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Oh Universe of the Blogger! Oh Moloch! How deep has your seed sunk, how strong are those roots probing deep into our canon of thought. How affected our words have become. How manipulated our truths. How planned our spontaneity. How rehearsed our confessions. How far we have strayed.

But what of those self-reflective minds that operate in true immediacy? Those heads and fingers that can’t separate words from moments?  I focus so much on the past, I forget that I make new stories at every turn. What could be more honest than a real time stream without the melodramatic notch up? Why not analyze life while being in the middle of it? Struggles with writing, the future, old flames, life decisions, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, loss of friends, changes of relationships, responsibilities, family ties….

This chunk of time in my life is the legitimate beginning of a new chapter, a definite start to something completely unknown. A concrete point to begin with no idea of where it will end. A search in it’s very occurrence that should be documented as a naturalist investigating the caverns of some newly found beast. What I was before and what I will end up being is unimportant. The process is what concerns me now. The petri dish experience of retirement at 24 is under way, an experiment that has already begun. There is no control group and the variables are too lengthy to list, but feel free to draw conclusions as you wish. After all, it’s not as if we remember Einstein’s name because he followed the rules.

The rose colored glasses never made it off the ship, so there won’t be the unavoidable twists of nostalgia to taint any records. Therefore, I can sit here and document the past until the very moment that past catches the present position, (that of sitting hibernative in my basement, slowly sobering up during a Joni Mitchell song after a viciously pleasant shower clambake and a below freezing cigarette wearing only mismatched socks and a ski hat shrunk in the dryer, most closely resembling a furry yamaka). But until that momentous moment, which will surely be quite different by the time we reach it, this new record could be a spontaneous autobiography, only biased by the wisdom of months, rather than the 20/20 hindsight of years. It will be quite interesting to witness the clash of tenses hundreds of days and pages from now. Who I am being sought out by who I was.

See, even in that small moment between thoughts, the present has shifted my musical accompaniment like an errant crumb of herb on the lap of Father Time.

But to discourage any further digression, I’ll move on. One shouldn’t get too excited about the bitter end when the beginning is still having a cup of hot coffee around the corner. For my part, however, I am struggling to get excited about anything except the bowl of pretzels snuggled next to my lap in case of sodium depletion in my tangled bloodstream. But bloodstreams are like good crime novels, there is no upper limit of complication. Twists and turns set the mood for all great outpourings of energy, any great deluges of honesty, or explosions of pent-up memory best served cold (or at least to very exclusive clientele). But I am not doomed to be the Dickens of tomorrow, so my serial of whimsical travels must come to a close. The blogging world has served me well, and served its purpose. It regaled that sliver of the world who cared with adventures they could vicariously join for twenty minutes every month. Production value was high and censorship slipped it’s filthy nose into my paragraphs more often than I liked. For those of my gentle readers who made cameos at any point can vouch for the delicacy with which my words were e’er placed. One week ago, a particularly maleficent love of mine looked at me over her cigarette and asked if I really wanted to be a writer. Yes, I replied. So she told me that I should start writing.  If I want to be a storyteller, I can continue cranking out neat 2300 word packages every three weeks and maintain my 50 or so loyal readers. And eventually the reviews would start pouring in, surely. The truth is, I needed a means of expression while losing myself in the outside world, as I flailed into a career with the copious qualifications a banquet manager brings to international art dealing. I needed some way to throw bottles off the end of the world and have them land on friendly shores.

Hence you.

Hence this blog for two years.

What a strange word, hence. Like Old English forgot to take a piece of it when we colonies tastefully bastardized the language. But I digress, and I have made blood oaths against doing that anymore. The truth is, I’ve made my way back to the well-worn stomping grounds of Chicago and although my sights are already set on another transatlantic escape, things have changed. The salad days are done. As I move forward, some things need to be left behind.

I suppose I should apologize to all those readers who have enjoyed reading about my tales and travels and are only now hearing that much of it has been enhanced, dramatized, thought out, anecdotally inseminated, or otherwise dolled up for a night on the town like any other romanticized fling. Thank you for supporting my adventures, and helping me through the hard times when I was lost at sea.

I should also apologize in retrospect to those heroic madmen of my recent times whose stories were diluted, swept under rugs, or stripped of honor and mayhem. We will always know what really happened. We will always know how much we bought, drank, smoked, laughed, spent, fucked, snorted, swallowed, danced, stripped, scored, slammed, sighed, sang, and lived. Just don’t forget. Some of you should really have been writing that shit down.

And if I knew what to apologize for in advance, I wouldn’t. That would take all the fun out it.

So you won’t be hearing from me for a while. Hopefully because I’ll be wandering the wilds of pure experience, and not worrying about capturing it in neat sentences and flippant witticisms.  I don’t think there is a point in writing unless it’s the truth. That’s the only thing that will matter when I look back. But at some point along the way, I lost sight of it. If I ever want the world to read my words, it shouldn’t be on a computer screen. Although realistically, that’s bullshit, because half the world reads those damn Kindles anyway. But you understand my point, and for the last time, I digress…

For years, I’ve called myself a writer. No one else has.

It is high time that changed.

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Blind But Now I See

When I last left you, I was in the wild throes of a temporary vacation, blissfully floating between Italy, Spain, and England onboard the Grand Princess. Distractions have abounded, and I have left my devoted readers woefully lacking any vicarious tales. But the salty breeze of Florida on a delicious October afternoon invites me back to my cruel mistress, and the words that have been itching to find release are once more roaming free.

Fifteen days ago, I slipped back into the United States for the first time in more than six months. My usual returns are welcomed with thunderous applause, namely in the form of my parents at O’Hare Airport after an exhausting overnight flight from Heathrow, but a legitimate homecoming wasn’t quite in the cards. Not yet, at least. Four cruises onboard the Norwegian Jewel stood in the way of my unadulterated adventures in New York City in early November. Although I have been on a menagerie of ships this contract, the NCL Jewel is different.  More so than any other ship I have artistically captained, the Jewel is the top of the line in my company. It was definitely the biggest assignment I had been given to date, and despite my cocksure demeanor in most areas of life, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was intimidated. I would soon find out that my worries were well founded.

First of all, the expectations per week were roughly twice as high as any other ship I had ever been put in charge of. That, in and of itself, is usually enough to dissuade most auctioneers from stepping into the big leagues. The rule of thumb is Go Big or Go Home. And even though I’ve been longing for an extended vacation in the Windy City, I wasn’t ready to go home without a fight. The pressures were huge, the goals were high, and there was little room for error. My program for the first week, combined with the obligatory safety trainings and inane walk-throughs of the ship bowels that every new sign on painfully endures, was enough to wear me down to near exhaustion, and seven days dragged by in an interminable stream of sleepless nights. When my body did succumb to sleep, I was twisted by dreams of torn canvases, nude auctions, laryngitis, empty seats and other catastrophic art dealing predictions that could afflict my first cruise onboard.

I realize that many of you have been following my exploits for two years now, and probably have only a vague concept of what the hell I actually do. Yes, you know I am an art dealer/auctioneer, but unless you have been on a cruise ship and attended an auction, your imagination has probably created some sort of bastardized vision of the horribly boring auctions in swanky museums seen in movies mixed with the suspender strangled presenters in oversized bowties on television shows like Antiques Roadshow. I assure you that (most of the time) that conception of my job is wrong.

Every week, I run a series of 8-10 art based events, whether they are exhibitions, enrichments seminars, sales, or full-fledged auctions. Exhibitions don’t take much effort, just a warm body in the gallery to answer questions (mostly regarding the location of the nearest elevator or how to log into their internet account). Organized sales are a bit more important, when pricing, abbreviated/subtle sales pitches, and a general charm and competency are vital for closing deals and bringing in a steady cash flow. Basically, you can’t be hung over or still wrecked for a sale, and you need to genuinely know about all the works of art on the walls, or else you’ll look like a moron and lose that client for the rest of the week. Credibility is everything in this business, and the second the potential buyers see weakness or ignorance, you might as well drop your pants and dance around the gallery singing show tunes. Your chances of closing the sale would be about the same.

Credibility is inherently linked to perception, and image. You need to always dress the part, three piece suits, slick belts, unscuffed shoes, polished watches, the whole nine yards. You need to watch what you are saying every single second in public areas. Don’t talk politics, religion, sports teams, whether the auctions are going well or not, plans to go out drinking later, whatever. A successful art dealer is a chameleon, effortlessly involving himself in any conversation on any topic, remaining on the outskirts of controversial situations. You have to be every father’s perfect son, every twenty-something’s best friend, and every cougar’s ideal boy toy. Your personal life is non-existent unless clients ask you about it. And usually, if they are buyers, they won’t.

I’ve become a professional at reading people through the smallest details of their appearance. The translation guide to their body language might as well be written on their foreheads with a Sharpie. Everything tells a story. The handshake to the eye contact to the emblems on their golf shirt. This job is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for purely philanthropic distributors of knowledge and advice. Within five minutes of observation or one minute of a casual chat, I can estimate the buying potential within $500. People must become experiments, petri dish personalities that you can analyze under the microscopic guise of a conversation. Perhaps this sounds crass or cold, too deliberate or manipulative to be healthy. Well, as I said, this gig isn’t for everyone. And I’ve certainly never called it healthy.

Seminars should be the saving grace of this job for me, because they place the silver-tongued savvy of an art dealer on the backburner as I dole out genuine information and fascinating anecdotes to the guests. Some of my seminars don’t even relate to my collection onboard, a fact that has shocked other auctioneers in the company, but when it comes to trust, nothing helps like a good skeleton story from Van Gogh’s weirdest closet. I say that they should be the saving grace, but unfortunately, they aren’t. More and more, the importance every week has shifted towards people leaving with art, not enrichment. I used to balance it better in both my mind and in my approach towards the job, but the need for the almighty dollar has reared its head in uglier ways than usual. And I don’t think I can do it anymore.

I don’t even really like this job.

I’ve touched on this many times in the past, how this has always been a means to an end, but I don’t think I can keep lying to myself anymore. Sure, I love the crew bar and the ports, the travel and the beaches, but there has to be something more. Although I am passionate about art, I belong in a university lecture hall, not a martini bar cum auction room three times a week. I have been justifying it to myself as exhaustion, but in reality, I think I’ve reached the end. If I don’t stop selling art or selling out, I might actually start believing all the bullshit. This isn’t what I want to be doing. This isn’t where I want to be. The self-loathing is strong in me tonight, but beneath it lies revelation. And revolution.

I have five days left until I step off the cruise ship and into the real world of friends and loved ones, conversations that don’t need to be cut short and relationships that don’t have an expiration date. Despite all my reservations about this profession, the real shame is that it has pulled me away from what I truly love. And that is a state of affairs that can only end in disaster or misery. It’s been one hell of a road….ocean, whatever. But I think it has to come to an end.

I’m not even 25 yet, but the time seems to be slipping away from me. Birthdays and holidays barely register in my mind anymore. I can’t imagine a worse fate than looking back and realizing that I sailed away one too many times from the things I held dear, only to find that when next I made port, they were gone. For good. Now, for all you landlubbers, don’t start assuming that I am ready to settle down in a 9-5. That still sounds like one of Dante’s deepest rings, but a change is more than overdue. Just don’t be surprised if it is far from an art gallery on a floating mirage of luxury.

I refuse to be tied to a passion I can’t fully believe in, or to a life that I don’t fully enjoy.

In the words of Matthew Arnold, “I am not still bent to make some port I know not where, still standing for some false impossible shore”.

I don’t know where this next leap into the darkness will bring me, but I’ll let you know when I land.

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I lost my gray hat this afternoon. You can find pictures of me wearing it all over the world, bars in downtown Chicago to steak houses in Argentina, chilly nights in London and crew parties on ship decks overlooking the glaciers of Alaska. For those who have never taken particular note of this specific item of my headwear, losing it doesn’t represent anything more than mere annoyance and a few evenings of chilled lobes. For me, however, given the past few weeks of my life, it’s disappearance stands for something with a bit more substance, even compared to the other exploits in this tome of my “meaningful” experiences. If you think you’ve stumbled on yet another long-winded diatribe on some infinitesimal part of my past, feel free to leave now and continue surfing for discount prices on Amazon and NSFW webpages that your respective companies have failed to firewall. But on the bright side, if you do sense the inevitable introspection into my personal depths, at least you can say you’ve learned to read me over the past two years.

So, the hat. That story starts more than five years ago, when I was enmeshed in an equally wild and unpredictable time of my life, although it consisted of decidedly less publishable exploits. My experiences in college centered on the Shire and those folks involved in that hallowed circle. The original owner of that grey hat was none other than Jon Speagle, the smoldering fuse of our friends, the egg timer til madness that so often swept up our quixotically invincible group. He was my best friend, and we lived alongside Julio, the resident ninja monk with a passion for motorcycle maintenance, and Mike, the street racing Buddha who always drove stick shift in the fast lane of tragic heroes. The year that we shared will forever stick in my memory, but as time has worn on, so too have the friendships, dwindling and changing as all inevitably do. Jon was the brother I’d always wanted, but over the past four years, we have moved so far apart in every imaginable way, that it often felt that the old gray hat was one of the few bridges left unburnt between us. He was my college lodestone, bringing me into the social circles that we would later come to dominate and was, as Billy Joel would say, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke. Jon came to represent everything wild and free that could be drank, snorted, smoked, wandered through, driven in, or laughed about. We tore through Champaign like a tornado of carnal desires for years, making the rules up as we went along and enjoying every god blessed moment we were allowed, at least until the bars closed or the sirens started wailing in the early morning darkness. It is only fitting that years later, my last real vestige of our connection would be lost in a Mecca we never saw together, Amsterdam.

How did I get to Amsterdam, you may ask, particularly those of you who have a vague semblance of the routes and destinations of my wandering life. Well, it begins on the Norwegian Sun in Copenhagen, and ends roughly 55 hours later on the docks of the Grand Princess in Cadiz, Spain. What else would you expect?

As with all my departures from cruise ships, my farewell to the NCL Sun was haphazard and spontaneous, complete with last minute packing and late night goodbyes in smoke drenched bars. I had planned to spend an extra day in Copenhagen, savoring the local sights and smells with some new friends, crew and passenger alike, so as the clock signaling my release struck ten, I happily strolled down the gangway and bee lined for a taxi. The typical sign off procedure consists of collecting your most recent medical paperwork and bidding the ship a hung over adieu. Included in the medical packet is your passport and any other necessary training documentation. However, as I was the only crew member not using the crew shuttle to the airport, the only thing given to me was the paperwork, and any oversight was unbeknownst to me.

The taxi ride I found myself in became the first in a series of tragic journeys that befell me over the next three days. There was a city-wide bike marathon going on in Copenhagen, so the city streets were blockaded into a maze of Cretan proportions, and my taxi driver slyly let me off on a side streets, explaining that my hotel was only a few blocks away across one of the cyclist packed avenues. An hour later, dragging a 45 pound suitcase, a packed shoulder bag, camera case, and Matryoshka doll souvenir, I exhaustedly stepped through the doors to my hotel, Christian IV. Therefore the first lesson of my epic journey was learnt, Never Trust Danish Taxi Drivers.

At the hotel, I met up with three singers who had similarly disembarked that day and the four passengers we had befriended that week, and despite my sweaty and frustrated demeanor, we set off for the Elysian Fields of Copenhagen, Christiania. Peace reigned once more on my mind as we whiled away the afternoon at my favorite beer garden, and the stressors not only of my morning, but of the past 18 days of art dealing, faded away into the hazy recesses of memory. Hours later, as dinner was consumed and my head began to clear, the events of the morning started to tickle my senses. Something didn’t seem quite right, my pockets seemed fractionally lighter than they should have, and what I initially saw as paranoia suddenly reared up into an all too real problem.

I didn’t have my passport.

The frantic pocket searching uncovered nothing, and sheer panic began to set in. I flicked through every step of my debarkation process that morning and realized that since I had opted for a taxi to town rather than the shuttle bus to the airport, I had not been present for the second and final step of the departure from the ship, the passport return. The night before I had surrendered that most sacred travel document to the Personnel Manager so she could get it stamped by customs as we arrived in Denmark, and when my medical forms were returned to me, the passport was not among them.

The ship had already left for it’s next port of call so an emergency flight back to the port would have been pointless. I immediately jumped online at the hotel only to find an e-mail from the ship saying that they had found my passport onboard and had not left it with the port agent in Copenhagen. (For the record, policy for cruise ships is to leave a crew member’s passport with the port agent in the country of debarkation, because obviously, they wouldn’t be able to leave the country without it.) However, the brain trust onboard the NCL Sun must hold a misguided belief that I am some type of international man of mystery that can fly at will between European nations sans passport, because they were sailing full steam ahead to Amsterdam, a country (for those of you not geographically inclined) Not in Denmark. This presented an obvious problem for me.

Prior to my disastrous realization, I had planned to spend one night in Copenhagen, fly to London in order to switch out some luggage and have a mash up with my friends in the Merry Old, and then fly the next morning to Seville where I would catch a train to Cadiz to meet up with an old friend for her birthday festivities that evening. The very next morning, I would stumble a mile or so to the Grand Princess, where I would board for an actual vacation of cruising around the Mediterranean. All of those steps required one very important document that my sorry self now found myself lacking. A passport.

I hurriedly scrapped my plans, and spent the better part of five hours searching for flights, trains, busses, ferries, steamers, helicopters, spaceships and a variety of other transportation options that would get me to my passport and eventually to Spain in the next 56 hours. I settled on a random and long-winded travel plan with a huge potential for error that would cause my elaborate rescue mission to fold like a house of cards. But it was the only option I had. The next morning, after a fitful night of anxious sleep, and quick morning well-wishing from my passport-bearing friends, I set off for the train station in Copenhagen.

I boarded the five o’clock train to Amsterdam, which would be my moveable feast for the next 16 hours. Yes, I said 16 hours. For those gentle readers that aren’t fully educated on the intricacies of European border procedures, the Schengen Agreement came into play about 3 years ago, which means that there are no passport checks in between all countries within the Schengen Territory on trains during the day. However, night trains are notorious for thieves, roustabouts, and other less desirable  vagrants of Europe. Therefore, passport checks are impossible to predict on overnight trains, and I boarded the coach in the full knowledge that my journey could very well end in a jail near the border of Germany and the Netherlands.

For a traveling companion, I had a young Dutch girl who did nothing to assuage my fears of being incarcerated as she explained that in her many jaunts between Germany and the Netherlands on overnight trains, she almost invariably had her passport checked by burly and unforgiving officers who had undeniable ancestry in the Gestapo. Luckily, the six passenger booth only held the two of us, so fitful slumber stretched over three seats was granted to me, but every clanging door and thudding footstep woke me to an imagined version of my own personal Kristallnacht.

At about five am, I was roused by a shuddering slam of the brakes, and instead of a raid by border police, I was informed by my Dutch carriage mate that we were only three hours from Amsterdam and the passport check had already occurred, and we had been spared. The five Chinese travelers in the car next door had not been so lucky, but they were all in possession of the necessary documents, and their passage was secured. I didn’t feel completely safe until I had stepped off the train into the welcoming sun of Amsterdam, and within 45 minutes, I had strolled to meet the Norwegian Sun and once again had my passport safely in hand, after exchanging sparse and decidedly acidic words with the Personnel Manager who had so stupidly clutched my passport over international waters.

Following my illegal transcontinental traipsing, a restful afternoon in a café was exactly what I needed, and amid the stupefying smoke of the Bulldog Café, I managed to find some peace. My flight to Barcelona wasn’t scheduled until 6pm, so I dragged out the five hours as much as possible, imbibing and inhaling all that Amsterdam’s most reputable establishment had to offer. I tore into the first book in Stieg Larsson’s posthumous opus, and was thoroughly entertained. 300 pages, 5 beers, and an unknown number of cigarettes later, I meandered my way to a taxi and pointed him in the direction of the airport, passport in my possession, a warm square of freedom nestled in my pocket.

This brings us back to the beginning of this ever-lengthening dialogue, the gray hat. At some inopportune moment, my gray hat had wriggled it’s way out of my back pocket and settled comfortably in the booth at the back corner of the Bulldog Café. Given the origin of my unlikely headgear, I found it quite fitting that in the midst of a manic adventure across four countries, my favorite hat of five years would make it’s escape in a veritable Shangri’ La of liberal louts, any of whom could have easily passed an hour or two in the fabled Shire of my collegiate memory.

The Amsterdam airport experience was standard, with everything save a cavity search awaiting me at the security checkpoint. With passport in hand, I felt well nigh untouchable, but a wine opener, three lighters, and the bundle of wires from my laptop and camera proved once more to be my undoing, and I was treated at as a suspected terrorist for the umpteenth time in my globetrotting career. The flight was uneventful, thanks to a Valium and a well-timed glass of red wine, and I soon found myself holed up in the Barcelona Airport at 10pm, voraciously ripping through the final chapters of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and ferociously sipping on a number of tall pints in the hopes that my eleven hour layover would pass in an inebriated haze. Amstel and Swedish suspense novels only last so long, unfortunately, and by midnight, the bars were shut, the cafes closed, and I was faced with eight lonely hours in a sterile airport before my puddle jump to Seville. I chose to wander into the Spanish night in the hopes of finding a late night tapas bar, but my dreams were unfounded, and I instead hopped in a taxi where my broken, semi-drunk Catalan dialect eventually landed me in a late night hotel best suited for a slasher movie, and in my current stretch of luck, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to end up as the tragic star in the morning news.

As this document proves, my dark premonition was not to be, and at 5 am, I hastened bleary-eyed and slightly delirious to another taxi and was shuffled off to the airport to flit to Seville on the 8am flight. The end was nearly in sight, and all that lay before me and unexpected success was a bus ride from the Seville airport and a final train ride from Seville to Cadiz. Apart from an enlightening chat with a complete lunatic outside the McDonalds in the train station, my final travels were met with few difficulties, and I soon found myself dragging my sizeable load the last half mile from the Cadiz train station to the hulking embrace of the Grand Princess.

It had been 66 hours since my moment of initial passport panic and itinerary alteration, and almost 50 hours of straight traveling, a staggering total even for my wandering soul, but I had made it. Plans may have shifted, money may have slipped through my fingers like quicksilver, but I was almost tempted to cite my perennial horseshoe of luck one more time. There have been few times in my life where desperation has combined with pure necessity and goal-oriented motivation to such a degree, yet I once again ended up smirking like the cat that got the cream.

So here I am, sailing the seas for the first time in years as a passenger, rather than an art slinging silver tongue, and I have to admit, I could get used to it. In ten days, I’ll be flying off to New York for another fill in on another Norwegian cruise ship, but for now, the Mediterranean is my oyster, and my three days of madness is fading quickly into the realm of hilarity. My actual vacation is quickly approaching in early November, which will kick off with some New York escapades, followed by some much-needed holiday time in Chicago, a California jaunt with a maleficent old friend and a trip to Hawaii for good measure.

At times, travel may be difficult, passports can be lost, flights could be missed, and chaos might be my permanent bedfellow, but Damn….things certainly stay interesting.

You may call me crazy, but don’t you dare call me boring.

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I suppose an anniversary is in order, as I find myself once again writing from the depths of a solitary afternoon in a quiet German town unknown to those who haven’t fared the anonymous seas onboard a cruise ship.  Octoberfest is ironically beginning with the advent of September, and the beer and Germanic merriment has already begun to flow over the shores of Warnemunde. I thought I had left behind the isolated ports of the Baltic States as the Regent Voyager onerously crept into the British Isles, but luck and my indefatigable love of a numbed mind has thrown me back into the maelstrom of these nostalgic waters. My posh residence onboard my last ship was cut surprisingly short for a number of reasons. I like to attribute my untimely departure to self-destruction, an unconscious desire for exodus due to an overworked and well-strained mental state, but in reality, my cozy contract with one of the top cruise lines in the world was severed because of alcohol. I already hear the giggles from the peanut gallery, reminiscing on my earlier and less dignified exhalation from Celebrity cruise lines for the same reason. But this specific termination involved fewer stitches, but an equally unavoidable wound from onboard politics. I hate to bore my readers, so I will attribute my most recent unexpected debarkation to wonderful friends and badly chosen enemies, namely beautiful brunettes and a surly Staff Captain, respectively. Those of you who know the full story will understand, those who don’t can speculate as you like. Surprisingly, given my track record, my mishaps were not of a romantic nature, but no matter how untouchable a place my position may afford me, the Staffy reigns supreme, and the top dog, regardless of his cur-like demeanor, will never be unseated by an art dealer.

 

So twenty days ago, I was once again thrown unceremoniously from a cruise ship, leaving little but a trail of whiskey bottles and a bitter stench of bullshit behind me. Luckily, my exiled ass was deposited in Wales, a mere three hours from the Merry Old land of London, so I smugly tramped onto a train, and within twelve hours of my questionable dismissal, I was firmly seated in a well-worn seat at my local pub in London, surrounded by the heirs of colonial tyrants that I adore so dearly. As an added finger in the face of bureaucratic machinations, I was offered a job within two hours of losing my previous one, so my future had no tinge of bleakness and the void of American unemployment never crossed my mind. Instead of the lush accommodations of the Regent Voyager, I was promised two cruises aboard the NCL Sun, and the idea of revisiting my most cherished metallic tube was appealing to a heart so wrapped and dependent on the saving grace of memory.

 

But before my prodigal return to hallowed stomping grounds, I had to endure the grueling ecstasy of two weeks in London. The heart aches….

 

An unexpected vacation in the most sacred of European meccas is the stuff of dreams for a self-affirmed ex-pat like myself, and my old friends were only too quick to agree. Thus began a destructively memorable sojourn into the past, reigniting and reaffirming friendships that I had unfortunately left too long untouched. Two days in April were a poor excuse for a reunion, but these two weeks in August were just what the doctor ordered to rediscover why that city holds such a spell over me. Two West End shows, three or four (or five?) nights out at the local cider springs, and countless mornings lounged on well-worn couches were enough to rekindle those nearly forgotten sentiments of British bliss. There is something uniquely magical about 10am raids for cigarettes, eggs, and milk after seemingly endless evenings in numberless flats tucked securely into the real heart of London.  For those who have never experienced the wild abandon of hung over metropolitan mornings…seek and find. It will be worth the trip. I can’t thank those Anglicized souls enough for reminding me why I do what I do. Picasso and Rembrandt may be good chaps to while away an evening with, but reaping the social benefits of their attraction to pocket-heavy Americans cannot be described, even through my wizened words.

 

As the story inevitably goes, however, the time flew by too fast, and despite the pleasure that such communal amusements may grant, September beckoned with it’s autumnal claw, and I was drawn to Copenhagen to fulfill my professional obligations. Interestingly enough, I had contracted a cold (unheard of in such a well-maintained and healthy temple such as mine), and the short flight between England and Denmark resulted in permanently popped ears for this bedraggled hero, and I found myself wandering the streets of Denmark’s sultry capital with the volume cranked all the way down. It is amazing how one’s other senses note such a handicap, and instead of a regrettably deaf experience in one of my favorite Baltic destinations, I had the ultimate pleasure of experiencing a muted world. It is hard to describe how nirvanic life can be when the inane bits are impolitely told to shut the fuck up. I strolled through one of Europe’s hidden gems for an entire afternoon without the chaotic annoyance of car horns, crying infants, and the general hum of any city alive and well in the baby steps of a weekend. To be alone with one’s thoughts while being surrounded by silent Danish ghosts is a strange sensation indeed, but one that I needed before launching into another chapter on yet another cruise ship.

 

9 am rolled around with it’s typical unwanted rays of sunshine through my hotel window, which overlooked the erotic district of Copenhagen. For example, the bar directly across the street from my hotel room was named Spunk. The titles of the other local establishments were in much the same vein.  So, I packed up what few belongings I had dragged along for this 18 day fling and jumped in a taxi headed for the Sun. I hadn’t thought much about what a third trip to the same ship might do for my delicate mentality, but from the moment I stepped back onboard, I was swept away by memories. Familiar faces were suddenly thrown back into my daily life, while new bodies filled familiar cabins where some of my dearest friends had once been found. When you spend as much time on one ship as I have, every corner of the ship means something. The table in the crew bar where the art team used to gather, the smell of smoke in the entertainer’s hallway, the waitresses already knowing what drink I wanted in the passenger bars. It was as though I never left, only blinked my eyes and woke up six months later. It is impossible not to attach memories to places, and these two cruises on the Sun will be intertwined with old romances, failures and successes, and a long string of memorable nights that have defined my experience on cruise ships more than any other place.

I’m now back in St. Petersburg, at my standard hookah bar, fulfilling my self-proclaimed proclivity to being a creature of habit. Russia is always a port that I keep for myself. Other spots in the Baltics are for friends and meals out and sightseeing, but St. Petersburg has a mysterious hold on me, giving me a chance to escape from the hustle and bustle of the ship for an entire day and fade into the background, adopting the guise of a local and frequenting an out of the way joint where the booze is cheap and the patrons don’t speak a lick of English. This is the type of place where I can forget about my job and the stressors of life and simply relax, read, and if I am particularly inclined, write. As I mentioned in my previous post, writing has been put on the backburner in a major and depressing way, as though I were driving a limousine and my typewriter got thrown into the trunk. But as my cruise ship career winds to a definite end, however, the old urges are returning. Snapshot scenes of my own life are once more transposing into short stories, conversations are being translated into dialogue, and the sponge of experience called my mind is once again soaking up this fodder for it’s inevitable exposure on blank paper. It is refreshing to feel that old tingle in my fingers and that inkling in my head to put pen to page and record what may be the great adventure of my youth. I am tearing through books again, soaking up the wisdom of wiser men through their words, cataloguing their styles and dissecting their literary conventions.  The prospect of making a permanent move to New York in just over a year is also sparking fresh fires under me, and finally having a light at the end of this oceanic tunnel has refocused me on where I actually want to be in life. Despite my frequent qualms and complaints of the life I am leading, I have once again convinced my heart that this is a means to an end.

I am entering a whirlwind to end my year, this brief stint on the Sun, cruising the Mediterranean for some passenger status relaxation on Princess followed by another art dealing fill in for a month somewhere in the world. Then, finally, near the end of October, I’ll make the journey back to the States for the first time since March, beginning another series of wild flings of adventure in Chicago, Champaign, New York, Los Angeles, and Hawaii. I can’t really complain, and now that I have a goal, both personally, professionally, economically, and emotionally, life seems to be playing out quite nicely.

I look around at tens of thousands of people every week all across the jewels of Europe and wonder how they feel about their lives. I try to put myself in their shoes, walking the streets of their cities week in and week out, hurrying somewhere, to jobs, families, bars, lovers, movies….I hope that everyone has a chance to step out of themselves every once in a while and take an honest appraisal of their own happiness. If they are young, I hope they are in the midst of their own bildungsroman, seeking experiences that will open their eyes to the beauty of the world and the endless mystery that is out there. If they are old, I genuinely hope they have found a balance of success and contentment that they can enjoy waking up to. I know these sentimentalities are impossible, because not everyone in the world has the luck or the opportunity to step out of the norm, but it reminds me that I am one of a fortunate few. There are certain moments that remind me of that so strongly, mornings wrapped in sunshine strolling through streets I can’t pronounce, or late nights dancing breathlessly to a song I’ve heard a thousand times before with no other thoughts except the music coursing through my soul. It truly is the little things, something I have said before, but a feeling that should never be forgotten.

In the poker game of life, I’ve been dealt a damn good hand, and for the moment, I’ll let my luck roll until the end.

I’m going all in.

 

 

 

 

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Time has quietly slipped away from me and I find myself back in Russia, for the first time in almost 8 months. This revisiting of the Baltic States for my second season of European cruising has been so hectic that this is the first time in four weeks that I can actually sit down and let some good old fashioned reverie and inspiration through the front door. I should be escorting a tour of guests and potential clients into the Hermitage this afternoon, but Russian efficiency and fondness for foreigners being what they are, suffice to say that my customs experience was as pleasant as always, and I missed the bus. Considering that the Hermitage is one of the best chances I have to isolate serious art lovers and turn them into clients means that my pockets won’t be gaining any notable weight this week, but an entire day off walking the streets of St. Petersburg does give my mind time to wander away from the world of Picasso and Poussin for a rare respite. As is the standard fare for me, my thoughts drift casually into memory. And In this area of the world, memories run deep as my oceans.

The Baltic season last year was filled with change, that most hated and ironically perennial word. These were new countries to explore with new experiences to embrace, and every turned corner held the promise of something profound. This year finds me a few seasons older, but hardly wiser, and doubts continue to pile up in the corners of my consciousness. I question everything, this is nothing new, but for the first time after almost two years of skirting the edges of the globe, I can’t come up with any answers. The mistakes that I have made over recent years weigh on my heart like anchors, rooting me to the spot or the moment when push came to shove and I took the road less wisely traveled. I won’t speak in riddles for too much longer, but I need to warm up to proper soul baring. So bear with me.

Like every great tragedy that sticks with Oedipal stubbornness to memory, it started with a woman. It’s funny how many stories from my adult life can begin with that same sentence. Trust me, if there was a more honest sentiment to begin with, I would. A woman was the reason I decided to go to London in the first place, and a different woman was the reason I wanted to stay.  A third woman made Chicago feel like home again, and a fourth taught me that home isn’t defined by four walls and a roof. The journey of my heart has stretched across five years and five continents, and after hundreds of memories and thousands of miles, I’ve come full circle. Somewhat. If it were truly full circle, I would find myself back in college with three roommates, two years to graduation, and one girlfriend that just joined the Air Force.  Considering that I am now an art dealer and am sitting in a smoky Russian café, I must admit that certain things have shifted. But the feeling between today and that heartbreaking afternoon in the Heartland is frighteningly similar. I’m lost in the middle of my own life, and I genuinely have no idea what I’m going to do next. Back then, it was even easier because I still had to finish school, and the only variable was which country I would do it in. Now the possibilities are endless, and that scares the hell out of me. I am finally beginning to envy the career path Jack and Jills that I have affectionately teased or separated myself from in the past. There is something to be said for stability. I know, who would have thought those words would ever come out of my mouth. But do you know what I miss? Being a local. Stop signs. My typewriter. Backyard barbecues. Libraries. Free Internet. Jeopardy. Lake Shore Drive at midnight. Grocery shopping. Getting stoned. Doing my own laundry. Taco Bell. Watching baseball games. The word “weekend” actually meaning something. Normal sized refrigerators. Coffee machines. Driving home down Cicero at 3 am. Falling asleep next to the woman I love…..

But I digress. As always. The fact of the matter is, this cannot last. The honeymoon of emotional and mental instability is over. I have always been one to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, but Thoreau didn’t work on a cruise ship. So something has to change, because when that switch flips and life starts sucking the marrow out of you, then it’s time to hang it up. Time to reinvent, to open the sails and float into new waters (I mean this in a purely figurative sense, obviously).

Fast Forward One Week – I have two cruises under my belt onboard this floating Ritz Carlton, and I am beginning to settle in. I am finding my social side again after a long stretch of simply working, and finally have people to have a drink with if I so choose. But the emotions of last week haven’t completely faded, and despite my “settling in”, I simultaneously feel out of place. It is as though someone told a joke and everyone else in the room heard the punch line except me. I know I should be laughing, but instead I just feel confused. The last thing I want is for this to become the summer of my discontent, but there is something distinctly off about me lately. I’m not myself. I’m anxious and withdrawn, moody and shy…..these are not words which typically define me, but they are becoming the norm. I understand that there is an adjustment period for any large change, but this one is sticking around worse than a Monday morning hangover. When I started writing this most recent offering, I was chin deep in self-deprecation, feeling terribly sorry for myself and dredging up anything that would pull me farther into the bizarrely reassuring depths of self-loathing. As I said, that mood has somewhat passed, but one small worming facet of that emotional maelstrom remains. The regrets I have from my relationships of recent years refuses to go away. Being as alone as I am right now on the Voyager, it gives me plenty of time to mull over my decisions and actions that have shaped the course of my romantic life, and what I find is none too pleasant.

I’ve decided that I’m a coward. There is no getting around that. However, most relationship cowards are afraid of things getting too serious. I have no problem going to extremes, and loving with every ounce of myself, that isn’t where my cowardice stems from. Instead, I am afraid of being alone. I don’t do it well. Which is tough, because in my lifestyle and line of work, the majority of relationships I’ve had for years have been long distance. So I’m alone a lot. Which makes me start to question, or doubt, wonder if I am making mistakes, thinking that this person or that person isn’t as good a fit as I originally believed. I build up excuses and justifications and let them become walls between my heart and theirs. I push people away from me, even as I desperately try to keep them in place. I am a dysfunctional misfit who loves too hard and thinks too much. I am a terrorist to my own happiness. And in reflection, I always pull apart my actions and berate myself, but in the moment, I never realize I am doing it. Apparently, I am that good of a salesmen that I literally sell myself on stupid ideas about my own life. But before I can dissect my own neuroses and figure out why I do what I do, a better definition of what sort of love I am talking about needs to be laid out. Which is a staggering challenge in itself.

Love comes in so many forms that it becomes difficult to know what to expect, or to even be aware that you are in the process of falling. It can creep up in the guise of a friendship in the throes of evolution, or it can rear end you and make everything else in your life fade instantly onto the backburner. It extends beyond a typical emotion, but rather takes on the physical forms of clammy hands or wired nerves, a flush to one’s cheeks when the object of desire walks in the room. It becomes a living, breathing companion, this love, a confidante in solitary moments, or a relentless enemy that refuses to concede, stealing precious sleep or invading your dreams. To be such a physical manifestation would imply a permanence if love is bound by the same laws as a flower or a human body, but the most paradoxical aspect of love is its ability to disappear. It may be overnight, in the course of an argument, or in a single flippant word. Sometimes it is a slow death, fading over years until it is little more than a shadow of a thought, an invisible memory. But where does it go? And more importantly, why, after months or even years can a single sliver of memory cause it all to rush back, almost overwhelming us with nostalgia. A silly song on the radio can drag me back to a random moment in a college apartment as though my heart had never strayed from a woman I haven’t seen in years. Sitting at certain tables in certain pubs can fill me with an ache in my chest as though I had tearfully parted from a different woman only moments ago and the avalanche of old love threatens to suffocate me. If it can come back so quickly and vividly after being gone for years, where has it been hiding? In some storage tanks of memory?

Are we given a certain amount of love in life, and we transfer it from person to person? Or do we give it away to others and they in turn can give it to someone else? Is there a universal pool from which we all draw, and some give it away freely, to any and all who will accept it, while others hoard it away, saving it for bursts of reckless passion?

Is that why it seems sometimes that there is no love left in the world?

Perhaps at times the hoarders are particularly greedy and have left none for the rest of us. Maybe love never disappears but is just moved around from heart to heart, sliced and quartered into budgeted amounts. 20% for the teenage years, 25% for the first person you think you’ll marry, 15% for random passionate flings, and then 40% in the overflow reserves? What if we use too much too soon? What if we give more than we receive and our supply runs out? Where do we go from there except pray that some loving soul will enter our life and give it freely by donating to the helpless cause?

I have given and received more love than I can even remember, but I don’t know if the scales between the two are tipped. I have hurt and been hurt, been both careless and cautious, and if the gods of karma and love ever sit down for a cup of tea, I would not doubt that my future will be adjusted according to my past.

I am beginning to ramble, but there is one more question that I have avoided because it is far more difficult to answer. I am focused on the transience of love, how it leaves us, yet returns to tease or torment, but that is because inevitably, the love in my life has slipped through my fingers like quicksilver. The real question I should be asking is one previously posed from a wiser man than I. Tom Robbins once wrote, “There is only one serious question. And that question is: Who knows how to make love stay?”

And that is really where the problem resides, not in discovering how it works or where it goes once it’s gone, but figuring out how to make love stay in the first place. You can’t lock it up for fear it will wither and die, but if you let it see daylight, it might slip away and never return. It is a conflict of interest to be sure, and one that I have obviously failed to settle with any success. Regardless of my past experiences, however, that is the question I should be finding answers for.

That is how I’ll find myself again.

That is where I’ll find my happiness.

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After my months long sabbatical from the stream of consciousness that is my sole literary output, I once again find myself seated solidly behind the keys, little more than a week since my last installment. To be fair, it has been a hell of a busy week.

Ten days ago, I was dragging my overweight luggage down yet another gangway, bidding adieu to the Carnival Magic in typical sign-off style, sunglasses firmly fixed to my bloodshot eyes, fedora lounged lazily atop my uncombed hair (Yes, my mop has nearly reached the afro days of yore). Barcelona is a savage town to find yourself in after a bender, and that is without the added weight of luggage, anxiety, and a plane to catch. The taxi driver gave me the gringo special and didn’t turn on the meter, then leered at me as I stopped at the ATM because his estimate on the fare was “veinte o treinte euroth”. Yes, I know when I’m in Barcelona when my ability to understand Spanish disappears in a flurry of spittle and lisps. I fell asleep in the taxi shortly afterwards and upon waking, was pleased to find myself at the airport with all my organs intact.

The security agents at the airport gave me the standard cavity check as my reckless appearance caused them to bring in the drug sniffing dogs and the rubber-gloved overachievers, as usual. Perhaps, someday when real life puts me in a sleeper hold, I will approach the doors of an airport without looking like a bumbling vagrant and pass through unaccosted, but don’t count on it. Four drinks and five hours later, I landed back on English soil, and was immediately targeted by a friendly Persian man who wanted to take my bags to his taxi in the nearby parking garage and drive me wherever I needed for under 50 pounds sterling. This typically would have alerted every common sense alarm in my system, but I was tired of lugging more than 145 pounds of luggage around various European countries, so I decided to test my luck.

Now, if any children are reading this, don’t ever go in a strange Persian man’s car (that doesn’t say taxi anywhere on it) in London, unless you know him. OR, unless he gives you a really good price. Under 50 worked for me, so I let him wrestle my four bags (I carried my camera) through the parking area while I dragged a much needed fag and carelessly traipsed after him. I say carelessly because I genuinely didn’t care. I had about 35 pounds on him, and I am certainly not someone to be fucked with on a hangover.  Seventy minutes later, he pulled up to the flat, and I held him to his original price. He didn’t look pleased, but if it had been a Black Cab, that ride would have easily cost 80 quid, and a deal’s a deal. Don’t try to back out on a quote, son, I’m an art dealer.

The flat I was taxiing all the way across London for was Roxy’s, whose birthday it conveniently was. And all of my friends from London were conveniently there. And I conveniently bought a bottle of Glenlivet. You probably know where the story leads from there. And if you do, please write me and let me know, because I sure as hell don’t remember. There was a whole lot of hugging and laughing after a year apart, ice cubes were made and shots were downed. There were Brixton locals, house music, wild dancers, the fit girl you always find but never speak to, lost wallets, fights, stolen purses, Jaegermeister, bathroom stalls, poor choices, rich taste, and the sweaty post-rave hum in the ears on the slow walk back to reality. Then came the late night/early morning stumble to the shop for supplies, cider, vodka, cigarettes, crisps, sweets, juice, kebabs, and other drunken sundries. After 72 hellish hours to finish the cruise, a massive bender, one flight, two countries, three taxi rides, four jaeger bombs, five gin and tonics and half a bottle of Glenlivet, I should have probably gone to bed. But London has never been a sanctuary for my common sense. It is typically denied access to the British Isles. The evening ended as the day began, sunshine through the window panes as my only nightlight for slumber.

It was a classic, and exactly what I needed to exorcise the rest of my demons from the cruise ship world, even if only for a weekend. The rest of my time in London was filled with mental recovery and catching up with old friends, rendezvous in pubs and afternoons whiled away in sun-strewn parks. Their world had moved so far forward, while I felt as though I had barely changed. It was a strangely different sensation than how I typically feel back in America. There, I am the one who has been out amongst the world, pushing myself forward into new adventures, but with my London family, it is as though their lives are always passing me by. There are new dynamics, new additions to the group, new lovers, new jokes….I can barely find a place to squeeze in there that still feels welcome. I want to play the same role, as the devil-may-care foreign fling that floods into their world once or twice a year, but they aren’t the same as they were in university times. They have jobs and responsibilities, their own students and deadlines, and I suddenly feel like Peter Pan in the grown up world. Strange vibes. I suppose things will constantly be changing in London, but for the first time, I truly felt like a visitor, simply passing through, as always.

I jumped on a train to Southampton after only four days in the Big Smoke, anxious and wired for my arrival at the Regent Voyager, one of the most luxurious, elite cruise ships in the world. Why the fates have aligned to drop me here is still to be determined. The cost for passengers is approximately $1,000 a day, which is a slightly staggering figure. The beds must be AMAZING, because as callous as it sounds, the ship is nothing special. It is just smaller, more intimate, and wallpapered with knockoff Rothko and Miro paintings. I knew I would have to alter my typical business model, but no amount of planning could have prepared me for what I found. My gallery is a corner of the top lobby floor, situated next to the library. I can fit about 30 works of art on the walls, and am not allowed any easels. On a good evening, about eight people pass by my desk, and the most common question I get is “Where can I find the Theatre?”

I am not allowed to use any venues for seminars, and I have a microscopic lounge for my auctions, where I have been advised by upper management not to fill with more than 50 works. The majority of my time is spent switching out my gallery, lugging paintings between two tiny cages on either side of the theatre to my gallery. I have no art team onboard, it’s just me, and I have become much more sympathetic to the plight of art stewards, whose existence is dominated by moving art in an eternal revolving door on most other ships. This ship, unlike every other ship in Park West, doesn’t need the art department for revenue. All of their profit comes from upfront ticket sales, and I am viewed as a novelty, or an extra diversion for those guests with an appetite for culture. The support system onboard is weak to say the least, and those higher ups that I deal with look at me with a mixture of pity and contempt, probably due to the fact that I am the only staff member onboard with a balcony suite.  Which is admittedly luxurious. I have no complaints in that department.

So, for the next few months, I am looking forward to developing a great physique, as I rarely have time to eat, and am doing physical labor at least two hours of every day. The loneliness is already setting in, and I don’t have any inflated dreams of becoming a social butterfly, since I am literally cut off from the rest of the ship professionally, culturally, and economically. Hell, I don’t even live in crew areas. Perhaps this will just be a good test of patience, and once in a while, one of these diamond clad divas may stroll into my gallery and buy the full range of Picassos off the wall. You can’t sell to these people, as they have been sold to all their lives. They are smart, cultured, well traveled and well read. They are suspicious and not easily entertained, so the standard shtick of normal art auctions falls embarrassingly short. I had heard from wise auctioneers who had worked on Regent that you need to wait for quality, and not pray for quantity, but an auction that starts with 25 people and ends with 4 is not particularly encouraging. At first I thought I was doing something wrong, but I quickly realized that on other ships, the conflicting events are belly-flop contests and Bingo. On the Regent Voyager, my competition is white glove serviced tea time, exotic wine tastings, cooking lessons with chefs from Le Cordon Bleu, and enrichment seminars on the Russian ballet. The stakes have been raised, and something’s gotta give. If I survive the rest of this contract, it will give me an appreciation for the time wasters and champagne drinkers that at least fill the seats in other programs. Open ears and empty wallets at least encourage one to continue, full wallets and empty chairs don’t inspire much confidence. I should probably start looking at this as a nice Baltic vacation with the occasional potential for extra spending money from random success.

But today, I am back in Warnemunde, Germany, sitting at the same restaurant as I did almost one year ago, and the French Onion soup has not improved. Neither has the aesthetic appeal of the wait staff. But despite these petty shortcomings, being back in the Baltic States drowns me in nostalgic memory, both good and bad. I know these ports, but I was a different person last time I was here. I was less jaded, still starry-eyed with the thrill of adventure and the potential for new discoveries. Every new port offered a fresh wave of possibility, and although these cities still give me a chance to walk away from my life for an afternoon, walking back becomes more difficult every day.

For example, I was sitting in Copenhagen yesterday, enjoying a solitary lunch at a crowded street café, surrounded by people in the pedantically passionate throes of every day life. Parents were brushing errant crumbs from their children’s clothes, waitresses coquettishly slid from table to table serving drinks, while young men and women enjoyed a Saturday afternoon in the open air, letting their youthful blood simmer in the sun. Their lives didn’t have a time of departure, no cruise ship foghorn summoned them back to their regularly scheduled programming.  After lunch, they would go back to their homes and watch television, or out to another bar for a football match, or maybe some of those young people would find love over wine in the humid summer evening. The point is not what their nights would hold, it was simply the uncertainty of what it could hold. They had a world of options before them, a city to explore until the earliest hours of the morning if they so chose. I envied them their freedom, and walked disconsolately back to the ship, alone.

Perhaps my melancholy tone betrays the fact that I am in the twilight hours of my love affair with cruise ship life, and it may be time to hang up my scarcely used gavel. Or perhaps this is just another trough before the surge in that endless cycle of despair and ecstasy that shapes my life. The loneliness of this new position intensifies every emotion, for the better or worse. I cherish my solitude, and a quiet glass of wine on my empty balcony as I watch the sun fall over the Baltic Sea is something that I will never forget, but there is an emptiness to success without someone to celebrate with, and an even more painful depth to failure when no one is there to help pick up the pieces. But without betraying too much, no one is to blame for this solitude except myself. It was not only my choice to pursue this far-flung lifestyle, but also the choices I’ve made since, which have left me finally disconnected and quite alone. The regrettable glimpse in the rear view mirror always begs the question of whether one can go back, whether wounds will heal with time, or if scars will always remain. The difficult thing about regret is that our memory is so tainted by nostalgia, the same emotional trap that I’ve flirted with many times before. If I could go back, would I? Should I? Would the end result be any different? Or would it just be the same roundabout path to destruction and heartache that I stumbled down before? Heavy lies the crown….

Regardless, I’ve wound my head up too tight tonight as it is, and these questions won’t help the cause. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I certainly won’t unravel the existential quandaries of the human experience on a random Monday night off the coast of Latvia.  I think a glass of red, some Tom Waits, and fresh air is the best cure for what ails me this evening. The sun sets after midnight here, and on the rare occasion that I can turn my mind off long enough to smile into the endless ocean, the world is pretty fucking beautiful.

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First of all, the ship didn’t sink. It would have probably made the papers, but no one reads anymore, and CNN only covers royal weddings, so it is possible that no one in the world would have known if the Carnival Tragic went out in a titanic blaze of glory on its maiden voyage.  But for those of you who were concerned by my short literary hiatus (if we are loosening our standards enough to call a blog “literature”), fear not. I’m still here, floating and rambling on the placid sheets of the Mediterranean.  My sanity is less intact, although that is not breaking news to anyone vaguely familiar with my oceanic adventures and perennial neuroses.

I have come up for air after four weeks of pure madness during the inaugural cruises of the Carnival Magic and have surfaced in a lonely café outside of Rome. The sea is within spitting distance and the air is filled with murmurs of unintelligible Italian and the smell of seafood bubbling in the kitchen.  A stale glass of beer and a mounting pile of cigarette ruins are my only companions today, which is exactly what I needed after 26 days of cruising. It is impossible to escape people onboard, particularly with a roommate and a seemingly endless to do list. The lethargic schedule during my pre-cruising stint in Trieste is a faint memory now, left behind along with regular meals and sleep.

But this is not meant as a recap of my life and times, because despite how interesting my life might be to other people, it bores the hell out of me most of the time. And, as usual, I have a bone to pick with the universe, and I’m hoping that I have a captive audience. Perhaps not as captive as those pitiable souls who sit down before me at my art seminars, but close. I have a list of complaints, and I think we should all weigh in, regardless of creed, color, sex, age, or addiction. The short list is as follows, in order of anger that it arises in me.

-Smokers becoming criminals in the eyes of the world.

-The disappearance of intelligence and awareness in the world.

It’s a short list, but it is a veritable powder keg of debate. Which could be interesting if anyone could manage to pull their pedantic head out of their ass and hold a conversation for more than five minutes. I direct your attention to that second infuriating point which I’ll be covering shortly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. And yes, this is going to be a rant. So buckle up, because I’m deep enough in the beer count to be livid, irrational, and hyperbolic. But I’m banking on those being the qualities you gentle readers find so irresistible in these scribblings.

This first topic has been a brewing point of contention in my life for a long time, but I have held back the full force of my ire until now. Being relatively young, I don’t have the memory of people cheerfully lighting up cigarettes in airplanes or removing their oxygen masks in the hospital for a quick drag, but I remember enough. I remember having smoking areas in every restaurant, and a time before the “more than 10 feet away from a doorway”. My first cigarette was smoked inside a hotel, and my second was in a bar. Weren’t those the good old days? Wasn’t it nice when you weren’t treated as a second class citizen for participating in a completely legal activity of your own volition?  These days, you would be drawn and quartered for lighting up inside a “family” restaurant. You would be forbidden from entering an IHOP for the rest of your natural life if you even considered sparking a single cigarette inside those hallowed halls. Thirty years ago, you were allowed to chain smoke to your heart’s content on an airplane, but now you can’t even smoke outside the airport doors, for fear that some of that terrible gray matter may be sucked back in to the pure and precious oxygen of the terminal.  Please smoke across two lanes of taxi traffic so we make sure everyone is protected from your dastardly habit.

Now for those non-smoking readers, let me interrupt the wheels spinning in your head as they generate arguments I have heard a thousand times before.  Let me guess, they go something like this…

”It affects other people besides the person smoking”

“I don’t want to inhale second hand smoke”

“People should be discouraged from killing themselves”

Those are the main arguments that people have, and if we remove all personal/emotional connection to the topic of smoking, those arguments fall apart like a hand-rolled cigarette in a tropical storm.

Does it affect other people besides the smoker? Of course, so use those legs of yours and don’t stand next to them. Walk away from the ashtray at the bar. Or hell, go to a different bar! You don’t hear the smokers complaining when you get too wasted and belligerent while drinking alcohol, speaking/shouting your inane stories to a bored and annoyed crowd of people waiting for a drink. And we don’t force you to park your car a mile away so you’ll be less tempted to drunk drive your way into an early grave because you’re too smashed to get behind the wheel. There are not pictures of rotten livers on the front of every 24 pack as a threat against the purchaser. The surgeon general doesn’t write his two cents in on a handle of whiskey that could kill you in one evening if drunk from start to finish. Medical professionals may correct me, but I don’t think anyone has ever died from an evening of binge smoking.

I’m not suggesting that we bring back smoking in all areas of life, because there would certainly be an element of discomfort sitting next to someone with a perpetual Lucky Strike in their lips during a transatlantic flight. I get it. My rant is not necessarily irrational. But don’t build a cage and isolate us as though we are wild beasts who may force a cigarette into a child’s mouth and light the fuse. Let’s remember that there are many types of cancer in the world, shall we? No one seems to be on the international warpath to ban grocery stores with genetically engineered food, or refuse to open public beaches and pools on particularly fierce days of sunshine to stop the spread of skin cancer. What is the real reason? Why has the general public been brainwashed to look at smokers as criminals, relegated to the back of the societal bus when it comes to our personal life?  Why are we as happy as freshly blown sailors at the cultural devolution that is swamping our lives, but completely opposed to a legal practice that began as one of the basic economic booms of our entire nation? (See, here comes the hyperbolic bit).

When you go to other countries of the world, smoking is the least of their worries. Other issues like putting food on the table, or not being massacred by genocidal armies take precedence over their slightly unhealthy habits. And yes, many of us are fortunate to not have those concerns, but look at the unemployment rate. Look at how many people’s homes have been lost. Or the complete collapse of our economy and the fragile existence of our “power” in the world.  Just thinking about it makes me want to have a smoke. And I am not even dealing with those issues directly. In fact, I think I’ll have one. Good thing I am outside and out of throwing distance of another soul or potentially open doorway. Whew! In times such as these, perhaps a focus on the big picture is a bit more appropriate.

The reason this is such a fresh wound of fury for me is that as a crew member on a cruise ship, there aren’t many things to do. Some people drink heavily, others dedicate six months to the gym, while others simply sleep around with as many willing and witless souls as they can. A small percentage read, (that figure being measurable on one person’s fingers and toes on a ship of 1400 crew members), and some people blindly work and sleep, already dreaming of their sign off day the moment they come aboard. One common denominator that breaks down certain boundaries is the huge amount of smokers onboard, usually around 30% of the crew. That is approximately 400 people that crave that nicotine fix on a daily, if not hourly basis. And these are the individuals responsible for serving food to thousands of guests, cleaning shit out of thousands of toilets, and making sure the ship actually gets from Port A to Port B. These are not people that should be angry, pissed off, or distracted because their cigarette release has been denied. But two days ago, the wise men with countless stripes closed off our smoking section onboard and have now limited us to the very front of the ship, in an unlit section of empty space without seating. When I say unlit, I mean it’s a massive space that is pitch black in the middle of the ocean. I walked in last night and the only evidence of life was the dimming and glowing cycle of twenty cigarettes in the darkness. After a 14 hour shift of washing dishes and mopping perpetually filthy floors, that crew member now has to take an elevator four decks up and walk into a pitch black roped off area so he can enjoy a well-deserved cigarette along with his beer before he passes out only to wake up and do it all over again at 6 am. I call bullshit. As I said earlier, approach the subject without the immediate emotional response of most people who are miserable to have conversations with. I don’t know many people who would pick a drunk driver on their way home from work over an occasional cloud of smoke in their general vicinity. Think about it.

My second issue with the world at large is one that I have had for years, but after a particularly engrossing conversation with one of oldest friends a few days ago in Venice, it brought the matter back to the front of my mind. I realized that my stance as a strict anti-Kindle/Nook/Zoomba/Tweeter/ iPad/WHATEVER is well-established, but it deserves revisiting on further review.  There are two things which have changed the world more than anything else in history, the written word and independent thought. I will defend that point until I am blue in the face and three days in the grave. Try me.  Nothing has ever moved forward in this world until someone was inspired to think differently. And the way that those new ideas were expressed, spread, and popularized was through the written word. I was spending a day in Venice with the particularly articulate and enlightened mind of Stacy Coyne, and after months aboard a cruise ship where the cultural depth is far closer to a kiddie pool than the ocean, it was a much needed breath of fresh air. The specific conversation that arose centered on new media, and the growing fear of a “paperless” world. I am not going to rehash the discussion blow by blow, but one of the most interesting points was the line between freedom of information and the argument for monetizing knowledge. Allow me to explain.

When newspapers began emerging online and publishing their stories in the digital media, it was free. The New york Times website was my home page for a long time, because it allowed me to have an immediate awareness of the world around me, and a constant reminder that things were happening all over. It forced me to open my eyes, whether I wanted to or not. I would start a lot of my days by surfing the website, just as I would skim a newspaper over a morning coffee. There was always a charge if I wanted to go into archived news stories and some other notable exceptions, but for the most part, it was free. That knowledge, so vital to any populace that is conscious of more than their narrow sphere, was for everyone. Unfortunately, the potential for turning a profit was too attractive to pencil pushers and numbers crunchers, so there is now a limit to the amount of news stories can be accessed before you have to pay. At first, it barely surprised me, but as we delved deeper into the repercussions of this, my blood began to slowly boil.  Tens of thousands of people who normally waste the first half hour of work waking themselves up at their desk as they skim through the news of the day will surely reject the idea of paying for their slacking. They will return to the old standard of free solitaire rather than ever pay a cent to read the news. Now, my argument is multi-faceted, because the reason the newspapers are beginning to monetize their websites is because they aren’t producing the cash in hand revenue from news stands, because we are moving away from that means of knowledge dissemination. And the great irony is that things like environmental awareness were spurred on by popular culture movements which used to spread through things like newspapers and magazines. That same environmental awareness is a big reason why we are moving into a paperless world to spare the waste associated with printing. That paperless world is why the news is now being digitized, and the reason why newspapers are losing money. Since they are losing money, they must now put a price tag on previously free information, which will greatly reduce the willingness of people to seek out that knowledge.

So in effect, greater awareness has gradually led to a lesser amount of awareness, and yet the profit margin of big business and the movers and shakers remain. A naïve mind would wonder why those who make decisions and “rule” want to decrease awareness or intelligence of the general public. But the cynics in the crowd, myself included, see the endgame. Information can now be divided not by access, but a price tag. And the vast majority of people will allow themselves to be spoon fed ideas if it costs nothing.  In one fell swoop, the masses are once again under control. Listen to this. Believe this. Take the news we give you. It’s free. Don’t question. Just read the six news stories we allow per day and we’ll take care of the rest. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about what is really going on in the world….

Now, I am not saying that online newspapers are the only culprit, that is just my prime example. Where will the line be drawn?  Perhaps a service charge outside the polling booths? The State of the Union Address on Pay Per View? A cover charge for entering a library? What I do know is that when people know less, they ask less questions. It doesn’t make logical sense, but unfortunately, curiosity is a dying art form. People become comfortable in their place, situated and unshaken in their ignorance. Routine becomes the norm, change becomes the enemy. Enlightenment turns into a dirty word associated with troublemakers and rabble rousers. Here’s a joke for you, “Why is the general public like mushrooms?” Because you feed them shit and keep them in the dark. Think about it.

Now, after that sizeable rant, perhaps you wish I had simply stuck to the autobiographical rendition of the past two months, and I surely will in the near future. I am in London now, killing four days in typical British style with my old loves, before slipping down to the coast to join yet another ship, the Regent Voyager. The tales from the past two months are epic indeed, but they will have to wait for now. My memories will keep. In summary, it was another stretch of highs and lows, stress and success, hope and heartache. Seems like that pattern will be the story of my life, no consistency, but no boredom either. I suppose things could be worse.

So, keep your eye on the horizon, because somewhere out there I’m wandering and wondering, as always.

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