School started back for me yesterday with the first faculty meeting of the new school year. I’m helping out with freshman orientation this time and they arrive on campus on Friday, so summer’s pretty much over.
But even on the vacation Jayne and I just finished — about which more in a moment — there were reminders of the new year ahead. My school, Wingate University, is beginning its first year of a revised core curriculum which will focus on the student’s place in today’s global community — these days you’re a citizen of the world whether you want to be or not. So many of our core courses will now deal with “global perspectives” on literature, religion, history, fine arts and economics.
I took two books with me on our week-long vacation, a cruise down the Mexican Riviera on the Carnival Splendor. It’s a long plane ride from Charlotte to Los Angeles and then there’s a lot of leisure time, which is the point of a cruise. (I think I saw more people sitting and reading in one place on the cruise ship’s deck than I’ve probably seen at most libraries in recent years.)
One of the books was “Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali,” by Kris Holloway, in which a former Peace Corps volunteeer recalls her two years in a small village in that West African country assisting the title character in a “birthing house.” It’s a readable and touching memoir which — like the best books do — gives the reader a window onto a world they might never otherwise experience.
It’s required reading for incoming freshmen and we’ll discuss it during the orientation class they’re required to take during their first semester. The author will come to campus to talk about her experiences this fall. I hope one of the lessons the new students will get from this is how it feels to be in a place where everyone’s different in some significant way from you, and yours is the foreign culture and language — something many 18-year-olds haven’t necessarily experienced.
The other book I brought along, which would be good required reading somewhere in this curriculum, is “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization,” by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Published in 2000, it’s already a little dated by events, but it’s a prescient and understandable guide to today’s economic world.
And we saw it in action in a memorable kind of way, when our ship pulled into the port at Puerto Vallarta. One of the first things we saw on a major shopping street a ways from the port area was: Wal-Mart. And we actually went there, needing a few items that we hadn’t brought along or that we thought too expensive to get on the ship. Purchases that would have cost us nearly $20 in the U.S. were about 90 pesos ($7), an indication of the country’s continuing economic struggles.
Getting off the ship required running a gauntlet of tacky tourist-trap shops selling souvenirs, jewelry and watches (I could have had a “Rolex” for $20, darn it). But we also saw beautiful white sandy beaches and blue water there and at our other two stops, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
But what Jayne and I like the most about cruises is actually staying on the ship (don’t call it a “boat” to a staff member), which has everything one needs for a vacation — a place to sleep, plenty of food and a variety of choices of entertainment.
“It’s not a hotel, it’s a city,” said Miguel Fernandes, a good-humored South African native who was one of two senior maitre d’s on the cruise. He’s in charge of the dining service on the ship, and he took me on a tour of the galley (that’s nautical talk for the kitchen), which was fascinating.
“It’s like banqueting, only on an enormously large scale,” he said, walking me down long aisles where food was being prepared on stainless steel tables to be cooked in stainless steel ovens. The scale of the food preparation is massive — about 6,300 shrimp cocktails for a seven-night cruise. (Jayne had one every night.)
Carnival’s signature dessert is called a warm chocolate melting cake — a ramekin of chocolate cake with a gooey chocolate center with vanilla ice cream served alongside. (We took Miguel’s suggestion and tried it with butter pecan ice cream — the nuts gave it a neat crunchy texture.) Guests consume about 900 of these just on the first night, I was told.
At the end of our cruise, we had a day to kill in Los Angeles before boarding a “red-eye’ flight just before midnight Sunday to go home. Jayne and I are a good match in many ways, and a significant one played itself out as we figured out how to while away the time. We’re both pop culture junkies so L.A. has a lot to offer us. But one of our stops might have been considered strange to a less understanding spouse.
We spent about an hour at Hillside Cemetery in Culver City, not that far from the aiport. It’s the final resting place of one of our all-time favorite entertainers, comedian Jack Benny (1894-1974), and the first thing we saw was the white marble sarcophagus of Aaron Spelling, noted TV producer (“Charlie’s Angels, “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place”) and father of Tori.
It’s also where other Jewish stars in the entertainment industry are buried, including comedian Eddie Cantor, singers Al Jolson and Dinah Shore, and actors David Janssen and Michael Landon. And we saw the tombs of Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Famer who was one of the first Major League Baseball players to self-identify as Jewish, and blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
It was an oddly moving experience, a beautiful place which seemed more restful and conducive to contemplation that most cemeteries we’ve ever visited.
Our last meal before returning home was at a seemingly unlikely spot for Southern “soul food,” a little restaurant called Aunt Kizzy’s in a strip shopping center in tony Marina del Rey. I enjoyed some smothered pork chops, rice and gravy and exquisite collard greens and Jayne feasted on chicken fried steak, “spicy broccoli” and mashed potatoes and gravy. We understand that Eddie Murphy was a part owner of this place when it opened back in the mid-1990s, but not sure that’s the case anymore.
The rest was routine — return the rental car, shuttle back to the airport two hours before flight departure — we needed every minute to get through check-in and security — and on the plane taking us to real life. As Jimmy Buffet once sang, “It’s been a lovely cruise.” Now back to work.