My Year Away. And Back.

Three Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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It was the Best of Times. It was the Worst of Times. Life Aboard a Cruise Ship.

The beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily describe a cruise vacation.  While I’m a bit late to the cruising party, after five cruises in four years, I’m becoming a bit of an expert. This cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam, December 31-January 14, delivered just what I expected it to.

When I’m on vacation, I often don’t want to “do” all that much. Typically, I just want to relax, soak up the local culture, eat local food, and hang out. I like to go to a place, park myself there, and just see what happens.

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Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a sunrise like this?

But “seeing what happens” is the good-and not-so-good—of the cruising “culture.”  First the good.

The food. I can’t emphasize this enough. And not because there is a lot of it waiting to be gobbled up (although there is). What I love about food on a cruise is that there is always something available that I not only want to eat, but something that I can eat. One of the on-going challenges of living with achalasia is that I always have to pay attention to what I’m eating. Always. I have to analyze how my esophagus feels, make a judgment call whether the food in front of me is too hard, too leafy, or too complicated to give it a go.

Living with achalasia means that when I walk into a restaurant, I often have limited choices on what I can eat successfully. I always find something, but I might only have a couple of options on the whole menu.  However, on a cruise, the choices gloriously abound.

For breakfast on a cruise, I always start with oatmeal. (I know. I’m a little boring.) Steaming hot, hearty, and served with a smile.  (Seriously, the server who was always at the oatmeal station seemed pretty happy to see me each morning.) If I’m still feeling okay after that, I might add a croissant or some other soft bread item. Or maybe some strawberries and cheese.

For lunch, I start with soup.  During our two weeks at sea, I had roasted parsnip soup, asparagus soup, ginger carrot soup, hot and sour soup, garden tomato soup, potato leek soup—and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Then there was the spread of cheeses, fruits, pastas, stir fry, veggies, you name it. All sorts of things that were in my “achalasia-eating wheelhouse.” And, of course, a wee bit of chocolate ice cream to finish things off.

While more formal than lunch, dinner still had choices. And if there wasn’t something on the menu I wanted, I could always order salmon, which I often did. And, of course, the plethora of yummy desserts just waiting for me!

It’s not that I wanted to eat non-stop.  But feeling confident at every meal that I would be able to eat without repercussions made me feel like I was on a real vacation.

The people. While we met a couple of interesting passengers here and there over our two-week cruise, what I liked best about the people were the staff members.  In particular, Rony, Yuri, and Isman.

Rony was our room steward. He kept our room immaculate, cleaning it twice a day. As we headed to breakfast, Rony would pop in and get our cabin cleaned before we returned. The same thing would happen when we left for dinner. If we needed anything, we only had to call and he would magically show up at our door right away. He was always in a good mood, always wanted to make sure we were happy, and always tried to figure out if there was something he could do to make our cruise more enjoyable.

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Sure, on every cruise, you get towel animals. But I thought Rony’s were especially cute.

Yuri took care of us in the “Lido,” the buffet area on every cruise ship where passengers typically eat breakfast and lunch. Yuri learned our names on the first day, figured out what we liked to drink, chatted with us each morning, and was just all-around pleasant to get to know. One morning, breakfast was a bit crowded because everyone was interested in going ashore at the same time. When we showed up, Yuri found us and took us to the table she had saved for us because  she wanted to make sure we had our “regular” table.

Isman was our head waiter for our dinner table (table #115). After our first meal, Isman knew that I drank black tea after dinner, but Gary preferred herbal “sleepy time” tea. He knew that we didn’t like ice in our water. He knew that if I ordered salmon, I didn’t want Swiss chard with it. He knew that Gary didn’t like chocolate, but I did. He took care of us at every dinner like we were the most important people in the world. It was lovely.

But, then, there was “the worst of times.”

The food. While I reveled in the delicious, fresh and healthy food options, there were also plenty of other foods that I don’t even like to look at. Like mountains of bacon, piles of powdered donuts, grilled hot dogs (I really have an aversion to shaped meat), you name it.

It was bad enough to look at the unhealthy food before it was served. But it really turned my stomach to see piles of half-eaten food left on people’s plates. Sure, I could have just looked away, but I was both horrified and fascinated with the kinds of food that people had no shame about eating publicly.

The people. I hate to say it, but as lovely as the staff members were, some of our fellow passengers were, shall we say, a bit self-absorbed? I know the feeling of “hey, I’m on vacation so I can do what I want,” but there should be limits. Here’s just a glimpse of some of the things we saw.

It was beautiful in St. Maarten, but devastation from the recent hurricane was everywhere.  As we walked into town, we were amazed at the overturned sailboats, the shipping containers piled up on the shore line, the missing roofs from shops. But we were equally amazed at the resilience of the town’s residents, how happy they were to see the tourists return, and how diligently they were working to repair their beautiful seaside town. It was an inspiration.

While resting on a bench along the beach-side main street, a woman joined me and quickly started chatting. She was clearly upset.  “What’s the matter?” I said, expecting her to say something about the sadness of the devastation.  Instead, she said, “I didn’t come here to see this mess. I already saw all this on television.” All I could mumble was something like “Well, what did you expect?”

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We were so glad to visit St. Maarten on our cruise. It is breathtaking!

Seeing piles of uneaten food was bad enough, but watching some people eat was like a bad horror movie in slow motion. I saw a guy eating a pile (I’m talking about a heaping pile) of bacon.  Standing up while wandering around the buffet.  Mouth to bacon.  I mean, why use a fork if you don’t have to? Eww.

I saw people walking through the Lido deck in their bathrobes.  I saw spouses berating each other. I saw parents talking to their kids in such a way that if I were their kid, I’d start looking for scholarships to boarding schools.

But, here’s the thing about life on a cruise ship. If you know what to expect, I still say it’s a great vacation. It is definitely not for everyone. I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk the hubster into going on another one. But, I’m ready. I’m ready to sit on my balcony and watch the sun rise as it dances across the glittering ocean. I’m ready to curl up in the really comfy bed and watch movies on the large HD TV screen. I’m ready to walk laps on the Promenade Deck, listening to my Italian lessons. I’m ready to soak in the Hydrotherapy pool, letting the minerals and pulsating water take my aches and pains away. And I’m definitely ready to have someone serve me oatmeal for breakfast every morning.


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Grab a Book and Count Down to New Years!

It’s just a couple of days until the hubster and I leave for our two-week cruise.  We’re finishing our chores here at our beach house where it is ridiculously cold.  (Truth be told, I’m relieved that the weather is so bad. It makes “Hey, let’s leave the beach and go to the Caribbean” a lot more logical.)

As we take down our Christmas decorations (which so far has taken a total of about 10 minutes—I definitely went “minimalist” this year), I’ve been putting things in our cruise suitcase to make sure we remember everything we need for the next two weeks. At the top of the list are appropriate books to read. While Holland America ships typically have decent libraries on them, I don’t want to leave our reading to chance on this trip.  Considering we aren’t interested in many of the official ship activities (seriously, who plays Bingo, anyway?!), having the right books to read is critical.

I picked two: An Odyssey, a memoir by English professor Daniel Mendelsohn who takes his dad on a cruise through the locations of–wait for it–The Odyssey.  I heard the author on NPR and I was intrigued.  For my second book, I chose Return to Glow, a memoir by Chandi Wyant about her pilgrimage on the Via Francigenia in Italy. I’ll read just about anything if it mentions Italy so this was a no brainer.

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Can’t wait to read this book on our cruise!

Selecting these books made me think about books that left indelible imprints on my heart—and also the books that got away from me.  During my sabbatical, when I was first dabbling with blogging, I had a “practice blog” called The Professor & Her Garden that I used during my WordPress Blogging 101 online class. For one of the daily assignments, I wrote about 10 books that influenced me.  Packing my new books for my cruise reminded me of that post.  So, first, here is the list of 10 books I mentioned at The Professor & Her Garden.

  1. That Hideous Strength (C.S. Lewis).  This book has it all.  Space travel; marriage advice; university politics; wizardry.  I first read THS at Oxford during my study abroad.  It’s my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it at least 20 times.  I own the paperback edition (that I loan to friends), a hard-cover American edition (that I read myself), and a British hard copy edition that I keep on the shelf with all my other C.S. Lewis books.
  2. This Perfect Day (Ira Levin).  I read this book in 9th grade and it rocked my world.  It’s creepy, other worldly, surprising, weird, thought-provoking, iconoclastic.  Everything in this book is topsy turvy, which, for a 9th grader, made for perfect reading.  Move over Holden Caufield.
  3. My Losing Season (Pat Conroy).  There is no question that I am crazy about Pat Conroy.  A bit of a stalker, really.  I live in the same town as Conroy did and I used to see him periodically at the grocery store.  (I made note of his grocery cart contents.)  I have a photo of his dad’s (The Great Santini) gravestone on my IPhone. And, sadly, I now have a picture of his grave as well.  I love, love, love his books.  But his book about playing basketball at the Citadel really resonated with me. I am still sad over his death, though—and maybe even a little angry—so I haven’t been able to read any of his books since he passed.
  4. The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear (Oliver Butterworth).  I read this book in grade school and it impressed me to no end.  It’s about a girl who “hears things” and ultimately ends up on a quiz show where she hears all the answers.  Freaky, ethics, and a strong female leading character.  What more could an independent little girl want? I loved this book so much as a kid, I decided to order it on Amazon and read it as an adult. Yikes. It’s really a terribly written book.  Henceforth, I think I’ll forgo re-reading “my childhood favs.”
  5. Drawn to the Rhythm:  A Passionate Life Reclaimed (Sara Hall).  This book is really about how rowing saved Sara’s life.  It’s heart-wrenching but inspirational.  I think of this book every time I don’t feel like going out on the water because I don’t want to row by myself, or it’s too cold, or too windy, or any other million reasons. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I might replace Drawn with Boys in the Boat as my all-time favorite.
  6. Straight Down a Crooked Lane (Francena Arnold).  I can’t tell you how many times I read this book when I was a little kid, but it was a bunch.  It had romance, tennis, and race relations–all rather mind-blowing to me as a child.  Whenever I would read this book, I would think about what a great movie it would make.  I decided that Jimmy Stewart should play the father.  I felt really sad when Stewart died, in part, because he wouldn’t have the chance to play the role of, what I was sure, would be Oscar worthy. Based on my experience with rereading The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear, however, I now have second thoughts about its movie possibilities.
  7. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand).  Reading this book in 12th grade made me feel super grown up.  I wanted to be an architect and I admired Howard Rourk’s independent spirit.  I was a polar opposite to Rand’s philosophy, but I plowed through all her books in high school—and loved them all.  I even wrote a children’s book based on objectivism for an English creative writing class.  It was called Fritzi of Frumple Forest (or something like that).  My teacher wanted me to try to get it published.  I was horrified.
  8. Areopagitica (John Milton).  I was a mediocre (at best!) English Literature undergraduate student (more about that below), but I sure did love Milton.  No matter what college class I teach now, I always find a way to quote Areopagitica.  “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”  Seriously. Can’t you feel your heart racing?
  9. A Girl Named Zippy (Haven Kimmel).  This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Kimmel manages to get to the heart of what growing up in the ’50s was like.  I’m not kidding.  The writing is brilliant.  My daughter read Zippy right after me and guffawed at least as much as I did.  Years later, it has remained a book that makes the two of us laugh just thinking about it.
  10. The Time Bridge (Carol Pardun).  I wrote this young adult novel as my creative thesis project for my master’s degree in communications.  It’s a science fiction, young adult book in the spirit of Madeline L’Engle (or that was my hope, anyway).  It is about time travel and tennis.   I didn’t publish the book (I’m sure it needs lots of work), but it showed me that I could write something long from start to finish.  It let me successfully finish my master’s degree, which spurred me on to seek the PhD.  While my dissertation was nothing remotely similar to The Time Bridge, I like to think that my first attempt at a book-length manuscript provided the framework for successfully completing my degree.

So, those are the books I read.  But what about the books I didn’t read? I’ll say it again.  I was an English Literature major in undergraduate school.  What you do in that major is read books. A lot of them. So how in the world did I miss these?

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird. I know, I know. It’s embarrassing. I’ve tried the excuse that I was an English lit major, which means I studied mostly English stuff.  And, yes, I know that everyone read this in high school. But when I was in high school, I took English electives.  That’s where I was introduced to Ayn Ran and Ira Levin (see above).  I also took a class called “Hell.” (I’m sure it was actually called something else.)  We read The Inferno, No Exit, and Damn Yankees to name a few.  Going to high school in the early ‘70s offered some interesting experiences. I don’t know why I haven’t read Mockingbird (I haven’t even seen the movie), but at this point, I sort of feel like I’m committed to this short coming.  Like the people who have never seen a Star Wars movie. They are out there.
  2. War and Peace. I like books about war. And books about peace.  And long books. So this doesn’t make any sense.  But, for whatever reason, I have decided it’s just too late for me to read this book. Or any other Tolstoy for that matter.
  3. The Great Gatsby. So, I have seen the movie (the one with Robert Redford) and I didn’t like it all that much. (I did see The Way We Were about a zillion times, however.) I started feeling guilty about this recently after reading an essay about Tender Is the Night, written by a newly retired English professor friend of mine. I realized anew just how lacking my American Literature background is.  I think my demise started when I read Flannery O’Connor.  I pretty much have been running from American literature ever since.

I could go on and on about all the books I have not read.  But, I’ve decided to think about the books that I have read—and the impact that they have had on me. And to also think about the books that await me.  I have a quote on my office wall by (of course!) C.S. Lewis: “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” For the next two weeks, I’m planning on curling up in a comfortable chair out on the deck of a gargantuan ship, reading my new books, periodically lifting my head high enough to soak in the sun and contemplate the ocean—and other vast things. Not a bad way to start 2018 even if it is devoid of some classics that I know I should have read. I’ve got two weeks of nothing to do but read, think, and hang out with the hubs. Reality will start knocking soon enough.  But for now, grab a book and an afghan (unless you happen to be in the Caribbean) and celebrate! Happy New Year!