On my dad's 60th birthday my family celebrated by
taking a pleasure cruise to Alaska. The ship departed
from Seattle. Boarding was an unpleasant experience.
We were shuffled like cattle over the gangway. Most of
my fellow passengers were well into adulthood. Their
bunions or other old-age ailments must have been
acting up because they were in foul moods, especially
surprising since they were supposed to be on vacation.
When senior citizens retire they need to find new ways
to take up their time. This seems to be done by
complaining about everything. It was early in the
morning so I put on my sunglasses and tried to shut my
I didnt have the right papers. I had to stand in a
special line for over an hour. There were more
complaints and misunderstandings. My mum is Irish, the
reason for the wrong passport- as I was told, even
though there is nothing wrong with an E.U. passport
that hasnt expired, and my father is a wealthy
American businessman with many dealings around the
world. This unique and not exactly exotic pairing has
allowed me to grow up and study in such exciting and
culturally rich places like London, Paris, New York
and Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
I have the international view of a nomadic traveler. I
am sensitive to other cultures and their people. I
traveled around the world a few times and have done it
mostly on my own. Im not a fan of the prepackaged
tour- The Blitzkrieg of seeing Europe in five days.
This was my first cruise. I found out rather quickly
that I dont like traveling in large groups. It
reminds me of when I lived in Paris and a huge tour
bus would stop on a small side street and all these
Americans would exit the bus and immediately begin to
If a question was directed at me as I was passing I
pretended I didnt understand English. They were
usually asking where the nearest McDonalds toilet
was. McDonalds toilets come with a bowl to sit your
ass on, instead of the Parisian Turkish style of
two-foot rests and a hole, found in most cafes. This
lesson should have taught me that when Americans
travel they want to see something new as long as it
doesnt lead to any inconvenience. American tourists
want their foreign places to be different and exactly
The crew on the boat was young and international. They
all wore polyester uniforms with nametags that stated
their birthplace. Most came from impoverished Asian
countries or old Eastern European blocs. There was
stratification reminiscent of the class struggle in
India, a strict caste with no upward mobility. The
crew was expected to know their place.
The captain and his mates were the heads of State,
tall proud Norwegians who have diplomatic flair. The
captain made reports on the loud speaker and gave
public appearances. You could have your picture taken
with him if you wanted.
The few Americans, British, and Swedish were the
cruise directors. They tended to be social butterflies
and had endless patience. I stayed far away from them.
I dont trust people who have permanent smiles.
Then there were the servers who I interacted with,
friendly and devoted young people from The
Philippines, Russia, China, and Poland who worked in
service, in the bars and restaurants or in the gaming
room. They always had a drink ready for me. I wasnt
allowed to tip but once in a while I threw in a few
bucks which I think they appreciated. A smile and a
thank you were always welcome, but U.S. currency
The ships equivalent of The Untouchables, the lowest
class, was a random group mostly from North Africa and
Sri Lanka. These people were left to clean the room,
change the linen and perform other tedious tasks day
in and day out.
There was a young chambermaid and everyday we
exchanged glances. I hoped these might be meaningful
glances full of offers of lustful intimacy but I think
she was just another pretty girl being shy and polite,
going through her routine, not sharing her far away
They say that 80% of Americans are obese. I think that
all 80% of those Americans were on that ship. At first
I was a little overwhelmed and wondered how we were
going to stay afloat. Some of the passengers seemed to
have come on that cruise for the sole purpose of
When they served lunch, many people trampled to the
buffet. I soon learned that many of the passengers on
the ship suffered from a condition known as Buffet
Aggression Disorder. B.A.D. happens when too many
people try to stuff their faces too quickly. They act
like they are starving and that the food is in low
supply, when in reality they ate to major capacity
only a few hours prior and there is no way the ship is
going to run out of food. There are mounds of the
I sat back and observed in disgust. A poor Chinese
crewmember was trying to make peace while the fatties
were jockeying with their trays to be first in line.
Her eyes widened with panic, as she was stricken with
an anxiety attack. Im sure she had never experienced
anything like this before in her life. All the pre
board training she went through couldnt possibly
prepare her for the spectacle of people suffering from
B.A.D. Im sure the poor girl ended up in the
psychiatric sick bay.
My family and I skipped the buffet and hit the top
deck for drinks. There was a pool, a few hot tubs and
shuffleboard. A band played Stayin' Alive in the
sunshine. It was good to be back together again. My
sister lives in Dallas and my parents are in
Wisconsin. My brother and I live in Seattle. It was
the first time in ten years we all got together when
it wasnt Christmas.
My dad was not the only one celebrating a birthday.
There was a group of young girls who were fifteen and
wore bathing suits. The girls looked very alive and
sensual with youth, their bodies full and fit. I was
glad I brought my sunglasses.
The birthday girl was tall and built for her age and
had brilliant dark twinkling eyes and a broken arm.
She would sit in the hot tub wearing a skimpy bikini,
with her cast wrapped in a towel. She sipped Diet Coke
and watched me typing. I would often lose myself and
look back at her through my sunglasses. If I were her
age she wouldnt have the time of day for me and would
have broken my heart.
That night we found the Monte Carlo Casino. My sister
Rachael, my brother Zac and my dad all put down $500
for chips. I wandered off to get free drinks.
Everything was getting put on the ship issued card,
which goes to the cabin bill, so for me it's FREE!
Rachael asked why I didn't want to play Blackjack. I
told her betting is a lowly addiction of the common
man. In reality, I dont have the money saved to
gamble. Im not telling Rachael that. As my little
sister she loves to brag about the difference in our
incomes, how much more she makes than me.
For a nightcap the pills came out. My brother had
broken his leg snowboarding a month ago and my sister
had a recent cosmetic surgery, so they had trouble
sleeping. They had a pharmacy of Vicodine, Percoset,
and Valium. When they werent looking I stole a few
pills from each bottle. I wasnt in any pain, but it
always helps to be prepared.
The first morning I got up and went running around the
ship on deck 6. The weather changed and was a bit
cool. We passed desolate islands lush with green
shrubbery. After the run I went to the gym. I decided
to get my upper body conditioned. At my age, and with
a diet that includes as much beer as I drink, its
easy to get flabby before you know it. Seeing the
people on that ship I knew what I didnt want to end
up looking like.
At the gym I learned of an on board Ping-Pong
tournament. I was thinking I would teach these
grandmas something, but when I got there, three Asian
guys with their own paddles were doing calisthenics
and warm up exercises. I have seen people show up to
play tennis and pool with their own rackets and
sticks, though this is the first time I ever saw
Ping-Pong paddles protected by expensive leather. I
was out of my league and lost in the first round.
I signed up to take a glacier helicopter excursion. I
looked at the brochure. It said all helicopter
passengers weighing more than 250 pounds will be
subject to an extra charge of 1/2 the ticket price. I
hoped I wouldnt get a fatty next to me. Once on top
the glacier you could go for a dog sled. I hoped for
the dogs sake there wouldnt be any 250 pounders for
them to pull.
Getting five individuals who have nothing in common
but shared bloodlines together was an interesting
sociological experiment. Trying to organize the whole
family to meet and eat at the same time proved
difficult. This didnt deter my father though. He kept
telling me to "wait here" while he went to search the
ship, a vessel of over 4,000 people and 12 decks. The
rest of the family would arrive and my dad was now
lost. To keep my sanity I smiled and continued to
"wait here". I never went far without reading
material. There is a lot of waiting around while
traveling in a group.
On the second night I walked around by myself to get
some solitude. I saw a man videotaping the buffet. I
went to get a piece of fresh fruit. The man was
getting a close up shot of the mound of mashed
potatoes. As I walked out with my banana he put down
the video camera and grabbed his regular Instamatic to
snap a photo of his wife. She smiled and dove into her
heaping plate. The Chinese crewmember was nowhere to
I went back to the casino to try my luck at Blackjack.
Rachael saw me and asked about my convictions. I told
her its not a gamble when you know you are going to
win. Of course, I didnt tell her I learned you can
get a cash advance on the ship card and I am hoping
for beginners luck. Rachael went away shaking her
head, and its a good thing she did. My luck ran out
fast. I dont even know how to double down properly.
My mum went to bed early. She doesnt yield to the
addictions the rest of us do. Zac was at the bar
hitting on a bartender. My dad and Rachael continued
to play. They are talented at cards and meet up at The
Bellagio in Las Vegas a couple of times a year. They
always play for hours and win loads.
The first port we landed at was Juneau, Alaska. While
the ship came through the narrow passageway it was
breathtaking. I was outside on the top deck. It truly
felt like God's country. The scenery was overwhelming
in all its majestic glory. It gave me chills, and then
I realized I was in shorts and a tee shirt looking at
snow covered mountains and glaciers.
I gave up on Ping-Pong. My next sport was to join a
free throw contest. All you had to do to advance to
the next round was make one basket out of three
chances. I swear the ship moved every time I took a
shot and that it stayed still for all the smug
16-year-olds that made all three baskets. I went out
in the first round again. I started to feel like that
kid Max in Rushmore- enthusiastically trying all
activities and failing miserably. The sports
coordinator hung her head in shame and all she could
say was, "not again".
In Juneau there was an old time saloon where they have
a gun from Wyatt Earp hanging over the bar. After the
OK Corral the government put out a warrant for his
arrest and set a posse on him. He came up to Alaska to
become a U.S. Marshal. In the corner of the bar a man
in red and white checked shirt and a top hat was
playing piano in the old style of the era. I moseyed
on over casual like for a closer inspection of this
relic and I saw he was playing a Kurtzweil K2000, the
kind of sophisticated keyboard that people make modern
dance music with.
Earlier, a girl working at the local pub told me every
season people perish in violent ways. I decided to
have five beers for courage. The girl wasnt helping
the situation. She said planes and helicopters fly
into the sides of mountains they cant see. I told her
Id be back and come say hello when I returned.
It wasnt until I was actually in the helicopter
flying over glaciers and snow-covered mountains that I
remembered I am afraid of heights. When the turbulence
hit I thought I was going to lose my lunch. I wanted
to go higher so we wouldnt run into anything. I
wanted to go lower so when the engine stopped we
wouldnt fall that far. And there was no visibility.
How can you fly through clouds when you cant see?
Wont we run into the mountains?
We finally reached our destination. The pilot let us
off and said we had an hour to go exploring but the
weather wouldnt hold so the dog sledding was
cancelled. The first thing I did was to find a
clearing to drain my bladder of beer. After the hour
of half-heartedly looking around we returned to the
pick up area. The pilot didnt come back. I looked
through the skies for the helicopter and all I saw was
a thick white haze. It took another five hours before
it was clear enough to be picked up. Most of the
people in our group were stricken with grief and a lot
of them started swearing. There was a lot of muttering
Gods name, both in prayer and in vain. Just about
everyone said Jesus Christ in one way or another.
The people who werent swearing were talking survival
tactics. This scared me because it had been the
longest a few of them had gone without a meal this
week and at any minute I thought they would draw
straws and revert to cannibalism. It was with great
relief when I first heard the choppers coming to the
rescue. It reminded me of those Vietnam War movies
where the pilots come to the rescue of the hero (I was
the hero) under heavy artillery and pull him out in
the last minute as the Vietcong surround.
When we landed back in Juneau I went to look for the
girl in the pub to tell her she could stop worrying
for my safety. I had made it back alive. Her boss told
me she had ended her shift half an hour ago and had
gone home. Im glad she didnt needlessly worry about
The next town was the once booming, Skagway, Alaska,
the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Its a
beautiful tiny town at the tip of the Glacier Bay
passage, surrounded by mountains and waterways, a once
lawless startup full of gamblers, prostitutes and
drinking. It sounded like my kind of place. Now about
three families live there, and only during tourist
I took a train into the backcountry. It moved at a
snails pace and once again the view ignited synapses
in my brain and sent shivers down my spine. Alaska
really does feel like the final frontier- but with
bears instead of Klingons.
One night was a bit magical in The Catcher in the Rye
sense- when our young depressed anti-hero Holden is
out playing catch with friends after dark. I had the
same kind of fond memory with my brother Zac. We were
playing shuffleboard and it got dark and started
raining and it was very cold. We had a few beers and
kept playing late into the evening.
Zac and I have always had a strained relationship and
usually when we play sports it gets even worse, us
both being competitive and the whole older brother
younger brother conflicts that go along with life. But
this night we must have played fifty games and we
talked about life and laughed at life and didn't
mention anything from the past. It just felt really
good. And no one got mad at losing. Probably because I
won all the games, so I thought Zac was a better
person than I am.
Later that same night Zac came home pissed out of his
head. In the morning I woke up around 4am to the sound
of Zac actually pissing all over the cabin. He was
stumbling around in a drunken stupor and never made it
to the toilet.
"What the hell are you doing?" I screamed.
"Playing Blackjack," he mumbled.
Once again the booze disoriented his infantile mind. I
couldn't get back to sleep after that. As I was fuming
I decided that he isn't a better person than I am
By the fifth day it was still cold, overcast and
raining. At ten in the morning I had already had four
wonderful warm drinks with hot cocoa, rum and whiskey
called Chocolate Corvette, served to me by a friendly
Jamaican woman who called both males and females
Man! The drinks helped me stand outside in the
freezing downpour as I took in the scenery.
We sailed through Glacier Bay National Park and
Preserve, once called Thunder Bay- this wondrous blue
ice land encompasses 3.3 million acres. The waterways
provide access to 16 of these glaciers, 12 of which
actively calve icebergs into the bay. Calving is when
huge chunks of ice fall off the glaciers and plunge
into the water. It is awesome-I had never been so
inspired by our dynamic planet.
I was really getting back to nature and started to
understand the call of the wild, the muse of
wilderness. I thought about packing up and leaving the
city life far behind. I would move to the Yukon to
become the next Jack London. The Chocolate Corvettes
were revving my imagination. My plans were all set in
my head when an elderly woman came up to me.
She said to me, "I don't know about this, I don't like
this one bit."
She was talking about the ship sailing in
iceberg-infested waters. I didnt think she had to
worry. We were only traveling at a few knots an hour.
She added, "I mean didn't we learn anything from the
movie Titanic. You look like a smart boy, did you
learn anything from the movie Titanic?"
"Yes," I replied. "I learned Kate Winslet has great
Our final stop in Alaska was Ketchikan. It was the
first town founded in Alaska. I talked to a kid on a
skateboard. He had floppy hair and was wearing a Kurt
Cobain tee shirt. He thought it was cool that I lived
in Seattle. He wanted to move there someday. I asked
him what life was like. He said, It sucks. There
aint no chicks.
In Alaska, the male to female ratio is six guys for
every girl. The dating ritual is very incestuous. The
guys say you dont lose your girlfriend you lose your
turn and the girls say the odds are good but the
goods are odd.
Ketchikan gets an annual rainfall of 12.5 feet. In
July the average temp is 32 degrees- in January it's
53 degrees. They only get 15 sunny days a year, and
when the sun does come out everything shuts down.
Banks and schools close and the population rushes to
be outside. Basically its the opposite of a snow day.
And I thought Seattle was bad. I would not want to
live in Ketchikan. I give up my dream of writing the
next White Fang.
That night at dinner I had too much wine to drink
(something I love to do) and started taking cheap pot
shots at my family. Only I thought it was funny. I was
trying to get back at them because the night before at
dinner we were talking about my writing and what a
failure I am. I told my dad I hope I make it as a
writer before he dies so he can be proud of me. He
smiled politely, like I had no hope of that. So I have
changed my mind. I hope I make it before I die.
Rachael wants to put a gag order on me. She said she
would hire a lawyer and sue my ass for any slander
that could hurt her career. I don't think she
understands where I am with my writing. I told her I'm
not selling like David Sedaris or Peter Mayle, but if
she sues me and I call the press-- sister sues brother
writer-- it might be good publicity, the best thing
that has happened to my career. I told her to mellow
out and get a grip. She should think it a privilege to
be related to an artist.
My mum is trying to take stock in her kids love
lives: I'm thirty-three, Zac is thirty, and Rachael is
twenty-eight. We are not deformed or yet married. The
neighbors are starting to talk. We are the cause of
rumors. Something is amiss. There must be some dark
sinister secret if the McCutcheon kids arent getting
hitched. My mum wants to know when her children might
be getting married. She started with me.
"What's your girlfriends name?"
"Oh! I love Amanda. That was your great grandmothers
name. What's her last name?"
"That's her last name."
"Oh, shes Italian?" she asked defeated. I think she
has been watching The Sopranos.
I was talking to Rachael about how our mum used to
warn us not to get married too young and now I can
tell she cant wait to become a grandmother. My sister
said she might join a dating service. I'm not sure how
a twenty-eight-year-old successful businesswoman could
get so desperate. Her shrink thinks it's a good idea.
I was just starting to feel sorry for her when the
conversation continued. She said a lot of her
girlfriends in Dallas were thinking of doing the same
thing. Seems the girls in Dallas are horny and single
(and lonely?) Sometimes when then go out they play a
game: you can't leave the club until you kiss someone.
Sounds sad and stupid to me. Rachael said she told her
friends about her older brother-Me. She explained I
was handsome like a male model and had a great sense
of humor, but alas, I was poor. The girlfriends were
Doesn't he have a job? They wanted to know.
Rachael set them straight:
Oh he has a job; it's just that he isn't into making
money. He even runs a web site that he pays for,
without making any profit. He actually loses hundreds
of dollars a year! And what he really wants to do is
be a writer.
The girls couldnt believe this. They think doing
something that doesnt yield a profit is as stupid as
those liberal art students who went to college to
actually get an education- to them the best reason to
go to college was to find husbands.
It even gets worse. He says he does it for free
aesthetic expression and thought. My brother a writer!
You sure cant choose your family.
The girlfriends hung their heads and commiserated.
Another eligible bachelor lost, not to homosexuality,
but even worse, to art! It's hard to find true
meaningful love in this world.
It finally stopped raining and I went back out onto
the basketball court with the 16-year-old Kobe Bryant
wannabes. We were playing half court three on three
when I got the ball around the free throw line. I went
for a fade away jumper when the ship rocked and a gust
of wind took me from behind. I went flying over all
those smart-ass kids and SLAM-DUNK! The next thing I
know I was hanging from the rim holding on for dear
"Aw man, shit that was cool!" the kids yelled.
"Yeah," I said.
Do it again! They all screamed.
"Naw," I said trying to play it cool and not let on
how shook up I was.
On the last day the bill was coming. I was running out
of time. Of course, I havent paid attention to how
many receipts I racked up at the bars. I always threw
those away to get rid of the evidence, free my pockets
and drink without a guilty conscience. I knew that the
tab must have been in the hundreds. It had been too
easy to just sign away and not think about it.
I did have a plan, one that backfired radically. My
idea was to win back the money I was drinking away
with my newly acquired skills at cards. I thought if
my dad and sister could do it, so could I.
So there I was on the last night, drunk, depressed and
completely broke. I was wandering around by myself
trying to figure out how I lost that last grand so
quickly when the birthday girl came out of nowhere and
sat down next to me. I looked at her blearily. She was
full of promise, probably never had a bad day in her
life. It will be a life that will stay relatively
easy. It always is with these beauties.
Its a pretty night, she said and smiled, hands
pulled behind her back, breasts stuck out.
Its pretty late, shouldnt you be in bed? I didnt
have sunglasses on. I stared deep into those radiant
brown eyes and at that budding chest.
Naw, its not that late.
How did that happen? I pointed to her arm.
I fell in cheerleading, she said.
Uh-huh, well its pretty late, I stupidly repeated.
Its after two in the morning.
Thats when the fun starts. I can stay up as late as
Yeah. Can I kiss you?
I want to kiss you.
We cant do that, Im too old for you.
No, you are not, what, are you like nineteen?
Wow, she said not as shocked as I thought she would
be. I still want to kiss you.
I can kiss you, I said.
I leaned over and kissed her softly on her cheek. It
sounded like she actually purred. I envied her honest
Thanks, she said. Then she stood up and pranced
I was left alone to contemplate if I should jump
overboard to avoid the inevitable huge debt. And I
wondered what the legal age of consent was. It might
be different at sea.
- written by McCutcheon