The table was set for eight, but on the first night only six people showed up: the farmer and the cheerleader (husband and wife); the grandma and the alcoholic (sisters); and the group facilitator with her judgmental husband (me). The two empty chairs caused consternation among the six of us. Had the missing couple gone by our table and refused to sit with us? Had they rejected us before they even met us? We were relieved to learn that our paranoia was unfounded. As it happened, the party animal and her husband the foodie missed the first dinner because they ate at a more exclusive restaurant. They did join us for the remaining three nights of the cruise though. And every dinner they regaled us with stories of delicacies, drinking, and dancing.
Despite my reclusive proclivities, I was fully prepared to socialize with six strangers for four consecutive dinners. I came ready with open ended questions, approving nods, and a curious attitude. I’m sure all six of them were very interesting people, with exotic backgrounds and unique life stories, but there was one problem: they were as communicative as the silverware.
Ora, my wife, assumed the role of group facilitator. She went around the table asking people about their lives, their kids, their pets, their jobs, and their hobbies, until she ran out of topics. She used all the counseling skills she taught students for years, but to no avail. Addressing the farmer, Ora said, “I’m sure it must be very interesting living on a farm. What is your day like?” After an interminable pause, he replied: “I get up, have my coffee, and watch the weather channel all day.” In case we had any doubts about his interest in conversation, his statement was emitted with as much expression as Jared Kushner and as much charm as Michael Cohen. No wonder his wife the cheerleader chose to go back to work when he retired.
Trying to include the alcoholic in a meaningful conversation was futile. Having declared that she had purchased the beverage package for a ridiculous amount of money — which, according to our calculations, cost as much as the cruise itself — she went on and on about all the wines she had tasted already, starting at 7 am. Ora inquired: “Where did you grow up?” “The Pinot Noir Valley” she replied. “What’s your favorite sport?” I asked. “Riesling.” “Where do you go for fun?” “Cabernet.” “Do you have a favorite color?” “Sauvignon Blanc.”
Her sister the grandma was very affable, but getting her to talk was harder than getting the foodie to stop talking about steak. So obsessed were the foodie and the party animal with steak that every night they made a special order from the “additional charge menu.” Considering that there were multiple delicious options from the free menu, Ora and I thought it was ridiculous to spend extra money on bad cholesterol.
But hey, wait a minute. I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking that I’m a judgmental, opinionated, condescending prick, aren’t you? But I ask you, if you’re judgmental toward my judgmentalism, where does that leave you? Did you learn self-righteousness from James Comey?
This whole dinner situation provoked some philosophical quandaries for me. On one hand, embracing diversity is a virtue — even if the diverse people refuse to talk with you about anything other than alcohol or animal fat. But on the other hand, what do you do when you are on vacation, and the dinner table feels like a prison cell surrounded by addictive personalities with the social graces of an amoeba? I tried to think what would the Dalai Lama do? He’d probably persevere, night after night, Sisyphean style.
I tried meditating on it, silently rehearsing the loving kindness tapes that Ora said will be good for me. I even tried to be less judgmental, imagining what it would be to like to watch the weather channel all day, or to wake up thinking about the wine list in the beverage package. I even imagined what it would be like to eat steak all day. I went as far as thinking what it would be like to be a plumber on a cruise ship, unclogging toilets.
Following much deliberation, perspective-taking, and ethical pondering — which included abandoning the assigned dinner table and going solo — we did the right thing and stuck with our assigned partners, but not before issuing a set of recommendations to the cruise line: