The Stuff of Heartbreak
I really am enjoying this cruise. I was a bit nervous about it at first--my only previous experience of sailing was as a merchant seaman during the summers in late high school and early college. And man, did I get sick of seeing nothing but ocean for days on end, with no possibility for escape. But this is nothing like that, of course. The accommodations are a lot plusher, and the company far better. It's excellent to have so much time to hang out with Nation colleagues, and the cruisers include some splendid, interesting people. And Alaska is a lot more pleasing to the eye than Rotterdam!
With our 19-month-old son Ivan to supervise, Liza Featherstone and I haven't gotten a chance to go to any panels other than ones we've been on. We tried dropping in on "The Left and Spirituality" session, and found secularism reassuringly represented, but Ivan, who normally lives in a 550-square-foot apartment, much preferred running up and down the hallways and making friends with passengers and crew. I gotta say, though, what is it with this idea that the money-changers have hijacked religion? God and the dollar have been intimate friends practically since the day the Puritans set foot here.
I was very pleased to have a chance to have things out with Ralph Nader. Ralph is obsessed with the World Trade Organization and how it's "hijacked" our democracy (there's that word again). While the WTO is certainly no friend of transparency or the working class, most of our economic problems are homegrown.
It's not the WTO that keeps us from having single-payer health insurance, or pushes college tuition ever-higher, or keeps the minimum wage down and our labor law barbarous, or determines that our energy policy be set by the oil industry. It's a lot easier to blame distant potentates for our problems than monied interests at home. In any case, it looks like Ralph and I will develop this exchange in the magazine sometime soon.
As much fun as this cruise is, there is a great contradiction at its root. How to reconcile the liberal, humane values of The Nation with the reality of a cruise, which is all about conspicuous consumption, environmental degradation, and the exploitation of labor. Having a panel on global warming as we're about to sail past the glorious but threatened Hubbard Glacier is a way to raise consciousness, but it doesn't do much to reduce our carbon footprint.
The contradictions were pungently captured for me the other day as I was carrying a sleeping Ivan down the hall toward our cabin to deposit him in our bed. The ship, MS Oosterdam, is owned by the Holland-America line, and reflecting Dutch colonial history, much of the crew--who without exception make our life onboard extremely comfy and pleasant--is Indonesian. (The officers, of course, are mainly Dutch.)
One of the crew members looked warmly at Ivan and asked me how old he was. When I told him, he said that he has a son who's almost a year old--whom he hasn't seen since he was three days old. The crew typically does eleven months at sea, and then three months home, so he'd be heading back to Indonesia in time to celebrate his son's first birthday. Sometimes I can't stand going eleven hours without seeing Ivan; eleven months is the stuff of heartbreak.