The Last Best Time

Three fridays ago I was lying in bed on the Nieuw Amsterdam, the cruise ship that the JoCo Cruise was sailing on this year, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to bother to get my ass up, head down to the tender boats and go over to Half Moon Cay, our current stop on the cruise. I’d been there before and it was the last full day of a week-long cruise, and no matter how enjoyable a cruise is or has been, at some point you hit cruise fatigue. I was hitting it. Staying in bed and then wandering around a mostly-empty cruise liner for a few hours sounded like a pretty good day.

Then a thought came into my head: You know what you’re going to back to. Who knows when or if you will ever get back to this place again. Go and swim in the ocean, why don’t you. 

So I did. I went and took the tender to Half Moon Cay and hung out on the beach eating ice cream with friends and family, and then jumped into the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and floated there as fluffy white clouds drifted overhead and my scalp became a rather alarming shade of red. I got out and had lunch with my wife and fed bits of bread to a rooster who knew a sucker when he saw one. Then I jumped back into the water, floated there again and took a moment to be mindful of where I was and who I was there with, and what an actual privilege it was to be afforded this one last best time.

To be clear, six days earlier, as we were boarding the Nieuw Amsterdam, I think most of us knew we were running ahead of a storm. There had been some question of whether loading 2,000 nerds on a cruise liner was a reasonable thing to do at all, given it was clear the coronavirus had landed in the US and was beginning to break out. The cruise line had put restrictions on who could get on the boat based on their previous travel through hotspots, which meant one of the cruise’s performers had to stay off the boat, and the boarding process featured spot health checks of the passengers. Hindsight being what it is, we were lucky that these precautions actually worked as hoped. But we were lucky.

I made a resolution that while I was on the ship I would avoid news and social media. I had email so that if there was a career emergency, my editor, agent or manager could get hold of me, but I had arranged things so that there should have been nothing that would have been an emergency during the week I was on the boat. We had departed on a Saturday; I was fully confident I wouldn’t have to think about the rest of the world until the next Saturday, when we returned to Fort Lauderdale.

In fact I made it until Thursday morning. Wednesday night my editor at Tor sent me an email, which was, basically: You have to call me immediately.

To which I replied: I’m in the middle of the ocean. There are no cell towers here. Just tell me. 

He responded in the early hours of Thursday, to tell me that my book tour for April had been entirely cancelled — and not just my tour; indeed, every event for every author my publisher published had been cancelled through April at least.

You have no idea what it’s like now, he told me. Everything’s changed. It’s been four months since last Monday. 

And I was all, well, shit, now I have to know. So I looked at the news.

He was right. Everything had changed.

For one, and very much least importantly in the grand scheme of things, no more cruise ships were going out. We were one of the very last to sail, and would be one of the very last to return.

By this time a lot of the performers and passengers on the cruise had also broken their news and social media fasts and were catching up on events in the world, and grasping what we were going to be coming back to when we arrived at port. Most of us also understood our first order when we got back to wherever it was we were going was to put ourselves in quarantine, for our own safety and the safety of others.

Because of that, at least some of us started looking at the cruise in a different light. The JoCo Cruise was always a good time — it’s why it had lasted for ten years and spawned a community that existed outside the confines of the cruise ship — but it was beginning to sink in that this might be the last good time for a while. Maybe for a long while. Or at least, the last good time we could spend with friends in reasonably close proximity, outside of the confines of our own homes.

So we enjoyed it. With the time that we had left to us, we enjoyed our time with each other. Our last best time. Then we came off the boat, got on our planes and came home to where we are now, and to the world as it is now.

We were fortunate. We were fortunate that on a cruise during a viral time, we avoided that contagion; it’s now been two weeks since we returned home, so we’re now outside the understood penumbra of its infection time. If any of us who were on the cruise get sick now, it’s far more likely that we got it here than there.

We’re also fortunate that we got to have this last, best time, with friends and music and laughter and blue skies and oceans to float in. It’s something that will help to sustain us through what we have now, and what is yet to come.

48 Comments on “The Last Best Time”

  1. One commenting note:

    Given that we cruise passengers are now, in fact, outside the understood infection window of coronavirus, I feel like it’s fine not to get on a soapbox about the folly of going on a cruise at this particular point in time. I’ve already noted that a) the cruise line and the cruise organizers did what they could to keep people safe knowing what they did at the time, b) we got lucky. I suspect the first helped with the second, but the second is still a real thing.

    With that being the case, I’ll feel free to Mallet any particularly hectoring comments on the above topic. Don’t be a tedious dick, please. Thanks.

  2. I thought you were nuts at the time for going. I’m glad you and everyone else didn’t end up on a plague ship with nowhere to dock.

  3. <3

    This is quite amazing.
    Thank You

    ALSO, if you could get them to push up the digital release of your book, that would be amazing.
    (yes, I know)

  4. I am really glad that you had such a relaxing, restorative time. I hope it left you stronger and better able to deal with the reality to which you returned.

    Many of us will need a way to restore our sanity, sense of safety, our health – to say nothing of our incomes and our savings – after COVID-19. My own preference for restorative therapy wouldn’t involve getting on a boat under any circumstances, but I am happy for you that you enjoyed it so much, and I hope that you will be able to do so again some day.

  5. Sometimes the best times in our lives are only in retrospect. Nice that you don’t have to wait for the realization.

  6. Nice writeup thanks. Lots of things look ridiculous through a different lens. But your logic was sound and you’re right – there may not be a cruise ship to get on in the future, and travel is likely to get very restricted for non-essential people. That is a harsh term and reality, but true. Time will tell. Hopefully the ’30s will be better than the ’20s.

  7. I can relate, a few weekends ago we were in Chicago. Visiting our son, daughter-in-law and new grandson. While we were there we went to a concert for jazz singer Kat Edmonson. If you like jazz then I highly recommend her, she’s fantastic. At the end of the show she thanked everyone for coming and then announced that the rest of her tour had been cancelled. The venue also promptly cancelled all concerts. We’re not sure when we’ll get the chance to go back to Chicago. Hopefully before our grandson graduates from high school. :-) We’re all riding this out together, but separately. Sate safe and healthy.

  8. One of the things I enjoy about coming here to read your posts is you really seem to truly and deeply appreciate people and things; family. friends, co-workers (such as they are), experiences, pretty much everything. I’m glad you’re all well.

  9. John, thanks for capturing the feelings from the cruise so well. I’ve been thinking about that experience, and had much the same realization that you did, but haven’t been able to express it nearly as effectively as you did.

    Also, thanks for being such an important part of “the last best time” for us.

  10. Thanks, John.

    Some of my friends have been downright angry with me for the Boat. These are the same friends who are indulging in panic, and have a rather severe guess as to what’s going to happen.

    I’m very glad we went. Sidelining the celebrities for a moment, I ran into a woman I’d lost touch with ten years ago. That was astonishing. I’ve got several new Boat friends that I’m keeping in touch with now. I got to show off the new version of one of my favorite games — Fiasco — before its kickstarter release hits.

    And, of course, I saw some neat shows and met some interesting celebrities.

    I look forwarding to awkwardly meeting you again next year on the boat.

  11. You are a very fortunate person. And you worked your ass off, mentally, emotionally and physically, for many years, to achieve that: you earned your fortune.

    Themed cruises are a thing. Some friends of mine went on the Blues Cruise for, I think, 10 years or more. When some friends and I were in Greece, umpetty ump years ago, we managed to get the last two cabins on a cruiseship hitting some of the islands. Turns out we got booked onto a Themed Cruise – a Christian pilgrimage of some sort. We had an excellent time, but it was a little weird because everyone else on the ship was doing religious pilgrimage stuff (group prayers, Biblical presentations, excursions devoted to How This Site is Important Because Jesus) and we most emphatically were not.

    I’m a little leery of “the world has changed!” predictions. Humanity causes and endures one masive trauma after another, goes all wobbly for a while, and then resumes its normal course. Yes, we’ll all have a heightened awareness of pandemic issues and be nervous around other people… for maybe a couple of years. Humans are optimistic/adaptable, or stupid/stubborn, or both.

  12. Although I’ve never been on a cruise, I’ve had similar feelings, the past few weeks, about other things, like my weird hobby. Canceled for the duration.

    Also can’t help thinking that, if I’d already achieved my longtime dream of earning enough as a writer to support myself and my partner — if I were more talented, or more organized, or just worked at it harder– we wouldn’t both be stuck going out to our day jobs every day, putting ourselves at risk. We both work in “essential” industries.

    (Mine provides zero paid sick time and will not pay for quarantine; meaning people do and will come to work sick, and it’s a near mathematical certainty that both I and my partner will be infected. Monstrously evil, or just disastrously stupid? Corporations provide a mechanism for such decisions to be made without any one person feeling responsible. Which is evil in itself.)

    Things will never be the “normal” they were a few months ago, but normal is always a shifting concept. We’re in a pandemic; the republic is in danger of collapsing because of catastrophically bad leadership at the top. If we get through it, we all need to cherish what’s good in life.

  13. I’m glad you got to enjoy that. I had a wonderful trip to London in early February for a music festival, plus a day of shopping & sightseeing, and a chance to see a musical with friends. On the way home, I noticed people wearing masks at the airports.

    Not sure when things will get back to “normal” now. I’m spending a lot of time online, and have been enjoying two more music festivals, online, these past two weekends.

  14. Steve: I wouldn’t write off the whole decade yet just because we’ve had a bit of a rocky start. We’re only starting the fourth month of 2020, after all.

    Scalzi: I was worried for you when you set off on the cruise and hoped you’d come back safely and in good health. I’m glad that happened, and I’m glad you got to have one Last Good Time before you came back to this crazy situation. That time in the ocean sounds really relaxing. Hope to catch you again at some convention or another once this whole mess is over.


  15. I’m glad you had that time. Even though I have a hard and fast phobia of cruise ships, I would love to go on this or the KISS cruise.

    To float in the ocean … heaven.

  16. The getting your ass off the boat and into the ocean is the sort of decision that you can look back on with joy for many years to come; I’m really glad that you did.

  17. I’m glad everything worked out for the best on that cruise. I appreciate your mindfulness.
    re: “Who knows when or if you will ever get back to this place again.” We had spent a couple of weeks in Venezia and returned home to California on February 1st on the very cusp of the pandemic.

    The world has changed so very much over the last couple of months, I’m just grateful to be alive & to have been able to spend time each winter in Venezia & or Berlin. I sincerely wonder when that will again be possible.

    In the meantime well… Under a statewide stay at home order; we both are able to work from home & the dog & cats really dig that we are at home all the time now. We are really fortunate.

  18. Came here to say essentially what Vincent said. Although, fairly certain that the JoCo Cruise most likely skewed to a younger passenger population, so if Covid had become an issue it wouldn’t have been as bad as that ship.

    Sad all around.

  19. I am…jealous. If I’d realized I was having some of my last best times while I was having them I…might have experienced them differently. Might have squeezed in a couple of other Best Times I really meant to have. But by the time it was obvious that this was not going to be a short-term thing, there was no time for anything but pack-and-flee.

    And if I keep thinking about this I will fall apart.

    I’m glad you took your swim.

  20. I relate so much: I also feel like three weeks ago was the last best time.
    I had so much fun at the beach with my friends at Half Moon Cay and truly an awesome week.
    Then had to come back to reality.

  21. I was of course aware we were headed into uncharted territory on this year’s JoCo Cruise, but it didn’t hit me just how much the world had changed until my arrival at the airport for my first flight home. Seeing the crowds, seeing the upset and angry faces, knowing that many of my fellow travelers arrived in Florida only to turn around and head home, if that was even possible. And then arriving at DFW to a pretty empty concourse, and then on to a nearly empty flight home. We were very lucky, both that we avoided the virus and because we treated the experience and those who shared it as a blessing. I didn’t have the thought that this might well be the last time we see each other until later, as the magnitude of the crisis sunk in. Now that it has, I’m grateful for that week and everyone who experienced it with me, both this year and in all the years since my first cruise.

  22. This is sad and beautiful. I’m glad you got to enjoy it all one last time and got lucky, at least.

  23. It’ not analogous exactly but… we were counting the days at our house too, with that count ending today. My son played in a soccer game 14 days ago, which feels like a year ago now. I suggested he shouldn’t go, that the game should be cancelled. Social distancing was new, but it was a thing by then, and the idea of he and 21 other young men playing soccer, leaning on each other, colliding, pushing when they’re shoulder to shoulder and think they can get away with it, just seemed like a terrible idea. He rebelled… and we caved. The entire game I felt like a terrible parent. The boys didn’t shake hands after the match to avoid close contact, which was a ridiculous nod towards social distancing given the physical nature of soccer with high school age kids. I was convinced he’d get sick shortly thereafter. We’ve been checking temps at least once a day since, but so far, so good.

    We still might get sick. Probably will, in fact, given the way things are looking. But I’m a little relieved that it won’t be because we gave in when we knew we shouldn’t have.

    Probably pretty stupid thoughts, I suppose.

  24. I like this post. I actually was having a conversation that was the opposite….call it The Next Best Time. A friend has a wedding planned on late Sept. We were all planning to fly into the Outer Banks and stay on the beach for a week. Now maybe it won’t happen….Sept is a long way off. Maybe she’ll have something smaller and closer to home, maybe nothing. But maybe the world will be safe again and that’ll be the first time we’ll be together again and it’ll be an epic night we will remember forever….like, “hey remember after covid 19 when we all went to the beach for a week and our pals got married and it was like our own personal V Day?”. Maybe it’ll be in September, maybe it won’t. But if we’re safe and were smart, we’ll all get to that beach eventually.

  25. Thanks for sharing that Mr. S. As our ability, and desire to go anywhere (!) dwindles down to zip, that was a great reminder to remember what we HAVE been able to do. It’ll get better, someday, for most of us. Today my GF and I drove to a state park in Newport RI and had a beautiful day walking a seaside trail for a couple of miles. Social distancing was in effect among everyone there. The sea was beautiful, the birds chirped, we held hands and talked and walked. Tonight in RI, all non essential travel is being pretty much banned as of Monday. So today might be my last best time in quite awhile. I’m grateful for it. And, really, really looking forward to The Last Emperox dropping next month!

  26. Sometimes you say “they should have sent a poet,” but that’ll do.
    I did notice on the cruise this year that there was a dark cloud over everyone. There was a limit to how much escapism we were able to pull off compared to 2019. It felt like some of the control rods that kept the close-quarters tempers down were damaged.
    Santo Domingo, I felt, is when things started to creep in since that’s when most people got their cell signal back, plus the political turmoil that was still simmering in that city when we landed. None of the locals seemed glad to see us, not even the postcard vendors.
    It is a rotten year so far, and I’m only worried that the fate we dodged on that cruise ship is because of worse to come.

  27. Dear John,

    “How was I to know
    It was the best thing
    To come along for a long time.” – Carly Simon

    Somehow you knew.

    pax / Ctein

  28. Glad to hear that you had the opportunity to recharge and refresh. Today’s reality is definitely weird. While CT doesn’t have an outright ban on non-essential travel (yet), it is a bit disconcerting to have a normal twenty minute morning commute drop down to ten, then drop down to zero (telecommuting/teleworking). Still, I try to keep the same work routine at home, which includes a short 3/4 mile walk next to a mini-mountain to recharge and refresh.

    I do my best to stay healthy, despite being in a higher risk group, and for now, that’s the best that we can do.

  29. I miss that island.

    We spent time there every summer for several years, sailing in on a small sailboat, anchoring a good distance off the huge curve of white sand.

    The last year we were there they had just set the cruise ship mooring point, and the fishing out around the chain was amazing. There were still plentiful lobster in the inner lagoon, and the sharks, apparently there for mating, still crowded its fast-flowing coral maze of an entrance.

    There was no development. At 425 cruising miles from Fort Lauderdale it was “safe” from all that, until it wasn’t.

    I look now, and see the development of what seem to be very nice facilities, and am saddened to a certain degree. I don’t personally agree with “private island” style commercialization of greenfield natural areas, as I feel that there are plenty of areas that can be redeveloped or repurposed to fit that need, even out in the widely sprawling Caribbean.

    This, however, is no commentary on your social choice to enjoy a wonderful time with friends new and old, rather a wistful look back at my youth in the Bahamas that are no more. I am glad you had a great time, and maybe one of these years I’ll remember to email far enough ahead that we can offer you a kayak tour of Fort Lauderdale as a side excursion. :-)

  30. I had an academic inkling that going would be one of the greatest forces of good I’d ever experienced to date, and I was right. I also knew that it’d likely be the last “normalish” thing I’d do for a long time…. I didn’t realize how true that was. We did get lucky. I am honored and grateful to have gone and done this thing you also did, and sit in bubbly water and talk about nothing and everything for a few minutes. I can close my eyes and I’m still on the boat.

  31. Echoing what other people from the boat have said. For me it was a last minute decision to go; I took over a bed in a friend’s cabin after their kid had a change of schedule. I went without my spouse or child for my first vacation from parenting in six months, and my first one longer than a weekend in four years.

    As someone whose “job” is to take care of people I realized at the time how essential it would be to have that break before coming back to whatever we were going to come back to. I am so relieved that it worked out.

    Now I’m off to do grocery shopping for 9 different households. Wish me luck!

  32. This joco cruise felt different than the other ones I’ve been on. I thought of it like a background buzz of anxiety, but the way you frame it is really lovely.

  33. I worried for you all, and was a bit sorry I wasn’t there. But I am glad that you had the chance to connect and relax, and very, very glad no one got sick.

  34. Like many JoCo passengers, we agonized right up to our flight to FLL about whether to go. We are so glad we were able to go, and that you were a art of our week. Like many of us diligent, lucky, participants, we were shocked at what we came back to—not the news of it, since our college-student daughter’s worries back at school (back when there was school) meant we kept up via internet for the week—bit the living reality of it. We are now home and at least one of us is spending way too much time, or perhaps just enough time, connecting back via the many social groups online. Thank you for expressing this dichotomy so well. We look forward hopefully to better days.

  35. Like you, I was prepared for whatever might happen on the boat. I had a month’s medications, a laptop for work I’d never have brought otherwise, yoga videos, a ton of downloaded quality TV, a couple of textbooks to study and supplies for two hobbies. Having prepared that much, I threw myself into the experience of just being present.

    It was only after Twit’arr forums started surging with the state of the world and my suitemates learned their after-boat plans were changing out from underneath them. It added a kind of mania to the remaining portion of the cruise. I only slept a handful of hours of the last few days, trying to drink in every heady drop of the time we had left in this amazing, liminal space we’d created together.

  36. Thanks for putting a lot of my thoughts about JCC2020 into words. Unsurprisingly, you expressed all those feelings a lot better than I could have.

  37. I did not touch a computer, and barely touched a cellphone, all week. But I did watch ESPN and BBC America on the ship’s satellite feed, because “knowing what the hell is going on” is not just my job, it’s also a personal coping mechanism. So no big surprises for me, although “denial, denial, denial, FUCKING denial, and GRAB ALL THE SHIT YOU CAN, AND RUN” now seems eerily prescient.

    Saw you in the fancy restaurant, Wednesday or Thursday night. We were the people at the other end of the room who did not say hi.

    I thought you’d be taller.

  38. Dear Huey,

    Oh, he is — easily 6’3″, maybe 4″, in his stocking feet.

    You were simply confused by vanishing point perspective.

    pax / Ctein

  39. Somehow this got methinking of my Dad. On 9/11/01 he was on a backpacking trip in the Sierras and didn’t come back until that Saturday. The world changed while he was up in the mountains without any news from the outside world. By that time the networks were no longer doing 24 hour news coverage and it was probably Monday before he got caught up. He never had that emotional reaction so many of us who experienced it as it happened got. Gave him a useful distance, actually.

  40. I started today feeling blessed by so many things: I have a job I can do from home, enough food, low density living situation, the ability to stream workouts and a stationary bike in the basement… Healthy family, good internet, working computers. John, you remind me that we are doubly blessed — to have enjoyed the rest, and the energy and talent of such wonderful people. In paradise, yet! It filled up the well of my heart, replenished my spirit and energy.

    Thank you for putting so well what I feel.

  41. I just posted this on Facebook because it perfectly sums up how I felt about Boat and returning to the real world to find it on fire. I can’t regret going, because it was the best week ever, but in context it does feel a little surreal.

  42. I felt the same way on HMC, and decided to go ashore for the same reasons. It was really surreal sitting there and thinking that this was likely the last time I’d get to just sit outside and be among friends for a long, long time. I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only one with this feeling; thank you so much for writing this.

    As a shuttermonkey, I have thousands of photos to process from the cruise but haven’t been able to bring myself to look at them yet. :(

  43. 2 weeks later and I still haven’t seen anyone take sanitation as seriously as the crew of JoCo Cruise this year. Heck, I’m not sure people are taking things as seriously as a cruise does during “normal” times.
    I drove from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte after disembarking and was in a mild state of panic the entire time. The news was horrible but everyone around me seemed to be going about business as usual.
    I hadn’t planned to make the entire drive in one day but was “inspired” by the idea of staying in a hotel with hundred of people acting like nothing was wrong. No thanks. Give me Boat or give me Home. Nothing else felt safe.

  44. This was my fourth JoCoCruise, my partner’s first cruise ever, and her first time out of the country. It was also my first time swimming in the ocean since transition. I’m so so so glad we went.

  45. It was my first JoCo and it was great and I’m so glad I went. And I love your way with words.

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