I'd Rather (Not) Be Cruising

April 29, 2011

Sometime in our lives my husband and I must have angered Poseidon, mythological god of the sea. We’ve been on three cruises together, and all three have featured the unexpected, if not the downright awful.

It all started on our honeymoon. My father had given us a four-night cruise as a wedding present. After embarking from San Pedro (CA) the day after our wedding, we were to visit San Diego, Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. We’d endured a wild rainstorm on our wedding day, but the next morning dawned sunny and bright. The sea was a little choppy, but nothing Dramamine couldn’t handle.

Our first shore excursion, to the San Diego Zoo, provided us with a clue that the storm had left lasting effects. Many of the animal habitats lay strewn with tree limbs and other by-products of the wind and rain. We saw quite a few bewildered-looking animals exploring their “redecorated” homes.

The zoo was a bit messy, but otherwise fine, and our stop at Catalina was uneventful. But when we reached Ensenada, we were told the port was torn up and we weren’t able to dock. Our planned horseback-riding-on-the-beach excursion was exchanged for a day at anchor in the harbor where my new husband tried to teach me to play chess.

Two years later, we braved a second cruise, a more ambitious one: from Venice to ports in Turkey and Greece. Our troubles began before we even boarded the ship. We flew from our home in California to New York City, where we planned a couple of days’ sight-seeing before flying to Milan. A medical emergency on board forced us to make an emergency landing in Denver, where the size of the plane and the shortness of the runway destroyed our landing gear. The airline had to fly parts and mechanics to Denver to fix the plane, and an eight-hour unplanned layover—spent entirely in the airport, waiting for news about when we would fly out—ensued. 

Next, when we disembarked in Milan, I left our contact lens solution on the airplane. After we moved on to Venice before our cruise, it rained constantly as we tried to explore the beautiful old city. Pictures from this trip feature us wearing chic green plastic bag slickers—and glasses!

When we finally boarded the ship, our cabin was situated next door to crews' quarters where they argued constantly and loudly. It featured a wall-mounted toilet-flushing button so stiff I had to use my foot in order to press it hard enough to do the job. Another storm delayed the cruise so that our shore excursions took place at night. We “saw” Greece from a bus in the dark. On the trip home, which took more than 24 hours, I came down with a cold. While waiting for our connecting flight at JFK, we were reduced to eating out of vending machines and drinking our souvenir Greek Metaxa out of a paper bag.

One thing we did see: Corinth Canal
Our last attempt at cruising occurred about seven years ago. We sold our business and to celebrate, decided to take a cruise to Alaska, a dream of my husband’s. This time, our son, my mom and step dad and my husband’s mom joined us.

While we were on the land portion of our tour, news reports of a “sick ship”—our ship!—reached us. The illness, Norovirus, was described as “a mild gastrointestinal illness,” but the cruise before ours had to head back early because so many passengers became ill, and so the ship could be disinfected before our cruise began.

We were a little nervous about boarding, but all seemed fine. Aside from industrial-sized containers of hand sanitizer on every deck and not being able to serve ourselves from the buffet, there seemed to be no sign of the previous passengers’ illness. The ship was lovely, our stateroom comfortable (with an easily-flushed toilet) and to our son’s joy and our eventual thankfulness, two TVs. We enjoyed the gorgeous scenery and cushy shipboard amenities. Our son gloried in the freedom of the kids’ programs, and roaming the ship with new friends and a walkie-talkie to keep in touch with us.

It was just after a stop at Glacier Bay that I started to feel a little queasy. I popped some additional seasickness medicine, but it didn’t help. I quickly went from sipping champagne and eating chocolate-dipped strawberries to being confined to my bathroom. My son didn’t even make it back to the cabin—he threw up in the elevator. My poor husband had to take care of him while I collapsed in bed. “Mild” illness? I've never been so sick in my life.

A “cabin call” from the medical staff distributed shots and other medications to battle the virus. Just as I started to feel a little better, my husband began to fall ill.

Aside from feeling so bad, between the actual illness and quarantine days, we missed two out of three ports of call, including our helicopter/glacier/sled dog shore excursion. (We couldn’t have been sick or quarantined during one of our days at sea, oh no.) When we finally staggered off the boat, we vowed never again. The only bright spot in this horrific trip was that our parents, who were all in their late 60s, did not get the virus, and by all accounts, had a marvelous time.

So when it’s time to plan our next vacation and one of us says, “Hey, let’s go on a cruise,” we laugh ourselves silly and make different plans. Land plans.


Happiness Is the Key to Success

April 27, 2011

"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."
Albert Schweitzer


Four Factors of Happiness

April 25, 2011

Is it possible to make yourself happier? Lots of people think so, including Gretchen Rubin, who wrote about trying to increase her happiness level in The Happiness Project. She quotes research that indicates that between 30 and 40 percent of a person’s level of happiness comes from that person’s thoughts and actions. (The remaining 60 to 70 percent is determined by genetics and life’s circumstances.)

If it is possible to increase happiness, how do you do it? Rubin’s “First Splendid Truth” gives us this framework: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.” Let’s look more closely at the parts of this statement.

“Feeling good”
Increase sources of happiness. This is probably the simplest and most obvious way to feel happier. My greatest sources of feeling good include spending time with friends, playing with Tank, reading and sketching. What gives you joy? What do you like to do? How can you have more fun? To feel happier, we should include one or more of our favorite pastimes every day.

Watercolor sketch from Laure Ferlita's class
“Feeling bad”
Decrease sources of unhappiness and bad feelings. Maybe that means tackling some unfinished business or dealing with a difficult situation. Since I’ve found the importance of mindset in how I feel about my life, I’ve been examining some of my feelings and attitudes, and banishing the ones that aren’t true or are bringing me pain or discomfort. Replacing old ways of thinking with new ones can feel a little unsettling, but getting rid of the sources of nagging bad feelings frees up space in our hearts for happiness.

“Feeling right”
This means feeling as if you are doing what you are meant to do. I ask myself frequently, Am I the person I want to be? Do I respect myself? Am I doing work that feels “right”? These past few months I’ve questioned whether or not I really want to continue to write, and wondered if I still have anything to say (that anyone would want to read). For now, I still keep returning to the keyboard because writing is too much a part of who I am for me to easily cast it aside. It still feels “right,” even when it’s hard. How comfortable are you with who you are? Sometimes “feeling right” makes us happy in the face of frustration and obstacles.

“Atmosphere of growth”
Deep and lasting happiness comes more easily in an atmosphere of growth. That is, when you’re learning something new, increasing your skills, stepping outside your comfort zone, or challenging yourself. Yes, there’s definitely a time for simple relaxation, for “noodling,” for “fun” fun that doesn’t put too many demands on you. But that shouldn’t be the extent of your fun. Owning Tank is a perfect example of this. There is a good deal of “fun” fun to be had in horse ownership—but I’d be lying if I said everything about it was easy. I’m pushed outside my comfort zone nearly every time I get on his back, because correct English-style riding is challenging. It’s not simply sitting on the horse’s back and letting him do the work. Being the leader in our herd of two requires vigilance, consistency, patience and firmness. However, I don’t believe I would find horse ownership quite so deeply satisfying if I was not being gently challenged to grow. If you consider the times you’ve been happiest, chances are you’ve been engrossed in something that was just the tiniest bit challenging.

Whaddya mean, it's not all easy?
I found Rubin’s way of breaking happiness into these four sections helpful in looking at my own level of happiness, and seeing where I could make changes to improve it. What about your happiness level? Can you bump it up a notch? What will you do (or stop doing) to increase your level of happiness? Which of these areas do you need to address?

If you haven’t already, check out Gretchen Rubin’s blog here.


Spare Parts

April 20, 2011

Photo courtesy
In this endearing short poem by Californian Trish Dugger, we can imagine “what if?” What if we had been given “a baker’s dozen of hearts?” I imagine many more and various love poems would be written. Here Ms. Dugger, Poet Laureate of the City of Encinitas, makes fine use of the one patched but good heart she has. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Spare Parts

We barge out of the womb
with two of them: eyes, ears,

arms, hands, legs, feet.
Only one heart. Not a good

plan. God should know we
need at least a dozen,

a baker’s dozen of hearts.
They break like Easter eggs

hidden in the grass,
stepped on and smashed.

My own heart is patched,
bandaged, taped, barely

the same shape it once was
when it beat fast for you.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2006 by Trish Dugger. Reprinted from Magee Park Poets: Anthology 2007, No. 18, Friends of the Carlsbad City Library, 2006, by permission of Trish Dugger. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


The Power of the Playlist

April 18, 2011

While I vacuum, I like to listen to music on my iPod—it muffles the noise, and the right songs keep me moving and make me feel cheerful. I usually just put the iPod on “shuffle,” but certain songs slow down my rhythm. I like to vacuum to something a bit more upbeat, so I decided I should make myself a “vacuuming playlist.” The songs on it would be the ones that make me feel like dancing around the vacuum cleaner, like Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” or Rob Thomas’ “This is How a Heart Breaks” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.”

Wouldn't it be fun to make a playlist for all my activities, like writing or driving, or just sitting and thinking? For writing, I prefer instrumental music, so I can hear my own words without being distracted by others’. My favorite writing songs come from guitarist Billy McLaughlin’s* album, Out of Hand.

When I’m driving, I want words and lots of them, because I like to sing along. Songs like Evanescence’s “My Immortal,”  and show tunes like “Good Morning Baltimore” from Hairspray and “For Good”  from Wicked are fantastic for belting out while driving down the road.

For sitting and thinking, there’s always Carbon Leaf’s “What About Everything?” or classical music, or something by Josh Groban.

You could make playlists for all kinds of experiences and emotions: feel-good songs, I-need-a-good-cry songs, revenge songs… you name it. My friend Marianne just made a playlist of hockey songs in honor of our local professional hockey team’s presence in the Stanley Cup playoffs! (I didn’t know there were that many songs about hockey!)

Does your life have a soundtrack? What’s on your favorite playlist?

*While checking the spelling of Mr. McLaughlin’s name for this blog post, I learned of his remarkable and inspiring comeback story—read about it here.)