Floating Las Vegas and the Cajuns

posted September 14, 2005

Dave Chalfant calls the boat a “float-el.” A Dad joke. He has the right; sitting next to him at the dining table which overlooks the sunset (when we’re heading south) are his two children, William who is crowing like a pterodactyl while dispersing his little pile of cheerios, and Amelia who is twisting in her seat and refusing to eat more than one bite of her macaroni and cheese. She is more interested in watching to see if the orcas are going to blow.

We are spending five days at sea on a Fun Cruise. For a band who used to think of our van, Moby Juan Van Kanobe, as a boat taking us from one port of call to another, there is something surreal about this experience. We are here because of the Falcon Ridge Fan Cruise, which means people pay for the cruise and a little extra to see a couple of concerts by us, Susan Werner and the Kennedys. As a Bodhitsattva wannabe, I am having some issues and doubts that I will ever become enlightened; in fact it might be a miracle if I get off the boat next Saturday without causing myself or others bodily harm.

Cruise ship culture is alien to me. Start with the faux Greek décor; the purple walls and plastic marble columns in bas relief mixed up with the casinos in rooms named “Venezia” and “Fierenze.” There are the people half a generation older than my parents in ball gowns snapping their fingers awkwardly to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again” and other hits from the ‘80’s which are on continuous loop twenty four hours a day. There is something vaguely obscene about being on a luxury cruise when just seven days ago New Orleans drowned in waters not far from here. Everywhere, people are talking about it, blaming the government or the levees or the people who chose to make a below sea level washbowl their home. We talk about the flood and then we choose between the pork chop in the balsamic reduction and the grouper in Hollandaise sauce. And secretly, shamefully, I have this to confess: the vibe on this cruise ship reminds me more of that Crescent City than any other place I’ve played in my years on the road. There is the same high rolling spirit, the same gaudy giddiness, even some of the same fashions. But on this cruse ship, there is absolutely no sign at all of the blues.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a little problem with my attitude, and the longer I am on the boat the more persistent the question pounds in my vaguely sea sick brain: what the hell is wrong with me? What makes me incapable of enjoying what so many others clearly see as a heavenly and economically reasonable pleasure trip? Why don’t I like shuffleboard or cards or drinking or ballroom dancing or sunbathing or swimming or sitting in a sauna? Why am I this bookish freak whose idea of a good time is burrowing in her puce colored cabin (or State Room, as the Fun Ship calls it) with my laptop and my novel on Microsoft word? Don’t I know how to have fun or even what fun is?

On Wednesday, we all disembarked to visit the town of Halifax, a new destination for me. I took my iPod and listened to new songs by Ben Folds, Dar Williams and M. Ward while I explored the town. I found out almost right away that Halifax was the seat of the largest community of Acadians in the 17th and 18th Century. In 1755, the Anglos from Nova Scotia began what is known as the Grand Degagement, which is a fancy French term meaning deportation. Families were split up as the Acadians were sent all over North America. One contingent was sent to Boston, but the colony of Massachusetts refused to take them, and the whole boatload arrived back in the Maritimes. A large group was sent to Louisiana and carry on today as Cajuns (Acadian/Cajun turn out to be the same thing.) With a jolt I remembered that just the other day Massachusetts had offered to take refugees from the Hurricane and house them on Cape Cod. Tom and I had begun to collect clothing to send out there. Sweaters, warm things for folk who might not be used to the Atlantic wind in mid September. What a strange unbroken circle if some of the Cajuns ended up back in the North Atlantic.

Grumpily, I wonder how much fossil fuel a boat roughly the size of the Empire State Building uses. When I come home, I will have to atone. I will start a club called Conservation Is Cool. I yearn for 1989, when my class was graduating from college, when Earth Day was a fresh, lovely April holiday, when the nation was becoming disenchanted with the first George Bush and his gulf war, when young people shamed their elders by resurrecting the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle rhetoric. It wasn’t hard to raise people’s consciousnesses just a little. And even a little goes a long way. I might consider forgiving George W. Bush his excesses and his exaggerations (and outright lies) if he would only sincerely call on the American people to conserve and put some fiscal muscle behind the appeal. I promise I won’t tease him for wearing a sweater like they teased Jimmy Carter.

Last week, Dick Cheney called conservation a “personal virtue.” That just about sinks my club, doesn’t it? Instead of doing something because we have to, we are being told, “It might make you a better person, but if you don’t do it, you can still be forgiven, my prodigal child.” I know a ninety-year old Republican who recycles because it’s her “patriotic duty.” She lived through World War II and she remembers the importance of sacrificing for the general good.

I doodle on the daily Fun Cruise itinerary: What are some ways I can atone for the amount of fossil fuel burned by this boat?
1. keep the thermostat at 67 all winter and gain five pounds of insulation, and/or wear a couple of wool sweaters
2. ride my bike to the Stop and Shop
3. Put change into a jar to save up for a biodiesel or hydroelectric car
4. eat whole foods and lower on the food chain, eat “locally” to discourage the transportation of produce. Remember how much fuel it took to get that mango from Mexico to my bowl. Eat apples and pears instead.
5. Buy recycled products or better yet, buy less, reuse what I have
6. use cloth napkins
7. Steal Katryna’s clothes

The problem with rabid environmentalists, I muse as I wander judgmentally through this floating Las Vegas, is that we tend to take the fun out of things. No one wants to be told to give up their SUV by a self –righteous Honda Civic driver with pursed lips. How do we make environmentalism fun? It’s sort of like trying to make dieting fun, isn’t it? We could do it a la Weight Watchers where we get Fun Points for doing good and have weekly weigh ins to see where we’ve slipped. We could email each other our progress. We could focus on the joy of giving our grandchildren a planet that is almost as green as ours is now. But that’s not so different from dieting in order to one day fit into that size four in the back of the closet.

The fact is, we’re all living on credit right now. We can’t afford the life we’re living; we can’t afford the country or government we’ve inherited. We’re not paying enough in taxes, and I say this after I practically had to take out a second mortgage to pay my last tax bill. Even if you subtracted the unbelievably expensive War on Iraq, we still aren’t taking in enough money to shift our energy policies toward better fuel efficiency or alternate sources. And as the hurricane proved, we don’t even have the necessary troops to deal with the unpredictable disasters that come from the sky or the ocean, let alone from our dangerously fractured and unequal society. I’m not even talking about health care or education, or social security or any of the liberal wish list. I’m talking about infrastructure and national defense. Given what’s come before, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bush and co. called for another tax cut to deal with the crisis; more supply side economics to raise the tide as it were. But we’ve seen what high tides can do.

I am on the deck of the ship, walking in circles to try to get my daily exercise. 11.3 loops equals one mile. When is it going to be time to sacrifice and surrender, just a little, I wonder, passing a couple who each have a copy of the new Harry Potter tented over their sunbathing faces. When is it going to be time to pull together as we did in the depression, as we did in World War II? Have we forgotten that sometimes sacrifice and surrender feels good because it’s the right thing to do?

I sound like the pursed-lipped Honda Civic driver, the introverted writer scowling at the blackjack players, the tee-totaller frowning at the Mai Tai drinkers at the Oxford bar. I stop mid stride, turn my back on my fellow passengers and lean out over the North Atlantic Ocean. Earlier this morning, I watched the sun rise from my cabin window at ten minutes to six. The sun was a gaudy orange pom pom through the haze, and it came like a flare over the eastern horizon just slightly to the north. The night before, I’d watched the sun set from my dining table, the light too strong to view head on, but from my eye corner, seeing it go “bloop” into the sea. I don’t want to be a pursed-lipped scowler anymore. Is there a way I can see the positive of this cruse AND make amends for the fossil fuel it burned when I get home?

Carnival, it turns out, sent seven of its fleet down to New Orleans to rescue the victims of the hurricane. I learned this at the hootenanny we had later that afternoon, the one where we sang “The Times They Are A Changin’” and brainstormed about ways we could help the relief effort. Four of us meditated for peace and healing. I noticed, with grudging admiration, that there were absolutely no paper products on board the ship. I also noticed that the passengers on our boat represented a breakdown of the demographics of our country pretty faithfully. At $500 a week, a Carnival Cruise is a way a family can afford to take a holiday in an era where gas prices and hotel prices and food prices continue to climb steadily.

I began to notice the water. Just the water. It was so beautiful, and I realized I could stare at it all day and not get bored. I was enjoying the gentle rocking of the boat. I appreciated the fact that in my time on board, I not only finished a draft of the Big Idea but also almost completed a proposal for Effelia, my new Young Adult book. Ships make excellent writing retreats. Apparently Aldous Huxley wrote all his books on ships.

The last night onboard, I returned to the deck and waited for the moon to rise. Flanked by Jupiter and Mars, it finally appeared: a proud crescent. New Orleans will rise again, I thought. And no one knows what it will look like, how it will rise, who will make up the population of the new New Orleans. But the spirit of the delta can’t possibly die. The spirit of the blues is here, as much as people may want to pretend it’s not. And alone on the deck, I sang a slow mournful version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” Aaron Neville style.

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