so, let’s call it seven years. Could be eight.  It really doesn’t matter.

My point is, for quite some time, the adhesive was fine — but here’s the thing: when the shit gives out, what happens (according to everything I read online) is that the glass just fucking drops to the floor and shatters and people, like, get hurt. Not cool, GE.

But, the good news, according to many Online Commenters, is that it’s possible to re-install the glass panel. If you get special heat resistant double-sided tape, or heat-resistant silicone, you can re-install the glass panel, and, no, it’s not by any means a permanent fix, but on the other hand, this isn’t a machine intended to have a permanent fix. I mean, by design, it’s obvious. Many commenters wrote about their experiences calling GE technicians, and these were not heartwarming stories. Apparently if you call a GE technician, what they do is they come out to your house, for unspecified large sums of money, and apply some of this heat-resistant silicone, and then… there you are.

“FUCK THIS SHIT,” I said to myself, “I am not paying $450 to have some guy come out and smear silicone on this glass. I can smear my own damned silicone.”

So I started trying to figure out what to buy. I swear to God, I was spending probably 40 minutes a day Googling and reading reviews and trying to figure out what the hell to buy. I didn’t want to spend a dime on something that wasn’t the absolute right stuff. What I learned is that I couldn’t obtain the double-sided tape some people mentioned, because it’s only available in the UK (maybe this wasn’t the case at the time these things were posted, though). I fumed over this and in the meantime I basically stopped using the oven. I mean, I used it while I had three little girls here doing cooking camp, with lots and lots of duct tape liberally applied — but once the camp was over, I stopped baking.

My husband asked my why I didn’t try calling Page’s Hardware, out in Guilford. Because Page’s sells appliances, in addition to being a very fine hardware store, he reasoned, they would probably have a clue. “This is very true,” I said, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.” So I called them. I spent about thirty minutes on the phone with a few people at Page’s, including one guy who used to work as an appliance repairman. None of them could help. The former repairman said, “You know what, you got me thinking about this now… I suspect the issue is that what you need is, like, a proprietary adhesive you can only get from GE, but let me call you back — let me look around and see what I can come up with that might work.” He phoned me back an hour later and said, “I tell you: we have adhesives that will bond the glass to the metal, but none of them are heat resistant to 500°, which you really need, what with all those pizzas you make–” (I’d explained to him that I use the oven frequently and really blast it, too, so the heat resistant aspect of things mattered) “– and none of them say “food safe.” I mean, I could sell ’em to you, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be comfortable with it since I know what you’re gonna be using this on.” “I hear you,” I said. “I think you gotta call an appliance repair company, or GE,” the man said regretfully. He gave me the names of a couple of local companies and wished me luck.

I called Goody’s, another excellent hardware store in the area. They were less chatty than the folks at Page’s, and couldn’t help me at all.

I called three different local appliance repair companies, none of whom were willing to come work on the oven, all of whom said they didn’t have the glue GE requires for affixing glass panels to metal doors. What’s this glue made of, plutonium?

Finally I broke down and phoned GE, which was a shitstorm. GE’s customer service people would not, for love or money, tell me what kind of adhesive was needed to fix the oven door — I don’t think the people I spoke to even knew — and when I finally thought, “fuck it, I will have a technician come out,” I learned that they charge $100 to have a guy come in the door, and then charge additional for parts and labor, with no stated rates. “I get that you don’t know in advance what parts cost,” I said reasonably, “though in this case we’re almost certainly talking about a $7 tube of glue, but you really can’t tell me what the rate is for labor?” “No, ma’am, I cannot,” said the lady at the 800 Number. “I have an opening on Friday from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.”

“Are you serious?” I said. “I’m a housewife and I have a very flexible schedule, but no, even I can’t work with that.”
“How about next Monday, I have 8 in the morning until five in the afternoon.” “Uh, no,” I said. “Is there really no way to make a smaller window of time to make this appointment?” “No, ma’am, there is not.”

“Then never mind,” I said. “Thank you for your time.” And I hung up.

It was as I sat on the couch, fuming, my daughter at my side looking at me with worry, that I had a small epiphany. The heat resistant silicone I’d seen references to, over and over again, was, I suddenly realized, always sold at Ace Hardware affiliated websites. Or, I mean, Amazon, but I was trying to avoid Amazon. “I wonder if there’s an Ace Hardware store around here,” I said to my daughter. I did more Googling. It turned out that there was — in Cheshire. A wonderful hardware store, R.W. Hine, is an Ace affiliate. (Page’s and Goody’s, it turns out, are True Value hardware stores. I have since learned that these details mostly don’t matter, except sometimes, as when you’re looking for heat resistant silicone, they matter hugely.)

So I called Hine’s. I explained my challenge. Oven door, glass panel, heat resistant silicone.
“Yup, we got that stuff,” said the guy on the phone. “You gotta let it cure for a few hours before you use the oven.”

Saturday morning, we went on an adventure, driving out to Cheshire, which is a town I know better than I should. My family lived there for a few years, in the mid-1970s up through the mid-1980s. Cheshire is a mindblowingly dull place but I am able to dredge up fond memories of specific places, like the movie theater… which got torn down about two decades ago. Driving through Cheshire now is a surprisingly empty experience. Some things are completely unchanged from what they were in 1986, and other things are radically different. “You lived out here?” my daughter asked doubtfully. “I didn’t like it much,” I said grimly.
“But the hardware store is great,” I said cheerfully, as we pulled into the parking lot. “You’ll see.”

And lo: R.W. Hine really is a great hardware store. Even my daughter immediately grasped that it was worth the trip.

A kid came right up to me and asked if I needed help. I said, “I phoned yesterday, I’m looking for this, um, this heat-resistant silicone, it comes in a tube….” The kid walked me over to a shelf in the back of the store and there was a shelf of heat-resistant silicone tubes, some big, some little, some heat-resistant to two thousand fucking degrees. “I think that’s a little more than I need to worry about,” I said. The kid said, “You know, let’s take this stuff over to Jeff over here, I wanna be sure this is really what you need.” So we go to Jeff, who’s standing behind a counter, and we explain the situation. GE oven, glass panel, things are fucked, but the glass is 100% intact, need to bond glass to metal, safe to 500 degrees.

“This is what you want,” Jeff said confidently. “And it’s food safe, you could use it on a grill, say, if you had to fix a broken grill.”

“All right then!” I said, pleased as punch. “The best thing is, this stuff only costs seven dollars, so even if it’s a disaster, I’ve not invested that much money in it.” “No, you should be good,” Jeff said.

Over the weekend, I set to cleaning off the old adhesive. This wasn’t hard, but it was rather time-consuming. It’s a situation where “good enough” is actually not at all good enough. If any of the old adhesive is present on the glass or the metal, the new adhesive will not take properly. The glass and the metal need to be absolutely clean and 100% grease-free. My husband doubted my ability to do this, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to get shit clean. I scraped off what I could using a scraper-thingy that hardware people probably have a proper name for, and then the remains of the old adhesive, I rubbed off using a scrubby sponge dredged up from underneath the kitchen sink (where I keep an emergency supply for really ugly cleaning jobs) and an ample supply of rubbing alcohol. My husband helped with the metal ridge part of the project, scraping off most of the adhesive there. “It’s probably fine,” he said, though stripes of grey adhesive were still visible. “It is not fine,” I said. He wandered off; I sat down on the kitchen floor and got to work. Twenty minutes later, the metal ridge was absolutely white; you’d never have known that an hour before it had worn a big thick stripe of black glue. “Huh!” said my husband, impressed. “Baking soda?” “Rubbing alcohol,” I scoffed.

One problem neither of us was able to solve: though hypothetically one can slide the metal oven door off its hinges, to make it possible to work on the door with it lying down on a table, say, neither of us has been able to achieve this. The door remains firmly attached to the oven itself.

“This will make attaching the glass panel kind of a pain, in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise,” I mused. “We’re gonna have to clamp the pieces together, since we can’t just press them together by stacking books on it or something.” “You can use some of my c-clamps,” my husband said kindly. We discussed how to best achieve this, and felt strongly that while it’d be kind of a nuisance, it really wouldn’t be that bad.

The truth is, we don’t actually know how bad it will be, because my husband pointed out to me on Monday morning — as I was saying, brightly, that I planned to finish fixing the oven door during the day — that this kind of job would probably best be done with a second pair of hands assisting. “I think I could do it myself,” I said a little huffily. “I think you could do it yourself,” my husband agreed, “but I think it’d be easier and better if you waited for me to help.”

So our game plan is that this weekend, we will have some down time and we will get down to brass tacks (so to speak) and fix the oven door and leave the adhesive to cure and all will be well, at least until the adhesive fails again.

Last night, as I was prepping dinner (a cold dinner, no oven required, involving a loaf of French bread purchased at a grocery store, and a large salad, and a tub of Liptauer cheese I made on the fly at 5.30 p.m.), I was telling my husband how one of our former tenants had been asking me how to make pizza. “You told him you have to really blast the oven, right?” he said to me. I said, “We haven’t even got to that part yet, we’re just talking about how to make the dough,” I said.

There was a long pause and then my husband said, “You should warn him that frequent pizza making might kill the oven.”

I said, “What do you mean! Our oven works fine!” He looked at me skeptically, and then I saw what he meant. “Oh,” I said. “You mean, you think the fact that I run the oven to 500° once or twice a week is what killed the adhesive on the oven door?”

“I do,” he said. “At least, I find it very likely.”

There followed a discussion of evil people with MBAs making calculations about how strong an adhesive would have to be, in designing and building an oven. There was speculation that the MBA types said, “No one runs their oven to 500°, just use the cheap shit, it’ll be fine,” not taking at all into account the fact that some people do run their ovens that hot rather frequently.

I’m going to have to look into this. I know some engineering types who might have things to say on the subject, and advise as to whether or not my husband is subscribing to Oven Design Conspiracy Theories, or if there’s something to it. In the meantime, though, I’ve been ovenless for several weeks. I can’t bake bread, brownies, cookies, or a frittata. I can’t bake a cake, I can’t make garlic bread, I can’t roast a chicken. Our oven is so useless that last night I used it to stow a full salad bowl in, to keep the cats from jumping into it to get the bits of hardcooked egg I’d added to the salad. (Things are so dire, yes, I’m serving salads for dinner.) “Where’s the salad you made?” my husband called out, when he went to get himself a second helping. “In the oven!” I said, as if this was, like, a normal thing.

We really need to fix our oven door. When you come to see the oven as so useless that you are willing to store things you need to keep cold in it, then you’ve got a problem.


How to Teach a Child to Cook

Step one: be totally daunted by the idea but figure “oh, what the hell, I can do this.”

To be brutally honest, I have absolutely no idea how to teach a child to cook; I barely know how I taught myself how to cook. It was, as I recall, a matter of trial and error and many years of effort.

However, at the end of June, an offer I made to a friend casually, without thinking very hard about it, is about to become a reality in our household. It is this: the friend, who has two daughters (one a year older and one a year younger than my daughter; they’re all good pals), was, one day last year, feeling a little desperate for childcare. I can’t recall the details; it was probably a school holiday that wasn’t a federal holiday, and she and her husband both had to work. Since I was at home with my kid, I proposed that her girls come spend the day with us. “If the weather’s nice we can go hang out at the park or something,” I said, “and if the weather sucks we’ll stay in and cook.” I was just making shit up trying to be helpful but it turned out that the two little girls thought the idea of coming to my house and cooking all day was totally freaking awesome.

In the end, the childcare disaster was averted through some other means and no one spent the day in the kitchen with me, but as months went on there were many conversations about how we should do this some time. We discussed how I could plot out projects to cook with three little girls and I could thus keep three little girls entertained, maybe teach them a thing or two while their parents were at work; and at the end of the day we’d wind up with good things to eat.

Well, this month, it’s happening. In the last week of June I’m going to be hosting these two girls, plus my daughter, and we’re going to work on a number of cooking projects. I now have to come up with, like, an agenda. Maybe I should call it a syllabus, I’m not sure.

My daughter’s wondering if we can make a Swedish sandwich cake. (Yes.) We’re also thinking about making piles and piles of sushi (no raw fish, I don’t want to bark up that tree, especially with kids — but there’s tons of things we could make with cooked or vegetable ingredients). I’ll need to buy more of the bamboo rolling mats, since I only have one. There was discussion this morning as to whether or not we could make marshmallows. One of the girls in this enterprise eats no meat — eats very little, actually, as far as I can tell, aside from French fries — and I’m not sure how flexible she will be in the kitchen; I have faith, however, that I can somehow make this work. I can see us making piles of tea sandwiches, pitchers of iced tea, and fruit salad, and packing a picnic to take to the park. Part of me is thinking about doing a field trip to the C-Town on the other side of town, where they have an amazing range of produce you don’t see in the suburban Stop and Shops.

I’m thinking it’d be cool to make mayonnaise with the girls — by hand, so they can really feel how it happens. Then we could use it to make different fillings for deviled eggs. (Peeling the eggs will be a great project in and of itself, since it takes for-fucking-ever to peel eggs.)

I was thinking about making sugar glass, just for the hell of it; it would be pretty, and sugar is cheap.

We could make fast things like biscuits and we can make slow things like the pain de mie I like to make, which takes two days to make. We could try to make croissants maybe, or challah.

There are a few things I know for sure, before this project starts. I am going to need to lay in new supplies. Dozens of eggs. Another large sack of flour, and maybe ten pounds of sugar. I have six pounds of butter in the freezer, but have a feeling that won’t see me through. Also, the long span of countertop that I usually don’t mind if it gets cluttered up?

Yeah. I better go start working on clearing that space. It’s gonna take me a week to get it to where I’ll need it to be.

This is going to be fun. I may want to cry at the end of the week from sheer exhaustion, but I actually think it’ll be fun.

Oh Beautiful For Pilgrim Feet in Bright Blue Stripey Socks: or, A Spate of Sockloss Dilemma

Our household is much like yours I’m sure. Someone does the laundry and someone folds it and someone puts it away and in the process, from time to time, a sock or two goes AWOL. It happens. Since in our specific housefhold, I’m the person who does the laundry, folds it, and puts it away, I try to not let chronic Sockloss bring me down. I take a philosophical approach to the Sockloss dilemma, which is, Sooner all later, all socks show up.

Now it came to pass recently that my daughter’s feet up and decided that the old socks were not sufficient (e.g. my daughter’s feet seemed, suddenly, to not fit into her old socks anymore). This led to a major sock-acquisition process, which was not easy because of numerous reasons too boring to discuss (though there was a tremendous, tremendous Facebook post on the subject which garnered 110 comments from friends and associates, even an offer of hand-knit socks from a woman in New York City). (By the way: it’s not that I really find the problems too boring to discuss, it’s that I’m too tired to get into it here, besides which, the issues are all serious First World Problems and really we could have sucked it up and bought whatever, it’s just I wanted to do better than that if I could.)

After several hours of cruising websites and one remarkable trip to an actual store (which ended with our leaving the store shockingly empty-handed), we acquired socks. These socks are striped in many many colors. They are like this. I bought two packs of them, so our daughter is now very happily set up with a whole lot of socks, which I predict will last roughly one year. My child, like my husband, is hard on socks.

One of the nice things about these particular socks is that even if you don’t match them together into neat pairs, they still look kind of awesome.

I did laundry on Thursday, when I unexpectedly had an appointment cancelled so had some free time. It wasn’t a serious issue, exactly, when one of the blue stripey ones went missing, as I discovered when I went to bring all my daughter’s clean, folded laundry to her room and realized there was only one blue stripey sock. It wasn’t like we had major plans requiring the presence of a complete pair of these blue stripey socks; an outfit was not ruined by this aesthetic flaw. No one’s life was affected in any way, shape, or form. But the fact was, we’d only had these socks for about a month, and it pissed me off that I’d somehow managed to lose one sock so quickly. Had I lost two socks, I’d’ve also been annoyed, but at least the total sock count would still be an even number.

I grumbled about the missing sock that evening and no one cared and life went on.

My husband came home from work on Friday and changed out of his work clothes and into jeans, as frequently happens. Saturday, we all dressed casually: my child wore a pair of shorts, I wore a pair of jeans, my husband wore the same jeans he’d worn Friday evening. We had a pleasant day: my brother was visiting from out of town and we all had lunch together. We all walked from our apartment to Modern Apizza, a mandatory pilgrimage. We carried the leftover pizza back to our apartment. Then we walked downtown to go to Ashley’s Ice Cream. We got our ice cream, sat down to eat it near the steps of Ezra Stiles College, and then walked home. It was about 90 degrees outside and we were all quite miserable by the time we got home. Many cans of seltzer, and the last of the bottles of Pellegrino stash (acquired for Passover seder consumption) were pulled from the basement and guzzled. I sank onto the couch with my daughter. My husband sat at the dining table and mapped all of our walking on his phone. It turned out that my casual estimation that we had walked about five miles was incorrect; we had walked a total of six miles on Saturday. This was not exactly welcome news. My husband drove my brother to the train station early in the evening, came back to the house, took off his shoes, and the three of us spent the evening sprawled on the couch and the living room rug, complaining about how our feet hurt, finally going to bed around 9 o’clock.

We were all very tired.

Sunday, we decided to relax. We were all in agreement there would be minimal walking involved. There was a lot of lazing about, reading the papers and so on, but we did realize at some point that we had to buy some groceries, since there was not enough leftover pizza to feed us indefinitely. The three of us put on our shoes and we walked a couple blocks away to pick up a few basics at the nearest Italian grocery. No big deal. Some rolls for sandwiches, some tomatoes, some cheese. We were checking out when my husband suddenly asked the woman ringing us up, “Do you sell cases of Pellegrino?” I turned to look at him in surprise. “Your brother drank the last of the Pellegrino we had in the basement,” he explained. Now, I am not someone who feels a need for bottled water, in general, and Pellegrino is definitely not high on my mental list of anything, but it has some kind of significance to my husband, and I guess he felt strongly enough about it that he wanted to buy a whole case of the stuff. The woman said, “We’ve got cases in the back, go grab one, if you want you can use one of our handcarts to help carry it home.”

“No,” my husband said, “I’ll just carry it.”

I locked eyes with the woman behind the counter — she knows us — and we both laughed.

So there we were carrying our things home — I with my tote bag of food, he with the Pellegrino — when suddenly my husband just stopped walking and got this weird, spazzy look on his face. “Are you all right?” I asked.

“There’s something crawling up my leg,” he said, trying to look down at his left leg over the box of Pellegrino.

I looked at his leg and saw denim. “I bet it’s sweat dripping down your leg,” I joked. But then I saw something sticking out of his pant leg, caught ever so slightly at the hell of his shoe. I crouched down and pulled out…. a blue stripey sock.

“I’ve been wearing these pants for three days,” my husband howled.

“We walked six miles yesterday,” I gasped. “How did it not get lost yesterday? How did you not notice it in all this time?” “I don’t know!” he said. It was a mystery right up there with Shirley Jackson and her blankets. It’s an American tradition, really. The Sockloss Dilemma. We had it licked this time, but only through grace and luck.

But at least we have the sock. Which I threw into the laundry basket as soon as we got home.

5. Social Life and Anti-Social Life: On a Cruise You Really Can Have It All!

As I have expounded on at length already: It was clear to me and my husband, within a couple hours of boarding this ship, that the apparent majority of the guests were Red Sox fans from Massachusetts. We didn’t have to interview anyone to figure this out; we did not ask the cruise director, “Can you give us a demographic breakdown of who’s traveling with you this week?” Simply walking around, we heard the nearly inimitable squawk of Massachusetts everywhere we went; and the Red Sox t-shirts, caps, and conversations were all around us. One evening I stepped into an elevator and there were a few people standing in there silently; the man against the back wall looked at me and said, “15-2 Sox!” (I think that’s what he said. Frankly, it went in one ear and out the other.) I said as politely as I could, “Yes? I don’t really follow the Red Sox.” A woman on the wall opposite me said, laughingly, “A Yankees fan!” I grinned and said, “No, no. I’m from Connecticut and to be completely honest, I just don’t give a crap about baseball.” A woman standing to my right let out a whoop and held her hand up for me to high-five. “I did go to Fenway Park once,” I admitted, “when my husband dragged me. But I read a book through the whole game.” The man at the back wall looked chagrined and mystified, and everyone else in the elevator laughed.

It wasn’t that there was no one on the cruise who my family could “match” with socially — but we were definitely outliers of some kind in this artificial community. As such, we did not socialize with others in any kind of organized way — there was no “hey, you all wanna go to Family Karaoke tonight?” or “How about we meet you at the outdoor chessboard on Deck 7 tomorrow afternoon?” No: we kept ourselves to ourselves, for the most part.

The Red Sox fan of our household is the least socially outgoing person of the three of us; the more outgoing adult member of the household (that would be me) doesn’t give a crap about sports and uses sportsball games mostly as punchlines to comments either insulting to sports fans or marginally self-deprecating. This combination put us at a disadvantage on this particular ship. Nonetheless, my husband I enjoyed walking around people-watching. There was, for example, the time we were strolling through the atrium and saw a guy who was dressed, head to toe, including tips of hair, exactly like Rod Stewart ca. 1982. We smiled and walked on, waiting until we were a discreet distance away before we began to giggle and discuss “how weird do you have to be to be a guy in his late 60s walking around outfitted to look exactly like Rod Stewart?” We figured, “Benign loon”; agreed that he definitely added to the ambience of the place; and moved on.

The more time we spent hanging around the big public spaces, like the dining rooms and the pool areas, it became clear that most of the people in our age group were traveling in large packs — family reunion type situations, or the kind of thing where two or three families had banded together to do a huge group vacation. It was obvious to me and my husband that we would be spending a lot of time just the two of us, or just the three of us, with our daughter folded in, since we didn’t have automatic friends on board. This was fine, but I did think it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to once in a while.

This did happen a few times. One fine morning when most people were on port excursions, my husband and I went to sit in one of the hot tubs and we spent a few minutes talking with a woman in her 60s from Massachusetts, who joined us after we’d been in the tub about five minutes. She told us that she was part of a very large group of travelers who were on the cruise to see a show being put on by a group of pop singer impersonators. “They’ve got a huge fan base where we live,” she told us. “They’re doing a show Friday night, you should go!” Apparently somewhere in central Massachusetts there’s this crew of guys who get up regularly at various clubs and they do Rod Stewart concerts, Elvis Presley concerts, and one of them is, we were told, an excellent Mick Jagger. “That explains the Rod Stewart lookalike we walked past the other day,” I said to my husband. “It also explains the Elvis I saw last night,” he remarked. I said, hurt, “You didn’t tell me you saw Elvis last night!” He said, “I guess it slipped my mind.”

I met one woman, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who was traveling with one of her girlfriends. “Usually there’s four or six of us who travel together,” she told me. “We been doing this twice a year for years. This time it’s just me and my one friend, and she’s not coming out of our room — she’s been in bed every day so far.” “Is she sick?” I asked politely. “Nah, she’s not sick, she’s just got some problem, I dunno.” The lady was having a terrible week because she’d thought she’d have company on the trip but in essence she was traveling solo. Talking to me was probably the most fun she’d had since she’d left Woonsocket, and that’s really not saying much. I felt bad for her. That night I saw her from afar in the dining room and she was seated all alone at a two-top, eating and looking out the window very sadly. It was obvious that for some people, like the lady from Woonsocket, this was a vacation that was just a huge flop. There wasn’t anything I could do to fix it but I did cross paths with her a couple more times, as the week went on, and I always stopped to chat with her. When I ran into her on Friday afternoon, I told her to go see the Legends show, happening that night, which it turned out she didn’t know about. She seemed genuinely happy to have something to look forward to — besides getting back to Woonsocket, I mean.

The matter of “who you dine with” is apparently a big deal on most cruises. I’ve read Tina Fey’s essay about going on a cruise many times, and she had a lot to say (pretty much all negative) about how it sucks to be on a cruise where you have to eat all your meals at an assigned table with assigned tablemates. David Foster Wallace’s classic cruise essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” also talks about this phenomenon. One aspect the three of us really liked about the cruise we went on was that we didn’t ever once have to sit at a table with anyone else. Call us anti-social snobs if you must; but we really wanted to just eat by ourselves. Our meals were the times when we re-grouped as a tight family unit: it was basically just like eating dinner at home, except, duh, I didn’t have to cook and no one had to clean up afterward (except those getting paid to do so) and we didn’t have cats yowling up at us trying to stick their filthy little paws into our chicken cutlets. (We did all miss our cats, to be honest, and spent a lot of time speculating as to what our cats might do if set loose in the dining room.) I think that for more extroverted people, the assigned-seats style of cruise dining might be a pleasant thing, novel and exciting. For us, it would have been utter fucking hell. In this very important sense, it is very clear to me (in retrospect; I hadn’t really thought about it before we actually booked the trip, astonishing but true) that the “freestyle” cruise mode is the only way we can go, if we’re going to travel this way. Otherwise, to be blunt, I think my husband will have a nervous breakdown. If he has to be charming to strangers for more than about three hours in a row, he gets too tired; to have to engage in that kind of thing, three meals a day, for 7 days, might kill him. I get it.

Our household motto might be something like “You don’t annoy me too much, I won’t annoy you.”

There were a few mottoes, spoken or unspoken, of the majority of the guests on this ship. These mottoes were not second nature to us, since we are boring quiet people who don’t wear shirts with obscenities printed on them. These mottoes were, roughly, in no particular order, “Party All the Time,” “Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Drink,” and “Don’t Worry About How You Look.” As a general rule, people traveling without children were either buzzed or downright drunk, regardless of the time of day, and this same population seemed to have little care for what we might call personal dignity. It astonished me to see the manners of dress (or lack thereof) people didn’t mind putting out there. My qualms aren’t based on prudishness but are obviously based on something we could attribute to, I suppose, class snobbishness or my own general sense that there is a way to present oneself and a way to never present oneself. The men on this ship were so sloppily attired, it left me at a loss. Married, as I am, to a man who basically cannot bring himself to wear shorts in public, on the grounds that it’s undignified, if not downright slatternly, I’ve gotten used to a certain look on men to whom I stand in close proximity.

That look was hard to come by that week; proximity, easy. I saw a lot of men walking around in ill-fitting t-shirts, ill-fitting tank tops, both often printed with slogans and images not printable in a family paper. (My husband told me about some that he’d seen, horrified, and asked me, “Who wears these things in public? Who?” All I could say was, “Well, those guys do, I guess?”) You can just imagine the sorts of shorts I saw all over the place. It was Thursday, I believe — the cruise was almost over — before I saw a man other than my husband strolling about the ship wearing pants and a button-down shirt. (He looked good.)

Where I live, there’s definitely a lot of sloppy clothing, and God knows there are a lot of people who are not interested in being fashionable or stylish. Even so: it’s clear that even without taking these things into consideration, there is a kind of decorum assumed, across this city, across ethnic, class, and other demographic lines, that just did not exist on this ship. I spend time in posh neighborhoods here, I spend time in seriously not-posh neighborhoods. I’m all over the damned place. I’m on foot, walking around all the time, I’m on buses, headed crosstown. I see every kind of person there is to see in this little city, and I’m telling you, the attire that was normal on this ship would be garnering some clucks of disapproval here in New Haven, regardless of neighborhood, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Now maybe, maybe it’s true that if we took New Haven and said, “pack for a week-long cruise to the Bahamas” we’d wind up with some people who dressed the way these people on this cruise did. But in all seriousness: I don’t think there would be nearly so many t-shirts with boob jokes on them. A few, maybe. But not this many.

Some of you may be wondering, “What did the Hausfrau wear on her vacation?” and the answer is, I wore pretty much exactly what I wear when I’m going about my business at home in the summertime. I wore a black cotton blend pencil skirt, black or grey t-shirts, and comfortable shoes (on this trip, mostly leopard print clogs). When it got chilly I put on a denim jacket. There was nothing at all shocking about what I wore, nor did I look sloppy or slatternly, thank you very much.

Much as my wardrobe did not change while I was on the ship, my basic behavior did not turn toward the particularly hedonistic, though I was politely urged to let my hair down many times. I had two drinks, on two separate occasions; this is the equivalent, on a cruise, of being teetotal. My husband had a few gin and tonics over the course of the week, a couple of beers. The majority of guests, however, were — and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating — always walking around with some big tall drink in their hands, and I’m not talking about a Dunkin’ iced coffee. When I noticed people swaying as they walked, I had to think about whether this was a question of sea legs or sobriety. It was, if I stopped to think about it too hard, a bit of a bummer. Men seemed to party harder than women, and have less sense of propriety overall, perhaps because they were partying so much harder. And I write all this, mind you, as someone who didn’t spend time hanging out in the casino at night, or at any of the dance clubs or karaoke bars or anything like that. This was just me, a matronly type, skulking about the boat looking for places to read my book between the hours of, say, 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

There was one time when my husband and daughter asked me to meet them for dinner at a restaurant and I wound up getting horribly lost on the ship and had absolutely no clue how to get to my desired location. There are maps and guides all over the place but the fact remains, fore and aft don’t come naturally to me and given the multiple elevator banks on any given deck, it’s easy to get confused and disoriented very quickly. Thus it was that at 7 p.m. I found myself weaving back and forth on the ship — stone cold sober, mind you — trying to figure out how the hell to get to this one restaurant that I thought I knew how to get to.

I mean, here’s the thing about being on a cruise: your options are deeply finite. You can only go so many places on a ship, and it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like being on a lonely road someplace where you think, “Well, I’m in Springfield, if I keep riding I’ll wind up in Northfield, that’s not so bad, right?” No. You’re on a ship. Eventually you will hit a wall or a railing and on the other sides of those walls and railings are ocean. So you will turn around and start over again.

Honestly, I think I spent twenty minutes circling around, walking through the casino (iccchh) and then thinking, “Aha, I’ve found it,” heading confidently toward the right only to realize I had landed myself in a very dimly lit bar where people were gearing up to sing Aerosmith and Taylor Swift to the best of their abilities. I walked up half-staircases and down half-staircases and I went hither and thither and yon and I only found my family by the grace of good luck when they found me, actually, coming through the Photo Gift Shop, or whatever they call the place where you’re supposed to drop wads of money on pictures of you and your family and friends having such an awesome time on your cruise.

“Where’ve you been?” my husband asked me.
“I have no fucking idea,” I said truthfully.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we were not willing to pay whatever astronomical charges would be asked if we wanted to use our cell phones on the ship. Roaming charges, wifi fees, whatever: we were too stingy to rack up these charges. As a result, we could not communicate with each other in the manner to which everyone’s accustomed nowadays. I couldn’t text my husband saying “Jesus, I just got lost in a karaoke bar, how do I get to you?” and have him reply, “You moron, you go LEFT at the karaoke bar, then left again, and we are here.” Not that my husband would ever text me telling me I’m a moron, that’d be deeply out of character.

No: for us to keep in touch with each other, we got in the habit of leaving handwritten notes — written on paper — on the bed in our cabin. “Gone to read and look at water,” a note might read, “meet you at cabin at 12.” “Meet you for dinner in Garden Cafe at 6.” “Gone to return library book, back soon, 4 p.m.” It was, to be honest, all very quaint.

It might be, I suppose, that everyone else is drinking so much because they can’t find the people they’re traveling with and they don’t know what else to do with themselves, so they figure, “What the hell, I’ll just go have a drink, Bob is sure to walk by eventually….”

Life on a cruise is, in a lot of ways, a throwback-to-the-year-1995 experience. For example, I met someone and became friends with them purely on the basis of chance. How often does that happen these days?

This was one of the Port Days, when most people scurried off the ship to go do wholesome things with their kids or to go get snockered on an actual beach somewhere. On this morning, my daughter went off to hang with whatever small number of kids signed up for the cruise kids’ program that day, my husband went off to go read his book, and I went to get a pedicure at the cruise ship’s spa. This would turn out to be an enlightening experience — I learned, a la the heroine in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, that I am not taking care of myself the way real women do*. I was seated in the waiting area filling out paperwork when a woman with greying-blonde wavy hair sat down across from me with her own little clipboard of paperwork. “Taking advantage of the massage special today?” she asked me conversationally. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m just getting a pedicure. That’s more than enough excitement for me.”

The woman chuckled and as we finished our paperwork we chatted. It turned out that she was from New York City, and had worked in publishing for many years. I said where I was from, in Connecticut, and that I’d been a bookseller for a long time, and she told me that her in-laws lived in my small city, too. It turned out we had quite a few overlapping life-elements — little interests, common tastes — and she said, “We should get together and have coffee sometime! Like we would if we’d met in real life.” I agreed wholeheartedly, and we exchanged first names just as my name was called: it was time for me to enter the spa and become a new woman. Or get some newly painted toenails, anyhow.

I followed the petite salon staffer, a woman with perfect hair and nails, natch, into a room where there were a few of those big puffy vinyl-covered salon chairs lined up facing a bank of windows; I had a remarkable view of the Atlantic. I picked out my nail polish color and as I sat in the chair the beautician turned on the massage panel and the chair began to beat up my back. There must be people who like that sort of thing, but I really don’t; however, I would have felt bad saying anything about it, so I let my back get mauled by the chair while the lady soaked my feet and clipped my nails and began to try to draw me out. It was clear to me immediately that this young woman was mystified by me: at the time I sat down in her salon, I did not already have polish on my feet. “How long has it been since you had a pedicure?” she asked suspiciously. “Maybe three years? Four years? It’s been a while,” I said. She examined my feet. “You have a lot of calluses,” she scolded me. I tried to explain that I walk everywhere and as such my feet have calluses, but she would have none of it. She soaked my feet and worked on my nails and eventually took up a cheese grater to scrub at my feet. “That’s a Microplane grater!” I said with amusement. “How do you know that?” she asked, looking at the device in her hand. I explained that I own several Microplane graters and that I use them in my kitchen. She seemed skeptical that a Microplane would ever be used for something other than removing calluses. “For grating cheese, or ginger, or chocolate,” I explained. “They’re very well-made.” “Well,” she said, scrubbing at my feet, “they are. And they are very easy to clean,” she added pointedly. I watched as my dead skin piled up on the paper toweling at the foot of the puffy chair. It was vile, but also fascinating. She worked so hard,  with religious zeal: she was obviously shocked and horrified by me, and mystified as to how an adult woman could not care about her feet this much.

Mind you, I feel like I take fairly good care of myself. And I do care about my feet; it’s just that foot beauty isn’t one of my highest priorities. I clip my nails and stuff like that! Other aspects of personal aesthetics rank more highly. My hair, I can assure you, is in great shape. Since far more people see my hair than ever see my feet, I really think I’ve got my priorities straight.

The beautician, having painted my nails, then tried to get me to purchase a number of expensive skin-and-nail-care products, none of which I considered for even a moment. I walked out of the salon with my new feet and as I walked past the waiting room I remembered the lady, let’s call her Beverly, who I’d met an hour before.  I paused, and then went up to the reception desk. “Hi,” I said. “There was a blonde lady who was about to get a massage this morning, is she still around?” I explained that if she was, I’d like to leave a message for her. The staff established that she was, in fact, still on-site, and kindly gave me a piece of paper and a pen so I could write her a note. I scrawled, “It was nice to meet you — if you’d like to get in touch to have coffee sometime, here is my room number.” I left the spa feeling cheerful. Even if our paths didn’t cross again, I’d made a good-faith effort to make a new friend, and there’d be no hard feelings if she didn’t get in touch (after all, time is limited, on a cruise); it seemed like a mitzvah, really, to even make the gesture. Also excellent: as it was only 10.30 in the morning, I had the rest of the day to loll about on lounge chairs reading. 

I was ambling across Deck 12, thinking I would head back to the cabin to meet my husband and then we’d find our daughter and go have lunch, when I ran into Beverly, the blonde from the salon. Translated into my local vernacular, this would be like running into a new friend on Orange Street, the morning after meeting at a cocktail party at which you’d discovered that you’ve both been living in the neighborhood for six years, two blocks away from each other. In other words, it should have been inevitable, yet somehow it wasn’t.

“I got your note!” she said happily. We compared notes on our mornings (unanimous positions: pleasant; though I imagine she enjoyed her massage more than I enjoyed having a cheese grater applied to the soles of my feet) and I said I was looking forward to having my family make fun of my toenails. “Speaking of which, I need to find my family,” Beverly said. She had a vague idea of where her husband was, but her son and parents had gone off together and she was unable to locate them. “They’ve gotta be around here somewhere,” I said. “The library? The games room?” “That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. She said she’d phone me after she conferred with her family about their plans for the next day or two, I said Fabulous, and off we went.

Late in the afternoon when my family convened in our cabin for the pre-dinner changing of clothes and so on (adding a sweater, changing shoes, going from bathing suit into shirt and pants), the phone rang. Everyone in the room froze. “Who could be calling us?” my daughter asked, real alarm in her voice. She had been led to understand, thanks to us, that phones were useless on the ship.

“I bet it’s my new friend!” I said. Everyone looked at me with surprise: I’d made a friend? Who would phone me?

Sure enough, it was Beverly. “Hi!” she said. It was like a totally normal phone call from someone I knew, except it was happening on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, with a total stranger. My husband and child listened, bemused, as I made plans for an actual social occasion. “It’s great that you made a friend,” my daughter said when I got off the phone. “I made a new friend at my program today too.”

My daughter, by far the most gregarious of the three of us, had made so many new friends by the end of her week on the ship that she could fill an autograph book with notes from them all. My husband — surprise, surprise — made no new friends, though, true to form, I’m not sure he cared or even noticed. I am now Facebook friends with Beverly, and we’ve had some amusing little exchanges online, and discovered that her husband knows a guy who used to live down the street from me, whose ex-wife is still a day-to-day friend of mine. I expect that if Beverly ever comes to town to visit her in-laws, she’ll send me a Facebook message when she needs a break from family, asking, “You wanna meet for coffee while I’m in town?” and I’ll say, “sure, there’s a place about three blocks from your in-laws….”

We will, of course, exchange phone numbers, then, in case we need to text each other, and we will bring our acquaintanceship up to 2018 standards. But it will always have begun in an old-fashioned way. It’s just a shame, really, that when we met for our breakfasts (bagel and lox for me, a croque madame for her) we couldn’t really dress for the occasion the way it deserved — and we were, unfortunately, still surrounded by people wearing dopey baseball caps and t-shirts with crass slogans. We needed hats worthy of Rosalind Russell and Myrna Loy; we needed car coats and dress gloves.

Beverly, when you come to New Haven, we’ll go shopping. I know just the place

*there’s a scene in this novel when Our Heroine goes to a salon and is told by the facialist that she’s RUINING HER FACE by not using special skin care products and that using soap on one’s face is a moral failing on a scale you cannot begin to fathom because it’s so awful. 

4. All the Dining Options in the World, except Tuna Salad

Everyone talks about how great the food is on cruises. Even so, I boarded the ship with careful optimism on the matter. I figured that some food would be great and some food would be mediocre and that if we were lucky no one would get food poisoning and that it was basically unfair to expect much more than that.

The fact that everyone you talk to raves about cruise food is also the kind of thing where my innate snobbery gets in my way. Let’s face it, people in general are assholes and idiots and their idea of good food seldom overlaps with mine; and what’s more, it seemed impossible to me, on almost scientific principles, that there could be genuinely good food both in the specialty restaurants and at the buffet. I just believed that it was the kind of trick that just couldn’t be pulled off. I will be brutal here: I was wrong. I ate my words (or thoughts) while on this cruise, happily and greedily, and in one notable case I ate so much I basically disgraced myself. For meal after meal, there were wonderful things to eat, the overwhelming majority of dishes very well executed to boot. There were a few missteps, sure; but overall, and considering the scale of operations, these chefs and kitchen workers pulled off incredible, incredible feats, three times daily.

The menus at the big cafeteria-style dining hall (where we wound up taking most of our meals) fascinated me. Having had no preconceived notions of what might be on offer, I was surprised by the range of items that you could always get. It was obvious that the chefs were working very hard to cater to several basic demographics all the time — you could break it down to “picky eaters and non-picky eaters.” But their work showed much greater cultural and, really, psychological subtlety and cleverness. The result was that picky and non-picky eaters from many cultural backgrounds were, I thought, nicely accommodated by the cruise.

For example: in some ways, breakfasts are the trickiest meals to serve to large groups of people, because it’s the meal where people show the least flexibility in their selections. Ask almost anyone, “What do you have for breakfast?” and they’ll say, “Every morning I have ______.” Could be eggs, could be a bacon and cheese sandwich, could be Maypo, could be pancakes. These are typical American breakfasts anyhow. All right, maybe not the Maypo, but you take my point. However, around the world, breakfast works very differently, right? A lot of Asian countries, people have congee, which is rice cooked into a mush and served with little bits of savory stuff (often leftover from the previous night’s meal) sprinkled on top. It’s awesome. But most Americans would find it really fucking weird. The Asians, for their part, would, I imagine, look at a bowl of Frosted Flakes and go, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

In the UK there’re people who hang onto this very classic notion of a proper fry-up — bacon, egg, sausages — and the cruise had everything laid out for those who wanted that fry-up, right there. Baked beans, toast, fried potatoes, every variant I could think of, was just waiting for us on a platter. You could get a delicious muesli, with or without fresh fruit mixed into it already; you could get several types of hot cereals (grits, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat being the ones I now remember — no, no Maypo, but you have to given them major points for the Cream of Wheat). You could get bagels and cream cheese; there were, as a compromise on serving bagels and lox, little cups of salmon mousse with capers, always available. You could get eggs poached and served on English muffins with spinach or Canadian bacon or smoked salmon, liberally dosed with Hollandaise sauce; you could get biscuits and white gravy; you could have someone make you an omelette, filled with God knows how many different cheeses and vegetables and meats. This all, by the way, doesn’t even begin to take into account the quantities of fresh fruit available to everyone. My daughter, who mocks me for my reluctance to buy fresh fruit, was in heaven. She got plate after plate of cantaloupe, of honeydew; slabs of fresh pineapple; bowls of blackberries. Furthermore, thrilling to behold were the piles of strips of bacon — platter after platter of bacon — I’d never seen so much bacon in one place. My husband was quite pleased.

If you, Ugly American that you might be, just wanted a bowl of Frosted Flakes, there was an ample supply. Also Rice Krispies, Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Froot Loops, and a few other basic, familiar American cold cereals, all in those adorable Variety Pak boxes that I always wanted to get when I was a kid. My daughter was thrilled to be allowed to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch, something I refuse to purchase for home consumption on school days. We’re a Grape Nuts/Raisin Bran household, by and large, and truly no one complains, but I totally get how once in a while Junk Cereal is called for. Over the summer I allow a couple boxes of Junk Cereal into the house, and it’s always cause for celebration. This was Cinnamon Toast Crunch was, for my daughter, Summer Vacation in April.

Lunches in the cafeteria were even more impressive than the breakfasts; the dinners were often astounding. The crew would place little table cards around the dining room to announce “Caribbean Night!” or “Italian Night!” or “Grill Night!” and I’d think, “well, okay, let’s see what this is.”

It was always fucking awesome, is what it was. Ok: the Asian fried rices could have used some more zip, and the meatloaf that they served on American night was far too salty for me. But these complaints are minor, I tell you, so minor that I feel bad even writing them down. Also, after we got off the ship, my husband told me, “I think the reason you thought the meatloaf was too salty was that it had bacon in it.” “There was bacon in the meatloaf?” I gasped. I don’t eat bacon. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I really think there was. I didn’t want to tell you at the time.”

I mulled this over for a bit. I really hadn’t sensed “bacon” in it; I just tasted “salt.” But he would know, he would. My husband is an ace bacon-eater. “It’ll be ok,” I said. “Yom Kippur is coming up in a few months.” My daughter looked at me, worried. “Are you mad, Mama?” “No, no.” I wasn’t thrilled, it’s true, but as issues go, this is a small one. And to be honest, I prefer to dwell on how good everything else was. There were these dumplings, for one thing, that were really just, you know, flour and water, but it was Caribbean night and I think they’d been fried in coconut oil and they were just….. really, really good. I had two, my daughter had two, I think my husband had three.

The fact was: whether they were doing “down home American” or “seafood night” or “Italian night” or whatever the hell they were doing, there were invariably at least 20 delightful entrees to choose from, and just as many side dishes. At lunchtime, if you wanted to have a sandwich you could have a very good panini (vegetarian, vegan, and meat options available) or you could make yourself a cold-cut sandwich. Basically, at all times, you had so many choices that it was genuinely hard for me to imagine the kind of person who just couldn’t find food to make them happy on the ship. My husband and child agreed with me wholeheartedly. And we paid attention to how other people were eating, too. There was one family we sat next to one lunchtime, a woman and her son who seemed to be about eight or nine years old. He appeared to be, like my daughter, the kind of kid who wanted to try lots of different things and was pretty enthusiastic about all of it but then in the end what he really wanted to eat was two ice cream cones. Watching him plow through his food was just hilarious; his mother and my husband and I chatted about how on this trip, we didn’t feel bad about letting the kids eat all the ice cream they wanted. Though the build-your-own-hamburger station was very impressive, no one in my family got hamburgers, not even once. That’s how solid the offerings were. 

But there were definitely some people who never ate anything except hamburgers and french fries. I’m not sure if this is because that’s all they eat in general, or if they were afraid of everything else, or if these were forbidden foods at home, so they were living it up on the cruise; but there were definitely people who for lunch and dinner got a hamburger with a huge pile of french fries, period. It struck me as kind of sad, personally, and I think the lady travelling with her little boy felt the same way. Some people are more flexible than others, food-wise, and some people think it’s fun to even stretch a little, in culinary terms. For that last group, the food on this cruise was a form of entertainment in and of itself. 

There was one aspect of the food that could have been improved on, but I feel bad even mentioning it, since it’s obvious the kitchen staff is working like dogs and they’re skilled and smart and good at what they do. However, I have to be honest.

The desserts had a more up-and-down run. When they were good, they were quite good indeed, but more often they were either not of interest to me (I’m not a big fruit dessert person) or on the weak side. It just isn’t easy to make chocolate cakes for 2400 people. I totally get that. I think also that in my own family’s case, we’re so accustomed to eating homemade cake that something has to be pretty damned exquisite-tasting before we will pay attention. Beauty is not what we’re after in our cakes; we’re after taste and texture. The cruise was a little disappointing on these counts, with the cakes… though I did not have a chance to taste the opera cake, which my husband said was very good indeed…. but there were two notable exceptions.

One was a chocolate cake that did not have any special billing I can recall. It was on offer the same evening that a “five-spice chocolate cake” was available and I remember that I looked at the five-spice one and thought, “no way.” I opted for the simpler cake — a dark, fine-crumbed cake with a smooth layer of dark chocolate ganache between the layers and poured on top — and my husband and I compared notes when we sat down.

My husband took the five-spice chocolate cake, but then regretted it. “The flavor of this is weird,” my husband said, “though… it’s not bad…. the texture, I don’t like the texture, though.” He looked sort of wistfully at my very plain cake.

“This one’s pretty good,” I said, taking a second bite of my chocolate cake. My daughter, plowing through a bowl of ice cream, asked if she could try some of my cake. Taking a bite, she made the expression she makes at table that means, “I am thinking about this really hard, and I am declaring this good enough that I would eat two more pieces of it if you let me.”

The best dessert, however, by miles and miles (nautical miles or otherwise), was one of the least fancy of the items on offer during the week. You could tell the chefs didn’t think too much of it, even, because they put it out at lunchtime. Oh my god. Fools. Fools. They should have saved it for some grand extravaganza dinner event.

It was a vanilla pound cake.

I know, you’re like, “So the fuck what?” Who cares about vanilla pound cake? But oh: this was not just any stupid vanilla pound cake. It was absolutely wonderful. It had a more coarse crumb than the pound cakes I usually make, but dear god, the flavor. It had this very smooth and true vanilla smell and taste. We put slices of it into bowls so that we could pour caramel sauce over it. The caramel had been intended to go with something like, I don’t know, rhubarb cobbler, some fruit thing that I would just never, ever eat — but they don’t stop you from pouring caramel over whatever you want. I mean, if they were serving Maryland fried chicken and you wanted to add some caramel sauce to your chicken and maybe some of the French fries you’d grabbed from the Hamburger Grill section, no one would bat an eye.

Holy shit, that caramel sauce.

My husband said, “I don’t think this came from a jar.”

I said, authoritatively, “There is absolutely no way this came from a jar.” I recognized in the sauce the element of burnt sugar that no store-bought caramel sauce ever seems to have. This was a sauce that had been brought just to the edge of what some would call “disaster,” cooled immediately, and thickened, had a little cream added to it. (Well, ok, they must have made this in vast pots, so “a little” could mean, like, six gallons, but you know what I mean.) This was not an insipid, weak caramel sauce; nor was it just a thick, oily, gelatinous mixture: it was dark, opaque, pourable-in-ribbons. Oh, it was wonderful. I had two servings because I knew I’d never eat it again, and then went back for a third piece of the cake. I will spend the rest of my life trying to recreate that cake and sauce.

My family will not mind one iota.

Many, many families clearly wanted simpler, easier desserts. The idea of thinking about dessert is not their idea of fun. They want something direct, sweet, enjoyable, easy. So: The ice cream cabinet, which was staffed and at which you had to wait in line, was always fun. They’d have eight flavors of hard ice cream for you to choose from — nothing too exotic, but good, and served soft enough that small children wouldn’t have a hard time eating ice cream cones if that’s what they chose. There was your basic chocolate, vanilla; one day there was rum raisin. There was always a sherbet, which I tried (lime) and enjoyed very much. My daughter liked the kiwi sherbet, which looked just like the lime but tasted quite different indeed.

The first time I got in line for the ice cream, at my husband and child’s urging — they were already installed at our table with large bowls of the stuff — I stood next to a massive man in a tank top that read “HARLEY-DAVIDSON.” He was heavily decorated with old ink and was not someone I’d’ve been inclined to mess with. A couple of small children, however, had no fear of him, and stepped right in front of him as he was about to step up to the counter to peruse the signage and plot his order. It’s possible he would have been annoyed but at that precise moment, another massive biker dude paused to my right and said to him, “Hey, I’ll be at our table, over there —” gesticulating by tilting his head in some direction or other. The biker to my left said, “I”ll get you some butter pecan, that sound good?” The second biker said, “Yeah!” and disappeared into the stream of people carrying plates of fries and burgers and god knows what all. The second biker was one of the guys who just wanted a burger and a shitton of fries, but I found it touching and amusing that his buddy knew he had a weakness for, of all things, butter pecan ice cream. The second biker dude was clearly worried that the little kids would eat all the ice cream and there’d be none left for him, and you had to be sympathetic; at least a dozen children under the age of six were swarming around us all, often unaccompanied by parents. It was a little Lord of the Flies, to be honest.

By this point — several little kids had been served, no harm done, and I had moved up in the line a little — I could see the signs announcing the flavors. “There’s no butter pecan,” I said to the biker. “They have pistachio, but that’s not the same thing at all.”

“Oh, no, really?” he said, with genuine dismay on his face, “I could have sworn they had butter pecan! “I hope your friend won’t be mad,” I said. He sighed and stepped up to place his order. “What do I do, just get one chocolate and one vanilla?” He asked me, as if I’d know what to do, like I was the biker’s girl and I’d know what the Plan B should be. “I guess so?” I said. “I mean, he’s bound to think one of them’s ok as a substitute, right?” “Yeah,” he said, decisively. “I’m ok with either one, so he can pick whichever he likes better.” Within a minute he was walking off to his table with two bowls of ice cream.

It wasn’t until Thursday that the ice cream stand had butter pecan on offer. I hope that biker got at least two bowlsful.

For all of my being so impressed with the kitchen on this cruise: There was one time when my husband and I watched a woman totally lose her shit over the kitchen’s inadequacy, as she perceived it. She was standing at the cold-sandwich-assembly station, one day at lunchtime, and was loudly berating the meek man behind the counter. He had one job, which was to carve slices of roast beef and ham and turkey for people to put on sandwiches. “I just don’t understand what the problem is,” she said. I paused, staring very carefully at the trays of cubed cheese and cornichons: I didn’t want to have this lady’s vitriol land in my direction, but I wanted to find out what her issue was. It turned out that she was enraged — and very unfairly taking her rage out on the perfectly nice roast-beef-carving-station-guy — because the cruise had not supplied her with tuna salad for sandwiches. “How hard is it to make tuna salad?” she demanded. I debated the question with myself for a moment: it isn’t at all difficult to make tuna salad, but one does have to have tuna available for the purpose. Was it possible that the kitchen didn’t have any tuna for making tuna salad? Sure it was. It was possible that they had tuna for this purpose but that they had planned to provide tuna salad during meals yet to come on the cruise. Clearly it mattered not to this woman: her issue was that tuna salad was not available on a daily basis. “I spoke to one of the chefs in the kitchen,” she said angrily to the man behind the counter, “and they told me they could give me a turkey sandwich — but I don’t want a turkey sandwich, I want a tuna salad sandwich! Is that so much to ask?”

Lady: it’s too much to ask. We’re in a situation, after all, where it’s not like someone can say, in a desperate attempt to accommodate you, “No problem, I’ll send my guy out to Stop and Shop, we’ll get some Bumble Bee and everything will be fine.” We’re out on the ocean for god’s sake. The food available is what it is, it’s finite, but — here’s what killed me about this — there was so many good food options available to everyone, 24/7: could this lady really, seriously, not find something that would be ok for her to eat?

It’s true I am someone who takes a very dim view of children who’re picky eaters, though I try to be accommodating and understanding about it, because I’m not a total asshole (believe it or not). I’m, like, a part-time asshole, okay? But this lady! She was a grownup! She was in her 40s, and she was just losing her shit over lack of access to tuna salad. It didn’t speak well for her in a larger sense, and I found myself thinking, “Probably 98% of the people on this cruise are pretty nice people who would never pull this kind of shit on the staff here, but then there’s that wild card 2%. And god help the staff in dealing with that two percent.”

When I got to our table, my husband and child were already seated and plowing through their own lunch selections. Sotto voce, I said to my husband, “I saw this woman just completely losing her shit over how there’s no tuna salad.” “I heard her too,” he said, shaking his head. Our daughter said, also in low tones, “I don’t understand how someone could be mad about no tuna salad, not with food like this.” She paused. “And I really, really like tuna salad.”

I have to say: I am proud of the fact that I have a ten year old who never, once, in all of her years, has thrown the kind of shitfit over a meal that that woman threw over a tuna salad sandwich. Maybe the issue wasn’t really the tuna salad. Maybe it was something else. Maybe her subconscious was really upset over a death in the family or her daughter’s just flunked out of school or who knows what. But in the moment, she was making a mountain out of a molehill (or, of tuna salad), and I have to say, if that woman were my child, I would have grabbed her firmly by the arm, right above the elbow, and guided her out of the dining room silently.

And we all know what that means.

3. The Hausfrau is Not From Boston, and Officially Has No Comment. (However, she’s got a lot to say — off the record.)

An ongoing theme of our trip on this cruise was “How Bostonians Act While on Cruises,” a matter that can be summed up pretty succinctly: on the whole, they act like drunken boors. I suppose this is how Bostonians often act when they’re in Boston too, so I don’t know why I should have been jarred by this, but yet I was. It may be that ships dominated by New Yorkers, or even people from Minnesota or Indiana, also suffer this problem, but as I’ve not experienced such cruises, I cannot verify or deny this. I can only attest to what I saw in this Boston-dominated crowd.

In this case, by the way, Rhode Island counts as Boston.

I don’t have hard numbers but it definitely appeared — my husband remarked upon it daily — that at least 70% of the people on the ship were from Boston or the nearby environs. We sailed out of New York City but it was for sure a Red Sox Nation event, not a Yankees crowd at all. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from, and my response, “Connecticut,” definitely caused moments of confused need-to-ponder-that-for-a-moment; Red Sox Nation has a complicated relationship with Connecticut.

At one point, while I was waiting for an elevator, a man struck up a conversation with everyone else who was standing around waiting and asked me if I was a Red Sox or a Yankees fan. I said, “I’m from Connecticut, and I really don’t care,” I said; I was beginning to weary of this Red Sox bullshit. “No really,” he asked me. “Really,” I said. “I don’t care.” “Republican or Democrat?” he asked me. “No comment,” I said, and he hooted. “You really are from Connecticut!” he said appreciatively. “Smart lady.” I had passed, but it was a close call.

In general, by the way, people did not discuss politics in public spaces on the ship, which was a relief to me.

When I went to the ship’s library* (which is kept under lock and key 95% of the time, like a medieval collection, even though the stuff here is utterly worthless and could be replaced in toto for about $300) I noticed that there was one copy of Connecticut writer Randy Howe’s “Why I Hate the Republicans” and three copies of his “Why I Hate the Democrats.” (Both published in 2004, by the way.) I found myself grimly wondering, “might things get ugly on this ship? Do fights break out on cruise ships?” — but as I said, not once did I hear anyone discuss anything explicitly political in nature, let alone witness any social tension between guests based on race, ethnicity, or anything like that (and the population was more diverse than I’d’ve guessed it would be). I imagine that wives and girlfriends boat-wide had said to their husband, “Just shut up this week, okay? Talk about sports. Talk about Avengers movies. Anything except politics, just this once!” And the husbands heeded their wives.

It could also be that people were distracted from politics by virtue of being blotto for hours and hours on end. By four in the afternoon, the first day, I’d say 75% of the boat’s guests were absolutely snockered. Remember that we only boarded at 1.30. The ingestion of alcohol by most cruisers was clearly swift and efficient, like a novocain shot before dental surgery.

To be honest: throughout the week it often felt like the only sober guests on the boat were children, me, or my husband. Every person we saw seemed to be holding an alcoholic beverage.  All the time. Ten in the morning — “Bloody Marys!” For someone like me who doesn’t drink a lot under pretty much any circumstance, and who finds drunkenness deeply unamusing, it was a little depressing. Everyone was in very high spirits, and friendly enough, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, but there was also this sense of being in a place where — well, the last time I can remember feeling this way was when I was a student at the University of Connecticut, and it was Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night. The dominant theme was “everyone here is fucked up and loving it, except for you.” If you don’t want to be fucked up-drunk, being on a cruise can be a little awkward, socially speaking.

We learned how to avoid the worst locales for this sort of thing; we learned how to stake out comfy spaces for ourselves that buffeted us to some degree from the churning hordes. A cruise is a delicate dance for the introverted.

The first night we all wanted to test the road a little, so to speak, and we decided to try to go have a fancy sushi dinner at one of the specialty restaurants. Unfortunately, it took us a rather long time to establish that it wasn’t going to work out, and by the time we understood that we couldn’t be seated for sushi until 9.30 p.m., it was after seven p.m. By this point I was feeling overwhelmed and cross, and my daughter — who had dressed up prettily for the occasion — was feeling overwhelmed, cross, and a little seasick — and we fell back on going to the vast, complimentary, buffet for dinner. This felt like a massive failure, but in retrospect I don’t know why. I guess we had such high hopes, but the reality was that we didn’t know how to arrange things so as to make the hopes come true. There are all these protocols about making reservations and plans that we just didn’t understand until it was basically too late. We were all bummed out about this, but shouldn’t have bothered feeling this way, because going to the big huge buffet was really pretty damned great. My husband and I talked it over a couple of nights ago, standing in our kitchen. “The company really doesn’t give you a good guide to how the food situation works on the ship,” I said. “I think it’s one of those things where you do it once, you learn the ropes, and after that you have a grip on things and you know how to do it right.” “I guess so,” my husband said. “I mean,” I went on, “I only realized after we were home that one of the restaurants on the ship that I thought looked good — it wasn’t one of the extra-cost places, it was complimentary! Complimentary Thai food. We would have liked that!” My husband’s eyes widened. “Aw, man!” he said, genuinely wounded. “I know!” I said. “But it’s really on us at some level for not having figured it out.” “Well,” my husband said — and I knew what he was thinking, but wasn’t saying: “Next time we’ll get it right.”

The fact was, despite our cruise-incompetence, we ate quite well. I don’t know what we were expecting to find at the huge cafeteria-style restaurant, but what we found was, I want to say, infinitely better than I thought it would be. All of us cheered up, to be quite honest, when we realized that even the “free” food would involve lots of very, very decent options. This was not a place where we’d face sad microwaved meals and or things that looked like TV dinners. (Ok, actual in-the-foil-tray TV dinners would have been a novelty, I admit, but considering the money we’d shelled out, it would not have been amusing for more than about 20 minutes.) My daughter was particularly enchanted by the pasta station. That first night, after the Major Sushi Disappointment, I was hugely relieved to see her home in on the pasta (serious comfort food for a sad little girl), laser-like and practically slobbering when we watched a chef assemble a plate of spaghetti for a blue-haired teenager on line in front of us. “Excuse me,” I asked the girl, “but is that an Alfredo sauce he’s putting together for you?” “It is!” she said, turning and giving me a big smile. “Doesn’t it look good? And they have all these things you can add on, if you want, too.” She stepped to the side a little and gestured: there were pans with cooked spinach, chopped up bacon, green peas, chopped olives, grated Parmesan, all with little spoons, and you could put as much as you wanted on your plate of pasta. “I want that!” my daughter said, having totally forgotten the Sushi Fiasco. The blue-haired teenager smiled at her and said, “Alfredo’s my favorite.” “Mine too!” said my daughter. And I thought, “We’re gonna be okay here: God Bless You, blue-haired stranger.” The blue-haired kid was all right; my daughter would be all right; I would be all right.

I agonized over the lost sushi dinner over the next few days, by the way. Several times I tried to get us in; I never succeeded. We did attend a sushi-making demonstration, after which my girl snagged about three pieces of sushi, but it wasn’t the same thing, and I knew it. I made plans in my head to make this up to her in the next few weeks, once we were home, because I felt so terrible about it — having a sushi dinner on the ship was one of the three things she most wanted to do during this vacation. But every single time we tried to get to the sushi place, we couldn’t get a seat. I don’t really want to harp on this restaurant-incompetence thing (whether the problem was with us or the cruise line) but it was really frustrating. We just couldn’t get it right with the “specialty restaurants,” most of the time. The one time it worked out was a night when it was just me and my husband dining because my daughter had decided to do the kids’ program thing during the dinner hour (an additional $6 fee, totally worthwhile).

Several times we had this experience, wherein my daughter would dress up for dinner, we’d make a go of it, and fail miserably. She’d wind up at the big buffet, feeling weirdly overdressed because everyone else in the room was wearing shorts and t-shirts. She was a good sport about it because she is, truly, an exceptionally good-natured kid, but if we had a different sort of child, this kind of thing would have meant week-ruining disaster.

Our second evening, we did go to one of the fancier places, which also turned out to be one of the “complimentary” restaurants. Not that we understood this at the time we asked to be seated, mind you. But that was the night my daughter fell ill just as our meal was served to us, and in the end she never ate it. (She didn’t puke, thanks for asking, and I made sure we left the table before the horror of puking in public became a possibility. But she sure didn’t feel good, and seeing her sitting at the table with tears in her eyes, the food in front of her, made it clear to me that The Evening Was Over for me and for her.) My poor husband ate his dinner alone in a grand dining room at an elegantly set table. He brought me my meal on a takeout platter, for me to eat in the room. (Incidentally that meal was one of the two I consumed that I deemed not quite as good as it should have been — I had a lovely dish, a risotto, but as I ate it I came to realize it had been over-salted. As quibbles go, this is very minor, and no one should take it as a slam against the food on this cruise.

A number of people have asked me what it was like sleeping on the ship, and I’ve said that for the most part it was quite pleasant. That night of the failed Fancy Dinner, however, was also the night that the ship sailed through some very turbulent waters. None of us slept well. It was quite dismal. It was comparable to the bad sleep you get as the parent of a newborn. We would start to drift off to sleep, doze for half an hour, and awaken, feeling awful. As with our not knowing how to get into one of the special restaurants, we couldn’t tell if we felt awful and couldn’t sleep because we were loser naive newbies or if this was just objectively speaking bad sailing and everyone on the ship was having the same kind of trouble. It turned out it was very bad indeed — later in the week my husband and I chatted with a woman who had gone on multiple cruises, yearly, for more than thirty years, and she said that that night was by far the worst night she’d ever had on a ship. This made us feel a lot better: the problem was just that it had been a horrible night, not that we were unusually pantywaisted. Obviously it’s not that we were happy to’ve learned that everyone was so miserable, per se; but there’s a relief in knowing that the fault isn’t yours for being stupid or not planning well.

The day after that bad night, we were kind of dragging our asses around, but it was all right because, after all, we weren’t obligated to do anything. Anything. Our daughter, who awoke feeling groggy but strangely game, ate breakfast and went happily to the children’s program — she was in the Dolphin group and having a blast — and my husband and I took our books and read in various cozy nooks scattered around the ship. We met up for meals, but otherwise, we each did pretty much what we pleased.

The day we landed in Florida, at Cape Canaveral, the ship emptied out. It seemed that most people had decided to shell out what I felt were ludicrous amounts of money to go on various stupid excursions. You could go to Disneyworld or you could go to a beach someplace or you could go scuba diving or whatever the hell; I don’t even know what the options all were, but I’d glanced at the list and said, “I’m not paying $250 so we can go do that!” and declared that this was a day for us to just enjoy the ship. Unwind. I made an appointment to get a pedicure, something I hadn’t done in possibly three years (fuck, it might have been five years). Everyone got into lines on Deck Four or whatever it was to disembark to have Organized Fun, and we settled in for a happy day of, I don’t know, Disorganized Non-Fun, which is, of course, our idea of a nice time.

So we hung around. The weather was warm, the sky was sunny and blue, and much as New Haven in the summertime is lovely because the Yalies are gone, the ship was a much more pleasant place to be with so many people on land. The three of us met up for meals, taking most of them at the large buffet-style cafeteria that ran down the middle of the 12th deck, near the outside area where there were swimming pools and hot tubs. My husband and I tried out one of the hot tubs; it was okay. We sat in the surprisingly crowded library and watched a dancer try to help people sign out books. We walked through the duty-free shopping area and gawped at the things you could buy: booze, cigars, perfume, jewelry I would never wear personally, ongepotchket watches. Everything was, even if duty-free, priced to involve fairly serious money, and while I know enough about booze to know that there were some good deals to be found, on the whole, this wasn’t a place where I wanted to shop for fun. What’s more, I really don’t have any use for Life is Good t-shirts or beach towels. Basically, all the merchandise was there for people whose tastes were not like ours. We spent a solid 90 minutes trying to find something we’d want to splurge on, and left empty-handed. If we ever go on a cruise I’d like to see things like racks of, I don’t know, Chuck Taylors, or 100% cotton oxford cloth shirts in dignified colors and prints, or bowties. Other things I’d be happy to shop for: jewelry made out of old watch parts; aprons and tablecloths from the 1940s; table service from cruise lines of the 20th century. (That could be a goldmine, people. Think about it.)

*The ship’s library is maintained, as best I can tell, not by an actual librarian but by members of the ship’s Entertainment Crew. The young woman who watched as I checked out a book was a blonde dancer. I didn’t have to ask her if she was a dancer to know  that she was a dancer. She was obviously a dancer. My suspicions were confirmed some nights later when we saw her and her colleagues perform an incredibly energetic Tribute to the 70’s, one of the most glittery shows I’ve ever seen, and I’m no stranger to glittery shows.

2. The Hausfrau Packs It In, and All of It Weighs Less Than 50 Pounds

The literature from the travel agent and the cruise line advised me that each passenger on the ship is permitted to bring up to two suitcases, none weighing more than 50 lbs. It speaks volumes about how little I travel that I was completely fucking freaked out by this. How could I pack enough books to read if I could only bring 100 pounds of stuff? I wondered if it would finally be worth it for me to buy a Kindle and download a lot of books to it. I began to make LISTS.

Because we do not travel much, and when we do travel it’s usually by car, and always to places where we know we can buy things we need if we’ve left stuff at home by accident, we do not have the kind of rolly-suitcases everyone has these days. We don’t have suitcases, in fact. My husband likes to pack in a small canvas duffel bag I scored him at a nursery school tag sale when our daughter was four, and I like to pack in a largish black leather doctor’s bag I got in the 1990s. It has style and is quite spacious but there’s no question it’s not the most efficient thing one could pack in, and it’s awkward to carry. My husband used to use a twin to my doctor’s bag, which I found for him in the early 2000s when he admired my bag, but ever since he got his duffel bag, he prefers that and the second doctor’s bag is most often used by our daughter. I wondered grimly if we could fit everything we’d need into these three bags plus one small carryon for each of us (my husband would use his messenger bag, I would use my usual big black tote bag I schlep with me everywhere, my daughter would use her school backpack).

The weekend before we were to leave, I said to my daughter, “Let’s figure this out.” I took out the two leather bags (my husband would have to figure out his own shit) and my lists and we began to organize our stuff. Many pairs of underwear, many t-shirts. A couple nice outfits for my daughter; separates for me that could be dressed up or down depending on what was going on; one actual nice dress for me. Several pairs of shoes for each of us (Keens, cute flats, and Chuckies for my girl; ugly-but-comfortable clogs for me plus two pairs of cute flats; I do not do sandals except in the most unusual circumstances, and this did not qualify as unusual enough, and that gives you a sense of how I feel about sandals, though I do own a pair). Two bathing suits each. Several pairs of shorts for my daughter; a million ponytail holders; barrettes; six books for me; two for my daughter, who doesn’t read as fast as I do; a fresh blank notebook for my daughter and good drawing pencils in a sturdy box, because she draws the way I read. Toiletries; Dramamine (kid and adult dosages); computer; phone; cords; DVD player to plug into the computer (so that we could choose our own movies to watch, if we needed downtime — this turned out to be a very smart decision, bringing this stuff though it was heavy) and three DVDs chosen with the directive, “Pick out three things you’d want to watch if you were feeling like crap and wanted to watch something cozy to help you feel better.” (Discs chosen by my girl: “Best in Show,” a season of A Bit of Fry & Laurie; and “The Princess Diaries.”) We packed everything carefully into our two bags. I borrowed a bathroom scale from our neighbor Sarah (no, we don’t own a bathroom scale) and to my astonishment, our bags weighed exactly the same amount: 16 lbs., 4 oz.

“The weight limit is 50 pounds!” I said. The realization that we’d packed everything we absolutely needed, bare bones, and come in at not even thirty pounds was sobering. What on earth was everyone else planning to bring that they’d hit a 50 x 2 baggage limit? My mother had given us, as a bon voyage gift, these nylon packing cubes that are designed to help you pack as much stuff as you can into very finite spaces. I was skeptical about their utility, but had to admit that I was able to cram a phenomenal amount of stuff into the three cubes that came in our set: I had 7 t-shirts, two pairs of bicycle shorts, one pencil skirt, one dress, all my underwear (including bras and two pairs of socks), two bathing suits, one kimono (it’s what I use as a pool cover-up), two pairs of flats, a set of pajamas, and one summer-weight sweater crammed into two of those little cubes. They fit effortlessly into my suitcase. I was then able to put six books into the bag, along with toiletries. My daughter packed into her cube almost everything she planned to bring, period. Her bag had actual room to spare, and she took her favorite stuffed animal with her, too.

On arriving at the terminal we realized that we wouldn’t even have to check our bags, which was a big time-saver. We waltzed right down the paths through all the paperwork checking (passports? passports? passports?) and before we knew it we were boarding the ship. The whole process took maybe fifteen minutes. It was incredibly well-organized, on the cruise line’s part, but also our having almost nothing with us made everything very simple. I watched as families wrangled massive, complicated collections of baggage onto big carts and made sure the tags said whatever they were suposed to say. We didn’t even need luggage tags! I kept thinking, “What do these people know to bring that we didn’t bring?” I genuinely have no idea what they all brought that we didn’t. Probably more clothes, more pairs of shoes, bigger bottles of shampoo and jars and bottles of hair product we don’t use. I have no idea. All I know is, I was really glad we didn’t have that much shit to lug around. We felt very light and carefree as we bounded onto the boat. The only thing I didn’t have with me, that I really wished I had with me, was a copy of David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his cranky essay from 1995 about going on a cruise.


It turned out to be a very good thing we’d brought so little stuff on our trip because our cabin turned out to be so tiny that I don’t know what we would have done with any extra stuff anyhow; we’d’ve had to throw it out into the ocean and then been arrested for polluting international waters or something. Our cabin, which was, as requested, one of the itty-bitty windowless jobs, was a small rectangle that contained mostly a bed. There was a bunk bed on a hinge that when closed folded flat to the wall but when open hovered over about a third of the primary bed. The bathroom was equipped with slightly miniaturized versions of everything necessary — sink, toilet, shower — the shower was actually slightly bigger than I expected it to be, not merely a stall, which is smart because doubtless a lot of cruise guests need to bathe with their young children and this allows for enough space to do that (a regular stall would not). A retractable clothesline extended from one end of the shower to the other, also very smart. The “hallway” into the cabin was lined floor to ceiling with closet space, shelving, and drawers, all designed with curved edges so that there were no drawer handles to take up even a centimeter of clearance space in the very narrow hall. This was a situation where tidiness was mandatory; any sloppiness in the household would reduce our living conditions to total chaos. My husband was absolutely fucking thrilled. “I want our house to be just like this,” he said happily, over and over again.

Our daughter was initially alarmed by how tight the bed situation seemed to be — the big bed wasn’t the king-size bed she’s accustomed to sharing with us when we travel, but a queen. “Don’t worry,” my husband assured her, “Look!” He defied maritime law by not waiting for housekeeping to open the bunk bed and lowered it himself. Our girl was immediately charmed by her little loft/bunk bed and placed her stuffed animal against the pillows we tossed up to her there. “The two of you are gonna fight over who gets to sleep up there, aren’t you,” I mused as I began to unpack my things. “We can share,” my daughter said.

We unpacked our things, which took about fifteen minutes, and slid our bags under the large bed; having mastered the cabin (and learned that flushing the toilet would create a sound so echoing and booming that we vowed to flush it as infrequently as we could get away with) we decided to go for a walk and see what there was to see.

The ship we were on is not the largest or the fanciest of cruises, but it’s pretty nice. It certainly gets cleaned a lot. Everywhere you looked there were crew members cleaning things, making things just so; there are crew members standing in doorways holding spray bottles of Purell or similar, calling, “Washy-washy!” so that you’ll accept a spritz of hand sanitizer. It is clear that hygiene on the ship is a constant concern; no one wants to have an outbreak of norovirus or God knows what while traveling. All guests are constantly urged to wash their hands in the liberally-scattered-about bathrooms, and submit to Washy-washy, and as far as I can tell the guests pretty much submit.

It was around 2 p.m. when we boarded our ship, and the ship set sail at three. We were all notified that we had to learn what to do in the event of an emergency, and all 2300 of the guests assembled in a very large, grandly decorated dining area to get a lecture and demonstration of life jacket procedure. Then, we were told, we should go relax. “LET’S PARTY!” hollered some bonehead, already sounding drunk. I looked at my husband; he looked at me. “Red Sox fan,” he said. And we were off.

1. Hausfrau, Ahoy! Or, The Hausfrau Takes a Vacation.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned the fact that my husband is building a boat in our apartment. Given the layout of our living quarters, this is less totally fucked up than it sounds, but it’s still pretty damned bonkers.

My husband has a long-standing thing for boats without actually being a sailor or even particularly knowledgable about boats in a meaningful way. He is naturally a fan of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, and reads books about life on the sea, but his own primary experiences on the ocean is limited to, say, a whale watch off the Massachusetts shore once a decade; maybe going out on a high school pal’s dad’s lobster boat (my husband grew up on Cape Cod). There was a time, around fifteen years ago, when he tried to convince me that we should sail to Europe, wicked cheap, by going on one of those miserable-looking cargo ships. Sure we wouldn’t have nice food or air or anything, but we’d be sailing to Europe.

Needless to say, I said something along the lines of “No fucking way,” and that was that.

When our daughter began to express interest in boats my husband encouraged this interest whole-heartedly. Last summer, at camp, she built a small wooden sailboat which we carried over to the river near our apartment building and sailed a bit; it’s a small boat but sturdy and well-designed. “We could build a real boat,” my husband said excitedly. Before I knew it I was getting emails from him alerting me that I should be ready to receive a package from this company or that company: these were plans and pieces of wood and large heavy bottles of God-knows-what which he would use to build his own dinghy. I was told our daughter would help, and she confirmed this. I asked dubiously if they’d be able to get said built sea-faring device out of our apartment, and was told, “It’s only going to be nine feet long, jeez.”

This is longer than our piano, which was a bear to get into the apartment, but okay. I have not put up any kind of stink about this boat-thing, at all. I’ve not been silent about it, mind you — I make fun of my husband as often as I can on the subject — but I’ve not complained.

However, one side-effect of all this boat stuff is that my husband and child began to talk more about big boats, e.g. cruise ships, and a long-standing hypothetical idea we’d had — to go on a cruise at Christmastime so as to have Christmas with the family without the strain of having to stage Christmas, per se — evolved very abruptly this past February into a plan wherein we would go on a cruise over our daughter’s spring break from school.

“Are you serious?” I asked. I wasn’t being flip; I genuinely couldn’t tell if this was something I was supposed to spring into action about — should I start researching cruise lines and travel dates and costs and things like that? Or was this just another topic of conversation that would get batted about every six months, playfully, the way it is when one of our cats notices a cat toy that he’s just noticed under the dining room breakfront. Sure, the toy’s been there for months just waiting to be played with, but only now, suddenly, is the toy of interest. It will be intensely interesting and the object of rage and the cause of much yowling for about twenty-four hours, and then the cat will lose it again under something and forget about it and I will carefully not vacuum it up for several months until the cat notices it again. So, cruise-chat now, but, ha ha ha, not really, don’t worry about it. We’re just kidding.

“Look into it,” my husband said. “I’ll figure out a budget,” he said.

Once the word “budget” is spoken then you know this shit is on, and it’s time for me to get to work.
I spent a morning poking around online and discerned that there were spring cruises that would sail out of New York the day after our daughter’s spring break started. “We could leave April 14 and come back the 21st; school starts again the 23rd,” I told my husband. “Find out precise costs for different rooms and options,” he said.

I quickly realized I had no fucking idea how to interpret the ship’s elaborate and yet utterly uninformative website. I could glean what explosive or sharp objects we could not bring on the hypothetical cruise but couldn’t for the life of me figure out what anything actually cost. My dear friend S., who used to work on cruise ships, recommended that I go to a particular website to book our trip at a tremendous discount. I went to the website dutifully, but still couldn’t make head or tail of anything.

I began to cavil, worrying about the possibility that the three of us would show up at the boat and they would say, “um, no, you only booked for two people. Sorry, kid!” and the opposite of hilarity would ensue.

“Call a travel agent,” advised my husband. Because there is a travel agent next door to the video store we still go to (we are loyalists, what can I say), I phoned them up. “Talk to me like I’m an idiot and explain to me how I can get us onto this cruise for a less than completely-horrific amount of money,” I said to the nice man on the phone, naming a dollar amount that made me feel seasick.

“We can do this,” I was assured by Dan the travel agent, and within half an hour I had an email from him with a list of various options and packages, all of which would get us onto the cruise to a warm island, leaving New York on the 14th and returning to New York on the 21st, all of which cost right around our budget cap (some a tiny bit less, some a tiny bit more). I forwarded the email to my husband and said, “Pick a plan and I’ll book it.”

I also consulted with our old pal S., who, as I’ve mentioned, worked on cruises for several years as a pastry chef, and who’s been urging us to go cruising for ages on the grounds that my husband would love the boatiness of the experience and that I’d love the food and ability to lie around doing nothing for a week. She gave her valued opinion, which I then emailed to my husband. Since S. and my husband turned out to be in agreement on the matter, the matter was settled; I wrote back to Dan the Travel Agent and said, “I guess we’re gonna do this.”

The next couple of months were spent fretting about how to pack for this trip and over who would take care of our two shithead cats and how we’d schlep all our stuff to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. You know, the logistics of the thing. I had total faith that once we were on the boat, everything would be fine. (Oddly, I was not worried about us all drowning, or the ship going down in flames, or bedbugs, or even seasickness: this makes no sense at all, but really, it’s true.  I wasn’t at all worried about all the things that could go disastrously wrong. But I was worried to the point of nausea thinking about all the details of home, and the logistics of getting to the ship, that could go wrong.) I lined up a cat sitter. I realized that the Manhattan Cruise Terminal was ridiculously close to Grand Central Station, and determined that if we packed cautiously we could easily take the train to New York and walk or cab it over to W. 44th Street (cab would be more expensive but probably easier, what with our carrying heavy bags, I thought to myself). My husband spent time watching YouTube videos about cruising, our daughter curled up on the couch next to him. “That’s what our boat will look like,” he told her. There were clips of people lounging by pools, eating yummy food, eating ice cream. There were shots of cabins with balconies and remarkable views off those balconies. “We’re not getting a balcony,” I reminded my family.

“Aw,” said my daughter. I shot her a look. “We’re not paying for a balcony,” I said grimly. “We’re not even going to have a window,” my husband said, “but it really won’t matter since we’ll hardly ever be in our cabin. We’re gonna be out and about on this massive ship having a great time.”

“I won’t have to cook anything for a week,” I said dreamily, imagining a week of eating food that wasn’t great or interesting but which would have the primary virtue of not having been thought up or worked on by me, at all. “And I won’t have to do laundry, either.” “Nope! No cooking, no laundry,” my husband said. “You’ll do the laundry when we get home,” my daughter reminded me, ever the buzzkill. “That’s okay,” I told her. “It really won’t be so bad because we’re gonna pack really smart and it’ll be a piece of cake.”

“This is gonna be great,” my husband said happily, over and over again.


One thing nagged at my husband, which was the question of getting to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal. We had figured out that walking from Grand Central with our (not-yet-packed, but mentally in our hands) bags would be a pain in the ass. “With train fares and cab fares,” my Excel-spreadsheet-minded husband mused, “it might be worth it to hire a driver to take us right to the terminal.” I explored hiring a limo services; it was insanely expensive. I looked into having someone drive us in our own car to the terminal and then drive our car back to our apartment; it was do-able, but also not cheap and possibly more trouble than it was worth. “Maybe we should take an Uber,” my husband said thoughtfully. Now, I always thought he’d hated Uber, but apparently this was a situation so out of our normal range that anything was possible. At that moment I remembered a particular Uber car we’d seen around our neighborhood for the last couple years. This car was occasionally parked in our neighborhood and it was noteworthy because the car’s owner has been decking it out, slowly and painstakingly, with red, black, and white duct tape: it is a kind of hyper-elaborate Mondrian painting, done in duct tape, inside the car and outside the car. It’s a mobile work of art.

It was only last fall that we discovered that this car was actually an Uber-driver’s car; we learned this because there was an article about him in the local paper. My daughter and I had mentioned the article to my husband. “Remember we told you about that crazy car with the duct tape all over it?” we had told him. “Turns out the guy who owns it is an Uber driver!” “That’s really funny,” my husband had said. We all enjoyed thinking about the funny red, black, and white duct-taped car.

My husband turned to my daughter, then, one Saturday morning in late March, and said, “What if we got this guy with the duct tape car to drive us to the Terminal? Would you like that?” Our girl’s eyes got very round and she gasped: the answer was, basically, “I would totally fucking LOVE that.”

I said, “I’ll see if I can get in touch with him to see if he’d be available to do this.” Ten seconds of Facebooking later, I had established that the driver was friends with some 45 or so of my local pals, and I messaged one of them to ask, “You know this guy who drives the Uber? How would I get in touch with him? You think he’d want to drive us to New York?”

Two hours later I was texting with the Duct Tape Driver, a very sweet Polish guy named Adam who’s lived in our little city for about twenty years. I explained that I was friends with tons of his friends — no, I’m not a local musician but I run in those circles — and that I was trying to find an efficient way for me and my family to arrive at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal on April 14th to board a ship. It turned out that Adam used to drive for the limousine service that goes from Connecticut to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, he knew the route well, and he was available and tickled by the request.

The cat sitter was lined up. I knew when I’d deliver the keys to her. The trip to Manhattan was settled. All I had to do was pack and get us out the door. This would involve a lot of freaking out, but it wasn’t more than I could handle.

I sent a message to two of my mama friends. “I can’t believe we’re going to do this,” I wrote, “but we’re going to do this.” “I can’t wait to read what the Hausfrau has to say about the experience,” one of them wrote back immediately.

“You know,” I said, “I hadn’t even stopped to think about writing about this. Isn’t that funny?”

Beet Jam. Beet Marmalade. Beet Condiment. I don’t know what the hell this is.

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to come up with ideas for things to serve at an event scheduled to happen in late November and so I pulled out a stack of cookbooks and sat down on the couch and began turning pages.
One of the books I pulled out was Marion Cunningham’s Lost Recipes, which is a book I’ve read probably fifteen times. You’d think I would have noticed this recipe for Beet Marmalade before, since I love beets — but no. It had entirely escaped my attention. This time, though, I snapped to and said, “AHA.” This was clearly the Special Thing that could transform so many things we already like to eat, the thing that could make a boring meal seem special. And it could, possibly, be used to tremendous effect at an event happening in late November 2018.

This assumes of course that most of us like beets. I know it is a dicey thing, serving people beets. My daughter won’t go near them, which has always really bummed me out. So let me rephrase: this could be the Special Thing that brings light and joy to an otherwise humdrum meal, for the sort of person who likes beets.

Otherwise, of course, it’s a total fucking nightmare. But, you know, whatevs.


Cunningham’s recipe goes like this (allowing for my paraphrasing):

Take four medium-large beets. Boil the crap out of them, peel, chop, throw into food processor and mash up. Transfer lurid glop into saucepan and add 1 1/2 cups sugar. Take one large lemon and 2 tablespoons chopped, peeled fresh ginger, throw into food processor until finely chopped. Add lemon/ginger mixture to pot on stove, and stir, cooking over medium-low heat, until glop has thickened, which takes only a couple of minutes.

Now I am not into lemon and I’ve got a limited interest in ginger. However, it was clear that the basic concept was something in which I could have a deep, abiding interest, and that it would be easy peasy not-lemon squeezy to adapt the recipe to my tastes, desires, and available ingredients.

As it happened, this weekend we were expecting dinner guests, an old college friend traveling from out of town, and his wife, a total stranger to me. They were traveling to town so the wife could attend a conference in town here — not travel for fun at all. They would be ending their visit by stopping by our house. I felt strongly that this called for a certain kind of evening: An evening meal that was homey and simple but good was mandatory. I didn’t have to fret about elaborate presentations, but I didn’t want the meal to be boring, either. I defaulted to making a roast chicken and potatoes, and then began to think about what I could do to give people an option to jazz that up: it was clear to me that beet marmalade would be the answer. The vegetable on the side, requested by my daughter, would be broccoli cooked with a large quantity of garlic. It seemed to me that this plan would make for a pleasantly colorful, but comforting, meal — familiar, but not stodgy, with a little bit of zip and zing.

Now, I had planned ahead, at some 101-level. I had in the house a bunch of really big beets, and I had a six-pound chicken to roast. So I felt like I was in reasonable shape, when I woke up on Saturday morning.

At eight I took the four massive beets from my fridge, put the oven to 400°, and wrapped the beets in foil after giving them a scrub. I let them roast for a ludicrously long time because to be honest big beets take forever to cook through — I think I had them in the oven for close to two hours. In those two hours I established how I would cook the potatoes (fuck it: bake ’em) and went out to the store to buy some fresh broccoli.

Around two in the afternoon I unwrapped the beets, peeled them, and threw three of them into the food processor. (The last beet, I’m saving for another project.) Once I had a beet puree, I dumped all the glop into a small pot and went to the fridge to look for my bottle of ginger juice, which is very handy. Ginger juice totally makes up for the fact that I almost never have fresh ginger around.

Turns out, I’m out of ginger juice.

Without missing a beat I thought, “Well, to hell with it,” and turned to the sweet drawer, where I had a jar of candied ginger. It’s probably been sitting there for four years. I took out about five big pieces and threw them into the food processor with about half a cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar and the juice of the borderline-sad half-lime I had in the fridge and the half a red onion I had sitting next to the lime. I whizzed all of that together in the processor and added it to the beets in the pot. I turned on the flame and cooked this down, stirring often, over about ten minutes, and then I left it to cool.

When I tasted it I said, aloud, “Damn this is good.”

I set a little dish of it out on the dining table at dinnertime, before I carved the chicken. I said, “Ok, this is beet jam, or beet marmalade, or something. You can put it on a slice of bread or you can have it with your chicken or you could put it on your potatoes or whatever.” Many spoonfuls of this stuff were added to plates — it turned out all of us were people who like beets (except my daughter, who curled her lip at the dish, but that’s her problem). I found it was excellent on bread with some cheddar cheese and also with goat cheese. It was a lovely counterpoint to the roast chicken. There was really nothing wrong with it. “This will be added to the Thanksgiving table, I think,” my husband said.

I am already thinking about variant forms of this beet condiment. I am imagining a wholly-sweet version that could be used to glaze a chocolate beet cake, a suggestion made by a beet-loving friend with whom I discussed this condiment. I am imagining an more savory version, made with less sugar and lots and lots of chopped onion. I’m predicting many towels will be beet-stained in the months to come. I’m predicting, too, a dire uptick in my use of Fels-Naptha. It may be worthwhile to invest in a magenta-colored tablecloth.

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