a supposedly fun thing might be fun
(with apologies to DFW)
My in laws are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and because they are deeply generous people, as their gift to themselves, they are taking their three grown children and relevant spouses, which includes, well, me. I’m delighted to be part of a family where the idea of ultimate decadence is a shared experience. Also, for the record, I am terrified of boats, and prone to seasickness, and have an incurable case of bitterness that causes me to break out in hives at displays of kitschy earnestness short of drag or John Waters movies (which are basically drag), or maybe Richard Simmons, because he embodies sunshine and love.
One time I went to a Soul Cycle class and in a room full of sweaty cyclists, each one pushing their own legs as hard as they could, the instructor was giving us inspirational quotes about how each one of us can accomplish anything and that the only limit is ourselves and that we are giants inside, and the entire time, my head was on fire with anticapitalist critiques while an instructor kept telling me to push for my dreams, and I kept thinking that we should be dismantling capitalism and pushing together, and about how unfair it is that we tell people they can do anything when the system is truly set against them. All this, while pushing and pedaling at the required rate, and my internal rant against rugged individualism was written all over my face, and the deep believing sincerely cheerful instructor kept looking at me and apologizing for making me uncomfortable. As a bitter gen xer who grew up in a relentlessly sunny place (California has been in a drought for most of my life), rain is a blessing, and dark days are holy, and nihilistic novels and noir movies are the highest joys one can find. My resting bitch face can turn milk sour when it’s unchecked and if salt was a skill that employers hired for I’d be at least a middle manager by now, even with age and gender working against me.
I love that Wallace essay, where he just sympathetically shreds the cruise experience while respecting participants’ desire to belong and have fun. His description of a manufactured experience complete with a mall and a large menu of bland optional activities, he fed my need for wry nihilism and cheerless complicity, and with respect for his genius, I need to put that behind me.
A Carribean cruise is really the last place I’d ever thought to find myself, and younger me would be deeply aghast at this set of plans, and would be arranging to pack the blackest of black clothing, and anticipating a week of wet blanket impersonations, draping myself dramatically about the ship whining about the sun and the heat. All of this, of course, stemmed from anxiety and a sense of not belonging, which make no mistake — is still a pervasive cognitive distortion, but now I recognize it as ridiculous. It’s easy to get caught up in a fear of bad conga line scenarios — what if everyone is lining up, and I can’t bring myself to get in the line, and get mocked by the MC and, in a moment of defensiveness, display my unpleasant surliness to the entire dining room? Or what if I go into the conga line and someone gropes me? Seems unlikely. But not impossible.
My concerns are many though, and some of them cut deep. I fear for mediocre coffee and not enough to do as a person who’s tastes run towards the eccentric. I fear having panic attacks in the middle of the water, and running out of books I want to read, and getting sunburned or worse, tanned. I fear not knowing what to talk about with my esteemed and accomplished in-laws, while I flounder in my tech career and dally about in my innumerable hobbies. Mostly though, I just fear not belonging and not being loved.
So I have to challenge myself to grow. Here I draw on my social science background, and to infiltrate this new environment, I have to learn to embrace the tacky. To love the fake old but really new bars, to allow the MC’s tired enthusiasm to waft over me and let it in, to bond with my parents in law while they k’vell over the beauty of the ship and the ocean on a deck chair with a tacky drink in my hand. Maybe it’ll have an umbrella and come in a coconut, and maybe, participating in conga lines will be let me be part of the scene.
Or, maybe it’s just a week and I can get through with a smile by keeping a pencil in my teeth. This will also be acceptable.