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Singing for Supper, pt. 1 | The Bleat.

I cannot speak. I croak phonemes. I sound like the incinerated corpse of Suzanne Pleshette. Seven days of SHOUTING in BARS or SHOUTING over the table at DINNER or SHOUTING in immense rooms or SHOUTING on the balcony on the 11th floor with the great sloshing sea pounding in the black beyond – well. I’m beyond hoarse. There’s just nothing there. Started to lose it after the fourth day, but the demands of the job required talking in loud rooms – so I kept shouting from the top of my throat, night after night. I blew out my voice. By the time we got back to Minneapolis I was communicating exclusively in gestures, hand-signals, and weary shoulder-shrugs, but that last one can be blamed on the fact I’ve been hanging around a Russian for a week.

Herewith an account of the Most Excellent Cruise from Florida, around Cuba, into various ersatz dollar-extraction islands, to Cozumel, and back. You may ask: didn’t you just go to Florida? Yes. Didn’t you take a cruise in the early spring? Yes. But when you’re offered a jaunt on an enormous boat, with the mere stipulation that you sing for your supper, what can you say but aye-aye? And so the most extraordinary year was capped with a trip that plucked me up by the nape and dropped me into a humid heaven where I’m standing in a suit on a boat deck talking with writers I love, and readers who love the writers. Oy. Oy and Gevalt.

I’m certain a few Bleat readers will regard the journey as a version of an old joke – what do you call a ship at the bottom of the ocean loaded with National Review writers and readers? A good start! We will not engage in politics much here, in the interests of comity, and I appreciate those of you who continue to read even though you suspect I spent my free time slapping my room card on the bar, pointing to Andrew Breitbart, and shouting “tend to that man, so that his foul deeds may be rewarded!” If you are so inclined, think of me as a nudist, happy to be among his kind, and dwell not on the particulars.

But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never had such a good time. I mean, I’m sitting with a steak before me in a gorgeous dining room on a stunning new ship, discussing seasonal marketing with a Walgreens exec who reads the Bleat, and we’re passing Cuba. C’mon. It’s so good it’s just ridiculous.

Anyway. Here’s what I wrote the first night.

It was snowing when I got up.

Nothing makes you quite so ambivalent as the first snow of the season – it’s an old friend, and an equally old foe. We have grappled before, you and I, and here we are again, face to face, combat assured, but equally certain is the moment when we take stock of each other, and see a bond our struggle has strengthened. On the other hand, snow, I’m off to Florida again, so to hell with you, pal.

I figured the snow would delay our flight, and so it did – but not until we were on the plane and ready to go. Then we sat there and accumulated ice. You look at the wing and wish it didn’t resemble a display case full of diamonds. I am no longer a nervous flier, but you wish they’d punch it right after de-icing. How long does this last, exactly? Why not use flame? But if the pilot’s happy, I’m happy. We leaped into the sky, and I felt the usual joy married with the usual doubt: at this very minute, the house is being cracked like a walnut, and teams of thieves are forming a bucket brigade to relieve me of my possessions. Oh, that’s nonsense. It’s only Saturday. Tuesday, yes, you can worry. For now, relax. Worry about the iron.

I always leave the iron plugged in, so I have one small thing I know I can worry about.

The last time I did this – - the whole talk-on-a-ship gig – it was a small ship and a small group; this time it’s 800 people in the group, with a ship that holds over 4000 souls, and makes one long roll around Cuba before putting me back in my beloved little Cozumel. But that starts tomorrow; right now I’m here.

I’m outside by the pool, waiting for people. Either no one came or the popular kids found their own private spot. Could happen; I’m new to the magazine. Maybe there are people angry I’m soiling Mark Steyn’s old spot in the magazine. The last page! Who does he think he is? Well, the guy who thought he was writing for National Review Online until he got copies of the magazine and discovered he was writing the last essay, that’s who.

I set six alarms this morning. It’s ridiculous, I know. And I woke up unassisted 26 minutes before the first one went off. Laid there wondering if I would get back to sleep, then had the question answered when the first alarm went off at six. Got up, turned off all the other alarms, then turned on the exterior security light, removed the Post-it note that said Upstairs Light, went downstairs, put it on the last door I’d exit. This is how I make certain everything is done: every task has a note, and every note goes on the door. This way I don’t have to make 16 passes through the house before I go. Only ten. I hate leaving the house for a while; makes me nuts. Th entire process of getting to the airport is a nightmare, since I assume a 14,000 member Chinese precision marching ensemble will have materialized before I get there, and they’ll all be wearing knee-high lace-up boots. As I happened we had to check our steamer trunks (it is impossible to pack for these things; you have to presume every possible weather combination, from sleet to murderous sun, and then add a formal version for both) so we went to the check-in line. Got behind some people who had not consulted anything since they made the reservation two years ago. As far as I could tell, were trying to check bags on an airline that no longer existed


Friend! Friend, good! Smoke! Smoke good! While I was typing outside I heard my name, and it was Rob Long, one of the progenitors of Ricochet. Also writer & co-exec producer for a little show called “Cheers.” He told me everyone was inside, everyone being lots of interesting folk from Michael Novak to Roman Genn, the wonderfully Russian illustrator for the mag. Then sleep, then the inevitable gargantuan breakfast buffet – a gut-instructor, that; here’s the quantity you will be expected to metabolize in the days to come – and then off to the docks to board and explore.

This is what I’m looking at now from the balcony:

People always feel compelled to take pictures of sunsets. No picture ever does it justice, or brings back the experience as you’d expect. You look at it later and say: yes, the sun did go down. And it was lovely. No green flash. It’ll happen tomorrow, and the day after that – but I’m glad I saw it now. Through a viewfinder, yes, but I saw it.

Just finished a nap. There’s no better white noise than the ocean. It’s a miracle the first organisms that arose in the briny broth didn’t just fall asleep and drown.

The ship is beautiful. It’s the New Amsterdam, on the Holland-America line. The theme: New York. In other words, “we were here first.” The halls are decorated with 30s and 40s photos of Gotham; the stairways have original Richard Estes paintings of New York in the 70s. The elevator doors writhe with prehistoric Art Deco carvings that recall the stylized fossils slathered on the side of the Chanin building. Daughter is impressed with the buffet, including the dessert options, and has declared the guava-mango fruit cocktail drink the nectar of the Olympians, or words to that effect. We had the usual boat drill, but learned nothing; one of the crew members did magic tricks for the kids. As far as I can tell, if we hit an iceberg I pull an orange vest out of my ear, or something.

Minor panic fact: no irons. Irons are forbidden; there’s no ironing room. Everything must be sent Out to be pressed. All of my shirts look like old road maps folded by someone in the throes of an epileptic fit. I’d been aiming for natty on this cruise. I think I’ll have to have my wife cinch my shirts in the back with pins to eliminate the wrinkles, because even though this is gratis I cannot stomach paying someone a fiver to press my shirt. Oh, maybe if I had mad crazy Cheers money I’d do that. But otherwise no.

We have stowed Natalie with the sitters; she will be spending the grown-up portion of the evenings with the children of Andrew Brietbart, Jonah Goldberg, and Senator-elect Pat Toomey. They will be having symposia on taxes and the media in the KIDZ CLUBHOUSE or something. Or watching Shrek. Now I have to put on my suit and perform: every night I will be the Featured Speaker at table 218, and every one of us knows that the paying customers are hoping they’ll draw Rove. There’s a reception on the swimming deck level – 800 of your new best friends – and according to the brochure, drinks in one of the ship’s 56 strategically located alcohol dispensing centers. I have a sudden attack of David Stockman syndrome: who am I? Why am I here? But all you can do is face the mirror, check your shave, grin, give yourself the Fosse-hands and say “Show time.”

Here we go.

Part two, Rhetorical Disaster on the High Seas, can be found in this space tomorrow.

Oh: The ship.


70 Responses to Singing for Supper, pt. 1

  1. Baby M says:

    Is Tink the new Irritable Bear? Our genial host teases us with the setup, then withholds the payoff.


  2. Lars Walker says:

    About Wodehouse and language. I was surprised to learn that “Plum’s” books are very popular in Norway, in translation. I lent some of my English Wodehouses to a Norwegian friend once, in return for some of hers, in order to try him in that language. Needless to say, there was much less of the word magic. The books were reduced mostly to plot and character comedy.

    My Norwegian friend returned my books with disappointment. She said she didn’t care for Wodehouse in English. It wasn’t what she was used to at all.

  3. Wodehouse fan here. Have more than 60 books, mostly in Penguin paperbacks turning brown and as brittle as (insert brittle simile here). I usually can’t rank favourites, but in this case “Leave It To Psmith” is easily it. I have four copies of that, that I use as loaners.
    There are about twelve books that tie for #2, including “Thank You Jeeves” because it features a banjo.

  4. metaphizzle says:

    Regarding the green flash: wikipedia’s article on the subject is quite informative, and includes some nice photos.

  5. Mario says:

    Green flash is real. I happened to catch one last night, and I had not been staring at a red sun. We were walking along the Pacific when I turned my head to the ocean just as the sun dipped below the horizon and I caught the flash. As a bonus, shortly afterwards my wife started up a narrow street away from the ocean just as the full moon crested the brow of a hill. The very clear air and the moon between two dark rows of houses just above the street created the optical illusion of a moon the size of a dinner plate. The most spectacular moon we’ve ever seen.

  6. Maharincess of Franistan says:

    My favorites are the Psmith books, especially “Psmith in the City,” I guess because I lived in NYC when I discovered Wodehouse. There was a wonderful quote there that I’ve forgotten (and can’t look up because my books are currently in storage), something he utters while attending a prizefight. Man, I’ve gotta get my books outta storage!

  7. Pencilpal says:

    Also a fan of Bertie & Jeeves. Elbow in the butter, sir. And Stephen Leacock, anyone?

  8. Steve T says:

    Grayhackle says:
    November 22, 2010 at 8:48 am

    “I have an aversion to cruise ships in general…the thought of being trapped with three thousand people. So does my wife but we almost signed up for the NR cruise this year.

    I would love to go but I would have to get over the fear that I would be mingling with people who are smarter than I am by a factor of ten.

    Maybe next year…..”
    Turn the ratio around and go on a lib cruise.

  9. Pencilpal says:

    And I always picture Robert Benchley as the charming, chubby, befuddled swell of Gluyas Williams’ drawings.

  10. swschrad says:

    @Pencilpal: except for the four or five from his essay from when he was sick, and then he looked like a fat, pouched, beached whale.

    I can relate to that ;)

  11. Aleta says:

    Wodehouse fan here, too.

  12. hpoulter says:

    @Wagner: IIRC (and I do) It’s a banjolele. No wonder Jeeves couldn’t take it. I love that story, too.

    If you have a Kindle (or even if you don’t), there is a lot of PD Plum available for free or next to nothing. Most of it is not his best, but there are some gems.

    I have noticed, in looking for Wodehousiana on the web, that he has a big fan base in both Russia and India.

  13. Brisko says:

    I am reading this much later than usual as, alas and alack, my employer has blocked lileks.com and labeled it as a “social networking and/or blogging for entertainment” site.

    And here I was thinking the site was down all day.

    I’ll miss my daily morning laugh-it-up.

  14. Grayhackle says:

    I have a giant shelf of Wodehouse books. His golf stories with his character ‘The Oldest Member’ are priceless.

    His parents, I think, were in the foreign service and Wodehouse grew up seeing very little of them. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he grew up into one of the most gentle, charming men you can imagine.

    Called ‘Pinky’ by his friends, he died working on a new book. About the age of 90 I think.

  15. Julia says:

    @metaphizzle, thanks for setting me straight.

  16. ElizaJane says:

    heh, I had to snork at the mere mention of the stolen silver cow creamer. Spode.

  17. Larry says:

    Also a Wodehouse fan. Laughing Gas is my favorite. I was born in England when my Dad was in the Air Force stationed in Norfolk during the Korean Conflict. Too young to remember, but we lived in Hunstanton Castle in the town of the same name. Later I found out that Wodehouse summered there in the 20s and 30s and used the place as a model for various country homes in his books. Indeed a small world.

    There was a bio of Wodehouse about 10 years ago which is worthwhile for the fans.

  18. fizzbin says:

    @Baby M..as discussed in the late, great Buzz blog some years ago, Irritable Bear is Irritable because Irritable Bear suffers from Irritable Bear Syndrome. Some indicators of Irritable Bear Syndrome include, but are not limited to, an obsessive-compulsive quaffing of mass quantities of laxatives, both oral and suppository, followed by barrels of jalapeño root beer. As a result, Irritable Bear continuously makes use of a non-Charmin product with a number 7 grit which only makes Irritable Bear even more Irritable.

    Irritable Bear has tried to compensate by wearing black stilettos boots, a black, peek-a-boo bra (pray you never see IB in that get-up), and carrying a bull whip at all times. Regrettably, this only tends to slow Irritable Bears response to the inevitable consequence of mixing laxatives with jalapeño root beer. And THAT, my friend, makes Irritable Bear very IRRITABLE :(

  19. metaphizzle says:

    I always thought IB was irritable because Mr Tink kept razzing him about Doris.

  20. Ross says:

    Ah! Stephen Leacock–hilarious! Excuse me, while I down a bumper of gin, once again becoming the perfect English gentleman.

    James: I’d consider sounding “like the incinerated corpse of Suzanne Pleshette” a trade up: after two weeks of this cough/cold, I’m more like the the trash-compacted corpse of Brenda Vaccaro. Or maybe just Harvey Fierstein on a weekday. Which would be an annoying(& amusing to others) novelty, except I answer toll-free numbers for my daily crust. The odd pauses I get after answering some calls suggest the callers’, “Oh, I didn’t expect to get a live person at this time of night” is being finished internally with, “…and apparently I haven’t” or “…& indeed, I seem to be talking to an angry walrus that mistook a 50′-deep well for a hole in the ice.”

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