My family recently went on a cruise to Alaska. Ostensibly, we went to see the glaciers (before they melt!) but, really, it was about spending quality time in close quarters. The older we all get, the harder it is to coordinate our schedules. Someone’s spring break is always someone’s exam week. My brother’s teaching in Europe while I’m vacationing in South America.
Somehow—a testament to her perseverance and advance planning—my mother managed to book the four of us.
And so off we went, anxious about cell-phone reception and wary of the infamous cruise-15 (a variant on the freshman-15 that a college student gains in one semester; the cruise-15 you can gain in a week of dessert buffets and midnight breakfasts).
Each of us was differently resolved to be on our best behavior. After all, this was the first vacation we had taken together since I moved out of the house and my brother graduated from college. It was also, as my mother reminded me, possibly our last as a unit: I’m getting married and our family vacations will, happily, expand to include the in-laws. In any case, put two “kids,” of any age, in close quarters with their parents, and the interpersonal dynamics risk regressing about fifteen years.
For the record: This cruise was not like anything I expected. Mum had gone all out, so we had beautiful rooms with private balconies overlooking the ocean. The ship itself was tremendous, with much more on offer than the mediocre song-and-dance shows that Simon Cowell cites to demean singers on American Idol (“You sang like someone who sings on a cruise ship”). There were half a dozen pools and jacuzzis, a movie theater, library, writing room, numerous restaurants, a casino, dance clubs, arcades, bars, and more. The ship was terrifically appointed and our vacation was terribly indulgent.
I don’t intend this as an advertisement for the cruise, nor are all cruises created equal. But I do want to consider my recent cruise experience in relation to what it means “to cruise” more generally. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cruise has at least two meanings: “to sail to and fro over some part of the sea without making for a particular port or landing-place”; or “to walk or drive about (the streets) in search of a casual sexual partner.” The latter usage is most commonly used to refer to the solicitation of a homosexual partner (what we refer to as “cruising”). Together, these definitions give the verb its rich meaning and connotations. To cruise is to wander or sail aimlessly, to be open to pleasurable experiences, to go with the proverbial flow, whether of the waves and tide or the vagaries of public encounters.
Given the dual definition, you might talk about going on a family cruise, but certainly not about family “cruising.” And yet, why not? My family was obviously not out soliciting partners, but the more I think about it, we were “cruising” in many senses of the word. We were all open, relaxed, ready to engage with the folks we met on the ship, prepared to let go of the past—the little bickering that normally taints a family vacation with adult children—and resolved not to focus too much on the uncertain future. Encounters were casual, pleasurable. Coffee on the balcony stretched into cocktails on the deck, with no talk of email or phone calls or any of the “other things” with which we typically busy ourselves. I can think of no other time in recent years that we’d allowed ourselves to be so fully involved in the present.
My father had work hanging over his head, but, thanks to the ship’s dicey wireless network, his Blackberry couldn’t ever upload his email. So instead he read, napped, and hit the gym, and wandered up to higher decks for wider views of the ocean and glaciers. My famously beautiful mother drew admirers in the buffet line, made friends on the streets of every port we visited, read and drank wine over Scrabble. My brother and I even entered a singing contest, a la Idol, to see who had the greatest “pop-star potential” on the ship. He was terrific, suited and booted and perfectly pitched; my singing was mediocre at best, but my closed-eyes swaying during the interludes seemed to garner me a few votes. It was a hoot. Or a blast. Maybe both.
Sometimes, you go on a family vacation and somebody’s stressed the entire time about a product deadline. Your school-age son is so busy texting his little girlfriend that he won’t look up to see the view. It’s a platitude, now—how hard it is to disconnect from the networks that structures our lives. It is also impossibly difficult to allow yourself to take a break from doing, going, and working toward various aims and ends. The family unit is an exemplary site of all this doing and going, a hive of busy bees in which we remind each other constantly of chores and duties and proper tasks, not to mention the right time in which to do them, and reinforce each other’s most anal and frantic tendencies.
Of course, it is a blessing to have a family to support your professional, academic, and personal aims, and provide the scaffolding for a productive and meaningful life. But we also have families to enjoy them. To just enjoy each other, and to live our lives.
I went on a cruise with my family, and my take-away was the ethos of “cruising” proper: aimless, pleasurable, presentist. Only two words remain: I recommend.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.