Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Atmosphere Pollution

Atmosphere Pollution
© 2008 Ross Williams

There’s a reason restaurants wanting to make money don’t serve food in large rooms with bare cinder block walls under fluorescent lighting. Something about it smacks of prison cafeteria or, worse, school cafeteria dining.

A vase full of poesies won’t even help.

Take the same food, though, and serve it under ambient light, in smaller rooms with wood panel walls, and lo and behold the food tastes better. Funny how that works.

Yet the food hasn’t changed. The only thing that changed was the visual cues surrounding the food. The “atmosphere”.

There’s a reason you don’t go to barbecues in a tux and tails; barbecue is messy and paper plates have a tendency to fold on your lap and dump potato salad on your socks.

There’s a reason you don’t go to a seafood restaurant, order the pot roast, and not come away slightly seasick. It’s the same reason you don’t go to a Chinese restaurant, order the hamburger, and not be left with a sweet-n-sour aftertaste.

Certain things belong in certain places, you aren’t likely to get around it, and your personal desires are secondary. If that. Get used to it sooner rather than later and save yourself the trouble.

The reason this comes up is because we’re taking another cruise next month. My wife and I, that is. Cruise lines – especially the one we use – advertise themselves as being able to provide everything for everyone. And as long as you like being carried between a fixed set of points with officious and paranoid national security rules at each, on someone else’s schedule in a cramped and crowded boat full of selfish, fat and self-absorbed people who are mostly over-eating and over-drinking and require eskimo-ish air-conditioning, then the cruise line is right – it’s everything you want … if that’s what you want.

Personally, I try to avoid interacting with fellow passengers as much as I can. Mostly because they are generally selfish, fat and self-absorbed.

Not entirely, of course. There’s my wife and I, for example. Two more unpresupposing travel-mates you couldn’t hope to find. Most of the folks we’ve been paired with for dinner have been decent enough themselves. But not all.

There was a couple roughly our ages where the woman looked like Laura San Giacomo and who made several rude comments about people at other tables, loud enough to be heard by the person being talked about. I was embarrassed on her behalf since she didn’t appear to know enough to be so on her own. Because both my wife and I were raised to be polite and not make scenes even when they might be called for, we smiled and looked the other way a lot.

There was another couple somewhat older than us – she resembled Charlotte Rae, he looked exactly like Ted Danson looks without a hairpiece and a dye – who used the dining room’s policy of selecting multiple entrees to treat the dinner menu as a smorgasbord. They’d both order several entrees at each meal simultaneously, have one, two, maybe three bites of each and move on to the next plate … and in the process spread their dinners over the entire table for four. Nothing could be cleared because they were never quite certain if they were done eating off a plate halfway across the table.

It’s one thing to have someone else’s partially eaten meal sitting in front of the person who partially ate it; it’s a completely other thing to have it sitting in front of the diner who didn’t. Not appetizing. And my wine glass was nearly knocked over on more than one occasion. But, again, because both my wife and I were raised to be polite and not make scenes even when they might be called for, we smiled and moved our water glasses and silverware to accommodate each new appetizer encroachment.

Apart from these idiosyncrasies, our dinner companions were fine.

But these were bad enough. Try to explain to others why they were bad, though, and you risk righteous indignation being hurled back at you. Particularly by the class of people called “cruisers”.

There’s a website devoted to cruising to which I’ve occasionally gone when planning our annual cruises. This website has a rather large area where cruisers can ask others questions and give answers about all manner of topic. What are the best things to do in various ports, what should be expected on certain ships, et cetera. People preparing for cruises can ask questions and other cruises who know the answers will write back with their version of an answer.

There are the few topics, though, which amount to the cruise-equivalents of politics and religion. Of the several dead-end, conclusionless discussions on this website that tend to get beaten like dead horses are:
1] diapered children in the swimming pools;
2] smoking on the balconies;
3] smuggling booze on board; and
4] dining room decorum.

No matter which topic it is, the participants generally divide themselves into one of two groups.

Group A: “I paid for this vacation, I therefore get to do what I want.”
Group B: “‘Paying for it’ doesn’t exempt anyone from the rules.”

These rote positions merely serve as the overture to the typical free-for-all upon what constitutes a “real rule” and what doesn’t, what authority this “real rule” is enforceable by, and what the consequences are for violating it.

On the topic of diapers in the swimming pool: you may have heard one of several news reports about dozens or hundreds of cruise passengers getting ill on cruises
[1]. Typically blamed is the norovirus, one of the many types of gastrointestinal virus that finds its way from the outbound side of the alimentary canal to the inbound side. And while chlorine and soap does a real good job in killing this virus there are no guarantees of that, which means that babies in diapers are putting roughly 3,000 people at risk of vomiting and diarrhea if the baby gets into the swimming pool.

The rule is there for a reason. The parents who pay for a cruise for themselves and their darling baby are no different than the parents of infants who pay the taxes which build the community swimming pool. Diapers aren’t allowed in either one. ‘Paying for it’ is irrelevant.

On the topic of smoking on balconies: you may also have read about a cruise ship catching fire, killing and injuring passengers
[2]. This rule exists for a reason, as well.

Apart from this, though, smoking generally means that there will be cigar or cigarette ash to dispose of, not to mention the butts. It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that a fairly large portion of smokers on cruise ships do not put their ash or their butts where they belong, particularly since few smokers put their cigarette butts where they belong anywhere else. For the last several cruises, we have had balcony cabins and every morning there were butts and ash on our balcony. Even if the smoker doesn’t end up killing anyone, it is simply rude to make everything filthy. Rudeness violates the rules of polite society. ‘Paying for it’ is again irrelevant – unless the smokers want to take up a collection and pay for my on-board laundry bill.

On the topic of smuggling booze aboard: cruise lines are bound by laws to prevent underage drinking. They are also bound by law to enforce other alcohol controls – both American and foreign. Apart from the cruise lines’ ability to sell alcohol tax free on the high seas, and serve alcohol without competitive pricing limitations, they are protecting themselves from legal problems – which includes potential liability in the event that some stupid young yutz smuggles booze aboard, gets drunk, falls overboard and drowns.

The cruise line we use allows passengers to bring one bottle of wine “for special occasions” but otherwise declares that booze is not to be brought aboard. The rule is skirted by [seemingly] a majority of the passengers, and rationalized by most of those who defy it. “They didn’t stop us, so it must be okay…”

No. It’s not.

And ‘paying for it’ in this instance means something entirely different to Daniel Dipiero’s family than it does to anyone else.

Which brings up the main theme [one, two, three…] four pages into this essay
[4]: dining room decorum.

Cruises try to provide everything for everyone. For those who want casual, come-as-you-are meals, they have a buffet which is open during all normal dining hours … and usually beyond. Many cruise lines have 24-hour food services of some type, including free room service.

The main dining room on a cruise ship, though, is formal. Look around next time you’re there. They provide not only salad forks but also that hoity-toity dessert spoon at 12 o’clock tangent to your plate, a personal butter knife and bread plate, multiple glasses per person, and linens
[5]. The main dining room is formal.

It’s some of the people who eat there who are not. Cruise passengers actually need to be told not to wear shorts to dinner
[6]. They need to be told not to wear t-shirts, with or without R-rated slogans on them. They need to be told not to wear bathing suits, flip-flops, baseball hats, sneakers and [for guys] sleeveless shirts.

They need to be told these because they do not know this already. They don’t know this already because they were either raised by wolves, or they were raised by ignorant parents who did not teach them the importance of courtesy for others, respect for hosts, and carrying themselves with dignity and comportment.

Their reasoning? Prime among them: “I paid for this, I should be able to dress how I want.” I paid for it too, just like the Ostrogoth hordes, and my preferred style of dress is UN-, [ask my wife for confirmation]; should I be able to show up for dinner – indeed any other place on the boat – naked, just cuz “I wanna”? “I wanna” is the basic, bottom-line reason used by slobs arriving in a formal dining room for dinner looking like slobs; “I wanna” oughta be sufficient to justify me, therefore, walking around nekkid … and displaying my own basic, bottom line.

Except that it’s not. Why not? Because there are rules of social behavior that, even if the behavior is not strictly considered criminal, define certain behaviors to be unacceptable. Walking around bare-assed is among them; so is showing up for dinner in a formal restaurant looking like a slob.

The next reason commonly cited by the barbarians: “There’s only so much room in my luggage. We can’t pack everything!” Um, folks, you aren’t asked to pack “everything”, and if you overpack, or pack unnecessary items thus making it difficult for you to pack those things you should have, that’s you’re problem. Not everyone else’s. My wife and I have no problem packing clothes for a week-long cruise to include enough casual clothes for running around and getting sweaty, clothes for swimming, clean clothes for places we need to be clean in, and also formal and semi-formal dinner outfits for all seven nights. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination or brain-power to figure it out. It’s not rocket science. It’s getting dressed. Two-year olds know how to get dressed, fergodsake.

Another common excuse used is, “…but we’re just not comfortable getting all dolled up, and this is supposed to be a vacation.” This is a different flavor of “I wanna” phrased as “I don’t wanna.” And apart from the unmistakable aroma of childish petulance associated with it comes the inevitable parallels to other semi-formal settings where people are expected to conform to conventions: weddings, funerals, symphony concerts, church services, … work. It’s not like you’re expected to keep the monkey suit on for 8 hours, here. Just two hours for dinner. If that’s too much for you, then take your pouty, pouty self in your lazy, lazy digs up to the buffet and chow down. It’s the same food anyway, just without the dessert spoon and bread plate.

Yet another excuse, phrased in the naiveté of social ineptitude, is, “But we are dressed for a formal setting!” This is most commonly used by those who think that blue jeans are formal if they have that-thar fancy white stitchin’ or have simply been warshed after the last time the hogs were slopped. Do ‘em up with freshly polished cowboy boots and a shirt with dual breast pockets and fringe, and you’re set for royalty! Ainchee?

No. You’re not. It’s not a Texas rodeo or an Arizona political convention; it’s the formal dining room on a cruise ship. If you must wear jeans, to make them acceptable in even a semi-formal setting requires a normal button-up shirt [buttoned up], shoes [not sneakers, not boots] and a sport coat. Tie optional. Jeans do not make “formal” under any conceivable circumstance.

If you want to dress for the Texas rodeo, then do so in Texas, at the rodeo.

Because neither my wife nor I were raised by Vandal raiders or Hunnish hordes, we know better than to make scenes about, or even acknowledge the presence of, the Ostrogothic barbarians who do not understand how to conduct themselves in public while on a cruise ship. But discussions about cruise ship comportment occur frequently in hypothetical, notional settings – such as internet message boards or essays.

When informed that being a slob in a formal setting is, like, sloppy, when told that it’s tacky, when told that it detracts from the dining experience of others around them, certain people get defensive. And when they get defensive, they start to rationalize why it’s everyone else’s responsibility that their being a slob is bothersome to everyone else.

It usually begins by being told, “We’re not slobs! You’re a snob!” Um. No. I chase sheep in my jeans, often miss, and get shit-stained for the effort; I go barefoot [if not naked altogether] as often as I can; wear sneakers nearly everywhere else; have cowboy boots that I don’t even bother polishing, let alone kicking the dried and caked manure off of; have umpteen t-shirts with various styles of slogan or logo on them; and dislike, more or less intensely, dressing for work … but when I go to a formal restaurant, to work, to weddings or funerals, I dress accordingly. I “clean up well.” That’s all that’s being asked.

Next, we’re told, “The way I dress doesn’t change the taste of the food. I’m there for the food, not to pass judgment!” Well, I’m there for the food as well. And sitting across the table from someone who chews with open mouth doesn’t change the way my dinner tastes either, yet it’s repulsive and unappetizing and makes me semi-nauseous. I have a feeling that it has the same effect on those who want to dress like slobs, as well. So the “doesn’t change the taste of the food” argument is completely beside the point.

But just in case there are any hold-outs still flopping their arms ever-so-petulantly across their chests and jutting out their lower lips about it, let’s just run down through a few more things which don’t change the taste of the food:
me farting, loudly and repeatedly;
me belching, loudly et cetera;
me picking my nose, yadda yadda;
me shouting into a cell phone so that my caller can hear me;
me spitting out fish bones or hunks of gristle onto the floor beside me, or [even better] onto a pile in the middle of the table.

It doesn’t change the taste of the food to be given a table right next to the kitchen; or right next to a whining, screaming brat who keeps getting up from his seat, crawling under his [or others’] tables, tripping waitresses, and pulling napkins off peoples’ laps; or right next to the pleasant aromas of the restroom; or right next to a woman who bathed in cologne; or right near the entrance to the restaurant, with people coming and going continually and watching you eat.

It doesn’t change the taste of the food to hear loud cackling shrieks of laughter coming from halfway across the room; married couples [or otherwise] having an obvious domestic disturbance; a waiter dropping a tray of dishes, a brass marching band charging through .

It doesn’t change the taste of the food to have it lit by fluorescent lighting; to have it strobed by a disco ball; spotlighted by a klieg light; or mashed all together in the center of the plate.

It doesn’t change the taste of the food to have dirt floors; paper plates; plastic knife and “spork”; newspaper tablecloths; scratchy bi-fold paper towel “napkins”; bare, unpainted cinderblock walls; rough, wooden benches that leave slivers in your ass.

Not one thing I’ve just mentioned changes the taste of the food. Yet every single one of them would detract from anyone’s meal in a formal restaurant – even those who insist on the right to dress like slobs. Because they “wanna”; because they can’t be bothered; because they don’t know better.

Dining is not simply eating. If you want to eat, to stick your face in your plate, fill your gullet and not look up until the job is done – and do it on a cruise ship at dinner – then dress as you please and hit the buffet, or call for as much free room service as you like. It’s the same food, and since you don’t require “atmosphere” in order to enjoy your dinner the way others do, it would seem to be the answer.

Dining is, instead, a full sensory experience. That’s why they teach cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu and not trail-mess cooking. Taste, smell, texture, sound and sight all count, they all matter. Anything which sticks out – loud noises, sudden odors, unpleasant textures, and jarring sights – takes away from the meal, and the enjoyment of it. Among the sights in a restaurant are other diners – which includes what they wear. And diners who stick out by wearing jeans that look like they’ve been washed in motor oil; by wearing shorts, sandals, a t-shirt and “dressed up” by wearing an unbuttoned hawaiian shirt over it all; by arriving in jeans and a John Deere baseball hat – and I’ve seen all three – are the visual equivalent of a loud, smelly belch.

Mmmmm! You had garlic for lunch!

I’d say something confrontational to the slobs, here, along the lines of “You don’t dress like a slob and I won’t go belch in your face” but – once again – I know better than they do. So does my wife. We were actually raised to be considerate of others in public, to not make scenes even when they might be called for, and to ignore the sources of social outrage in the interest of politeness. If someone dresses like a slob on our next cruise [and they will, several of them, even on formal night], we won’t say anything and they’ll likely never be the wiser. Cynically, I doubt they possess the capacity.

But luckily for me, this isn’t “public”. It’s an essay. If you see yourself being talked about here and are feeling the insistent urge of defensive rationalization welling up inside you, just consider this the belch in your face in response to your slobbiness. We’re almost even.

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/surv/outbreak/2006/nov13carnivalliberty.htm
[2] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11975460/
[3] http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/05/17/man.overboard/index.html
[4] Better late than never
[5] http://www.onlinesterling.com/helpfulhints/formal-table-setting.htm
[6] A week-long cruise on our cruise line has two formal nights and five semi-formal nights; passengers are “requested” to dress accordingly. Maxim’s “requests” gentlemen to wear a jacket; it means you WILL wear a jacket, and a tie. The word “request” is simply the polite phrasing of a demand.
[7] I also paid for my car, and my taxes paid for a larger share of the roads than almost everyone I know. Do I get to drive how I want as well?
[8] But if you really need a few pointers: 1 suit; 2 dress shirts of different color that go with the suit, and 2 ties that go with either dress shirt; 2 pair of dress pants that go with either dress shirt. Socks, shoes and belt to coordinate. Casual clothes enough for one change every two days. Bathing suit. See my wife for women-clothes-packing hints. She and I pack into one suitcase. It’s not hard.